"Are rabbits the new dogs?"
Because we share our homes and lives with rabbits, animals domesticated relatively recently (about 1500 years ago, as opposed to at least 15,000 years ago for dogs), we have the opportunity to live with and learn from beings who are much closer to their wild ancestors than are our other domesticated animals. This brings challenges as well as incredible benefits. For me, those benefits stem from the ways in which rabbits both retain so much of their wildness yet also accommodate themselves to our domesticated lives.
But we have to remember that while dogs were tamed to become partners to humans, rather than food, rabbits do not live to serve us or to please us. They are far more independent than dogs, which is one reason why we feel privileged when they choose to spend time with us, like watching TV or lounging on the bed. While there are some rabbits in my house I spend a great deal of time with, most have as much independence as possible. I want them to be free to be who they are, with as little external and human control as is practical. I believe that this comes down to four points: a realistic amount of freedom; an active social life; an interactive environment; and control over one’s life and environment.
A cage-free environment
Many of my rabbits once lived in small cages which did not allow for any natural movements or behaviors. With the exception of the disabled, the rabbits in my house now live cage-free. They have the room to run, play, climb, dig and modify their environment in ways that make sense to them. They have spaces to hide and private spots that they can call their own—at least until someone else claims it as their own. They spend their days chewing on cardboard, foraging for food, relaxing on their hammocks, and endless hours communing with each other—grooming, nuzzling, playing, “gossiping,” or just hanging out.
An interactive environment
Along with space, rabbits need toys to play with and structures to climb on, dig into and explore. This challenges the mind, exercises the body, and gives satisfaction. The inside of my house doesn’t offer a nature-like environment of grass or dirt. Floors are either tile or concrete; even the outdoor play space, our enclosed courtyard, is concrete. So they have cardboard, cloth and plastic tubes to run through; huge tubs of litter and hay to play in; and cardboard boxes of every shape and size to play with. They also have hammocks covered with synthetic sheepskin to lie on, and for the older rabbits who don’t do a lot of playing, this is their major hangout during the daytime.
The reality is, however, that it’s very difficult to achieve a kind of ideal coexistence with your rabbit(s) unless one is patient and tolerant. In my house, as in yours, equitable coexistence is an ongoing process. It involves a lot of compromise, on the rabbits’ side and our own. But in the end, the attempt at allowing rabbits to live as rabbits is the ultimate goal.
--Adapted and excerpted from "Rabbit and Human Coexistence" by Margo DeMello House Rabbit Journal Volume 5, Number 8