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What to do - or not to do - about baby bunnies

Baby rabbit brought into Wildwoods. (Photo: Wildwoods)1 / 2
Baby rabbit brought into Wildwoods. (Photo: Wildwoods)2 / 2

A familiar story: you’re getting some spring cleaning done while the kids play in the yard and suddenly you hear… nothing. Children and silence usually means trouble, so you go out to investigate. They are standing over something. They pick it up. What do they have? A baby bunny, and they want to keep it. Now what? The kids have touched it so the mother probably won’t come back for it now, right? It can’t be that hard to raise a rabbit, can it?

Both cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares are prolific in our area. In fact, last year Wildwoods admitted more baby bunnies than any other species. Partly because a wild rabbit will produce several litters of 4-7 kits each year, but also because people generally find them to be so darn adorable. We can’t help but interfere when we find them all alone.

Hares are precocial, meaning the babies are born pretty much ready to run for the hills if need be. Rabbits, on the other hand, are altricial and are born blind, hairless and helpless. Mothers will only visit their young twice a day, at dawn and dusk, to avoid drawing the attention of predators.

While most rabbits live in holes, cottontails build nests in a depression in the ground and line it with soft bark, twigs and fur they pull from their bodies. When they leave for the day they cover the nest with more leaves, grass and fur to keep the kits hidden and warm. Baby hares, called leverets, will typically stay hidden in shrubs or thick undergrowth.

Does will not care if their young have been handled by humans. They’ll still return to care for them and as a general rule of thumb, babies should be left alone or put back as long as they are not injured, have not been “found” by a pet, are not cold to the touch and do not have maggots on them. Rabbits are ready to be independent in just five weeks and soon after being born, they start to venture out of the nest on their own. Finding one is not necessarily an indication that it needs help. If you find a nest and want to make sure the doe is returning, lay some string in straight lines over the top of the nest. If after dawn or dusk the string has been disturbed, you know the doe has been there. If you’re not sure or have questions, don’t hesitate to call us at (218) 491-3604.

When you call, we’ll likely ask you a lot of questions to determine whether the rabbit needs to be brought to us or not. We really just need to be absolutely certain the animal needs our help. It’s very difficult to raise a wild rabbit to adulthood and their mortality rate in captivity is much higher than other species. Their mother’s milk is highly specialized and even changes formulation as the baby ages, making it difficult for us to ensure proper nutrition. Also, wild rabbits are very high-stress animals and though they appear to be calmly sitting in your hands, at that moment they are terrified. Every system is on high-alert and their little hearts are beating incredibly fast. That amount of stress for a rabbit can be deadly.

Because rabbits and hares reproduce throughout the spring and summer, we ask that pets be kept on leashes or in fenced-in areas that have been thoroughly searched for nests. If you find a nest in an area where kids and pets are likely to be, put a laundry basket upside down over the nest, weighing it down with a heavy rock or tent stakes. Then, when the kids and pets are done playing, be sure to remove the basket so the doe can feed her babies. If you have a “nuisance” rabbit, you can find some great humane tips for dealing with them online at peta.org/issues/wildlife/rabbits.

Help us keep wildlife wild by leaving baby rabbits and hares with mom whenever possible. Every life is valuable and deserving of a chance to fulfill the role it was born to play.

Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. For information on how you can help wildlife, including volunteer opportunities, visit wildwoodsrehab.org, call (218) 491-3604 or write to P.O. Box 3161, Duluth, MN 55803.

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