Rabbit rescue tips

It's best if young rabbits stay in the wild because the mother is bonded to her babies and teaching them how to survive. Here are tips to know when to call a rehabber for help:

Good signs:

There are more than one, and they are hidden.

You can't catch one.

A litter is hopping around your garden. (Be patient, keep the cat inside. They have just fledged the nest, are still dependent on their mom and will disperse in one to two weeks when weaned.)

Bad signs:

A single bunny is alone, out in the open, looking skinny or dehydrated.

You can catch an older rabbit.

Caught by a cat. (Cover the rabbit with a soft towel, put it in a box and call for a dropoff. Don't feed it.)

A nest is disturbed. (Recreate it in the exact same spot (or the mother won't find it), covering babies with leaves, grass and dirt.) Also, you can peek in a nest to see if babies look healthy. If you suspect abandonment, sprinkle flour in a tic-tac-toe pattern over the nest and look for a sign the mother visited. She comes to nurse at dusk and dawn.

Wish list for Colorado Wild Rabbit Foundation:

Hay, flannel sheets and pillow cases for bedding, tissues, paper towels, toilet paper.


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For more information: Contact Gabriele Paul at 303-249-0760, info@coloradowildrabbit.org or Coloradowildrabbit.org.

Now that Easter is almost here, Gabriele Paul has bunnies on her mind — 24 baby cottontails, to be exact, each requiring her round-the-clock care — as Boulder County's only licensed rabbit rehabilitation specialist.

Early spring and the holiday known for a sneaky egg-hiding rabbit coincide with the time her phone starts ringing, a lot.

Callers confess their cat caught a tiny rabbit and played with it or a dog brought them one. Gardeners dig them up while readying their raised bed — one Lafayette family unearthed a litter of five arranged like Peeps beneath the strawberry bush.

Others are hit by cars, fall in window wells or are suspected to be abandoned by their mother. Last year, 300 cottontails came through her eastern Boulder County sanctuary.

"The most common reason rabbits come to me are cats," Paul lamented. "Cats are just too darned good at what they do."

Paul gives these rabbits a second chance through her home-based nonprofit, Colorado Wild Rabbit Foundation, which is the only bunny-centered sanctuary north of Interstate 70.

Her job is time-consuming (imagine picking grass and mixing formula for up to 60 hungry bunnies twice a day), it's expensive and often heartbreaking, but the high demand keeps her going, she said. She takes the bunnies in for free.

It's not unusual for a licensed caretaker to focus on one or two species — two Boulder-area rehabbers care for baby squirrels and raccoons at home. And the Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Sanctuary near Longmont takes in a variety of prey animals and predators.

A rabbit sits on a scale at the Colorado Wild Rabbit Foundation. Last year, 300 cottontails came through the eastern Boulder County bunny sanctuary.
A rabbit sits on a scale at the Colorado Wild Rabbit Foundation. Last year, 300 cottontails came through the eastern Boulder County bunny sanctuary. (Jeremy Papasso / Daily Camera)

Paul picked wild rabbits, and for good reason: They die at an alarming rate in captivity because they are so timid, experienced rehabbers say. While cottontails (eastern, desert or mountain variety) are seemingly in abundance, that doesn't mean they should be any less valued, Paul said, and the old adage "let nature take its course" is unfair.

"Just because they're wild doesn't mean they hurt and suffer less," Paul said. "I feel bad they have such a hard time out there, and it's usually our fault."

Beyond moral reasoning, baby rabbits are "just adorable," she said. Apparently, there are many bunny fans who agree and are happy to discover Boulder County's bunny healer.

Bunny gathering

The sun had just started to melt the previous night's snow by the April 3 lunch hour, and Paul scanned a slick Broomfield Walgreens parking lot for a red Subaru Forester driving in from Aurora, with a couple bringing her "number 25" of the season.

Paul stages these "bunny dropoffs" to keep her sanctuary free of traffic and noise. Connie and Bill Stratton approached, offering a cardboard box with grayish-brown fuzzy ears inside, poking at the lid.

"Watch out; he'll jump like crazy," Connie Stratton said, while Paul placed the box in the back of her electric Chevrolet Volt.

Their daughter's black-and-white cat, Batty, had caught the cottontail a day earlier and dropped its "gift" inside the house.

Cat punctures are tricky because they are hard to see and cause deadly infections, Paul told them. "We'll put him on strong antibiotics and keep our fingers crossed."

The Strattons tried to contact a wildlife rehab center closer to home that once took two rescued cottontails, but that phone was disconnected; another center was full. "We were scrambling to find somewhere to take him," Bill Stratton said, looking at Paul. "We are elated to find you."

There is a shortage of rehabbers because it's not easy work, Paul said. To become one, the state's Department of Parks and Wildlife requires a year-long apprenticeship, testing, proper caging and zoning, but not a dime of assistance, she said.

"You have to be unemployed or retired, and independently wealthy" to do this work, said Paul, who gave up a career in software development. "My husband (a Boulder NIST scientist) never sees me in the summer," she said, adding that he picks up bunnies, too.

Once licensed, rehabbers often quit. "It's really hard because we deal with a lot of death, and sometimes it just gets overwhelming."

Rabbits are delicate and die often in larger centers, said Greenwood animal care supervisor Lea Peshock, who transfers lagomorphs to Paul but helps her release them back to nature at six weeks old. "Rabbits really need single handlers they know and can settle into a routine with, and Gabrielle really is the bunny guru."

Backyard bunny haven

At the end of a quiet, dead-end street west of Erie sits a 300-square-foot A-frame garage that started as a backyard chicken coop. Today, it's a cottage with wood paneling and large windows that let in light that warms several large clear plastic crates, stacked in threes and each filled with a few tiny rabbits around four weeks old.

"A lot of rabbits (in the wild) are this size now," Paul said while scooping one Cinnabon-sized rabbit onto a postal scale. "These little guys are starting to leave the nest, they haven't figured anything out yet and are so vulnerable out there."

It was 6 p.m., dinner time, and the bunnies knew it. They pawed at the crates, hoping to be next in line. They came in one to three days old with eyes closed; now they were readily lapping up formula, fed by hand through a syringe, while Paul draped a blue and white polka-dot fleece cloth over their heads so they could feel safely hidden.

Much like her patients, the German-born caretaker, 56, is soft-spoken, with eyes warm and brown.

She gently eased a fattened rabbit with a milk mustache back to the crate and meticulously noted he was at 93 grams. Each rabbit had a chart with vitals and a history: one had singed paws from a weed-burning fire, three others were found hopping around a hot tub display on 30th Street by Sports Authority in Boulder. An older rabbit hit by a car and blind may be euthanized. "He would last about one hour in the wild," she said, "and it wouldn't be fair to make him go through that."

Tough decisions are what make Paul a great rehabber, said exotic animal veterinarian Bill Guerrera, who has treated her center's rabbits for broken bones, performed amputations and surgically removed nasty abscesses over the last two years.

"Gabriele's heart is in the right place, and she does everything she can, but she's also ... what's the word? Sane," he said. "Otherwise she could easily get into a hoarding situation."

Paul lifted the lid to another crate and noticed one of her charges was in "bunny attack mode," on its hind legs and ready to box. "Once weaned, they don't want anything to do with me," she laughed. "It's exactly how I want it to be."