The Bunny Trail

Infant bunnies, whether Eastern Cottontails or Marsh Rabbits, are different than most babies admitted to our shelter. One would think that a baby is a baby and as long as they are healthy, uninjured and fellow mammals they would be similar to a baby squirrel or an opossum to raise, but that’s not the case. They are so, so unique because . . . they just are, for reasons I’ll explain. A baby bunny arrives at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport for usually one of the following reasons; “I was mowing grass and accidentally rolled over a cottontail nest. Some of the babies are still alive,” or “My cat came home with a baby bunny and presented it to me as a gift,” or “My kids just brought a little rabbit home. What should I do?” More often we hear, “I found a nest of baby bunnies and their mother seems to have abandoned them.” We initially discuss the potential to return the bunnies to Mom, who might very well be in the nest area frantically looking for them, but if we decide that option is not possible, we immediately contact one of OWLS’ specialty cottontail rehabilitators to take on the task of personally raising them. Infant cottontails are the most difficult of all furry wildlife orphans to rehab because they are ever alert to danger and subject to fatally overstressing. Baby rabbits will always win the “too cute” award, so its natural people want to hold them, but that unnatural closeness can be a death sentence for the bunny. They are easily stressed by handling and noise, even the volume of your voice, can cause them heart failure. Raising bunnies is a major commitment in time and dedication and their environment must remain consistent and routine to minimize stress. A wildlife rehabilitator must gain their trust to get them to eat, manage their stress and deal with their sensitive digestive system. If one, calm, pleasant and nurturing person is caring for them, they will feel comfortable with that specific touch and will, in turn, calm down, relax and thrive. That’s always our hope, and the strategy has proven successful. Bunnies are attuned to the personality of their caregiver, and harmony is important to them. Too many things can go wrong when a number of people are on a rotating schedule to care for rabbit infants. Improper temperature, inconsistent pressure while being handled, poor diets, over feeding, bad sanitation and noisy, stressful environments can all do in a baby cottontail. Their feeding formula must be precisely on point to establish normal rabbit flora (bacteria) in their gut and intestinal tract to enable proper digestion. There are also special dietary supplements wildlife rehabilitators are aware of and that can be provided, such as cecotropes, to ensure cottontails ingest essential protective organisms. Although baby bunnies mature much faster than other wildlife and are ready to head into the wild in about four to five weeks from birth, we still can’t rush the developmental process and all steps of appropriate care must be taken to ensure their survivability. Bottom line, cottontails are fussy, as well as, fuzzy little beings who want what they want or nothing. There’s a lot to know about rehabilitating infant bunnies and they need all the knowing we’ve got! Cottontails are born with no fur and their eyes closed. Their ears are also sealed at birth. There are usually 4 to 6 babies per litter, weighing 30-35 grams at birth. At two weeks, with eyes and ears now open, cottontails in the wild begin leaving the nest for short adventures. It is also the time they start chewing greens. They will weigh between 80 and 100 grams at this age. At three weeks, they will be weaned and leave the nest to find food, but will remain in the area and return to their nest at night. Between four and five weeks, weighing in at 150+ grams and about the size of a tennis ball, they will look like a small version of Mom with ears standing straight up from their head and alert, wide eyes. Marsh Rabbits are typically smaller than Easterns, darker in color and are found in brackish and freshwater marshes rather than open grassy areas with shrubs for cover that the cottontails generally choose. Both are prey animals, so they must be fast and furious to live the longest life possible. Wildlife Rehabilitators ensure baby bunnies are raised to hone appropriate avoidance behaviors and their jumping, zig-zagging, escape skills. If you come across a nest of bunnies in the wild and mother is nowhere to be seen, please DO NOT disturb them if they are not in eminent danger … this is normal. You will not see the mom as mom will only come back in the middle of the night to feed her babies. Mother rabbits only nurse their babies for approximately five minutes twice a day. By removing them from the nest you will greatly reduce their chances of survival. So, if you do pick up a baby before thinking it through, please put it back. Rabbits will still care for their babies even if they have been touched by human hands. In a rare situation where you know the bunnies are orphaned, such as evidence momma rabbit has been killed by another animal or found in the road, you need to get the babies to a skilled wildlife rehabilitator, trained to provide appropriate care to ensure their best chance of survival. We’ve been traveling the bunny trail for a long time.

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Wildlife Rehabilitator
Author of “Save Them All”