From agility to therapy work, these rabbits are ready to rock
By Anna Matetic
Photography by Kelvin Andow
It’s Hoppy Hour at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley. And that’s the literal explanation of the activity in the room.
One look around, and you’ve achieved bunny nirvana. It’s like visiting a mini Õkunoshima, a Japanese island nicknamed “Rabbit Island” due to its large number of feral (but tame) rabbits. If you love rabbits, this is the place to be.
The room is scattered with tunnels and obstacles, with handlers moving their rabbits through courses. Rabbits of all sizes and breeds hop (or are nudged) through agility classes, the agility obstacle course, and the Hoppy Hour social event. It’s all hosted by the Minnesota Companion Rabbit society.
Tina Turner’s Star Power
Barb Kelley is the instructor for beginner agility classes. She is the proud owner of Tina Turner, a black and white lionhead rabbit, and Reallta, a beautiful white rabbit. Tina is a rescue, a 14-month resident of a shelter that Kelley found online.
“I looked at her and I decided ‘I’m going to Dayton, Ohio,’” said Kelley. “She was coming home.”
Reallta is a rescue from Buffalo, New York. Her name means “star” in Gaelic. “She was put out in the snow at six months old in January,” said Kelley. Both rabbits are agility pros.
Reallta learned her agility skills without being taught. “I carried her around through class for the first … month and a half,” said Kelley. On a day with low attendance, Kelley put Reallta down and was surprised to discover Reallta had learned it all by rote. “She knew all the verbal commands,” said Kelley. “She knows what to do just by knowing.”
Once when visiting a local children’s hospital with a group of rabbits, Kelley brought along mobile jumping course to showcase their skills. For some rabbits, being in a strange place puts them off their game.
“They fudged up their jumping course; they took fences down,” said Kelley. But it still provided entertainment for the children.
This is where Tina shows her star power. After the other rabbits were done, Kelley brought Tina out and instructed, “All right. You jump.” Tina went through the entire course without a problem.
Other rabbits can have good days and bad days. Not Tina. “Tina is rock solid,” said Kelley.
Bunny Black Belt?
Kelley said she finds rabbits are easier to train than dogs. “They have less opinions, and a dog challenges everything.”
Training a new rabbit starts with body cues. “They’re a push animal, not a pull animal.” Handlers work behind the rabbit and, using their feet, help the rabbit move forward. This is done in tandem with voice commands.
“Rabbits need to have something to do with their minds,” said Kelley. The agility programs and events like Hoppy Hour help with this. There is also a fun factor. “These guys are going ‘Wee! This is a lot of fun!’”
The agility program is similar to a martial arts program. Handler and rabbit move up by different color levels: white, green, blue, purple, red and black. Beginner rabbits have a limited number of obstacles. As a rabbit learns and moves up to the next level, new obstacles are added.
The agility course contains most of the activities that rabbits naturally do in the wild—except one, said Kelley. “They do not teeter-totter in the wild.”
Both Tina and Reallta are also therapy animals. Kelley, a volunteer with North Star Therapy Animals, takes them to visit area patients.
Therapy animals have a different job description than their assistance counterparts. Therapy animals help patients by providing a presence and a physical connection. That connection is important, especially for people who live temporarily or, in some cases, permanently in a facility.
To a child in a hospital long-term, with limited visitors, not going to school, not participating in their normal routine, Kelley and her rabbits are a welcome change.
“I am the only person they’re going to meet that’s not going to diagnose something or stick them with something,” said Kelley. “I’m going to bring them something fluffy.”
She visits with them and talks about the animals. “I’m going to give them 15 minutes of joy … give them a break and give them a little bit of time to just be a kid.”
Reallta and Tina are Kelley’s go-to choices for therapy rounds. “They are two of my most intuitive.” Both rabbits know what their patient needs.
From patients who are frail, confused, or in poor health to those who can handle some activity, these rabbits know when to sit quietly and when to ramp up their activity.
“I don’t have to tell them,” said Kelley, “They know without instruction how to do this job.”
During one nursing home visit, Kelley was asked to take a rabbit to a patient who could not leave her room. The woman was in a permanent fetal position. Kelley asked her where she should place the rabbit.
“She said, ‘If the nurses position me, can you put him on my shoulder.’”
After arranging a quiet rabbit on the patient’s shoulder, Kelley watched as the woman rubbed her face on the rabbit, one of the few movements she could do, and sing lullabies.
“It was beautiful,” said Kelley. “That is the type of interaction and therapy work that these guys are good for.”
North Star Therapy Animals
This volunteer organization is made up of teams of handlers and registered therapy animals who visit over 50 locations in the Twin Cities, including hospitals, elder care, and facilities serving communities with developmental disabilities.
Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society
Most animal shelters accommodate dogs and cats. They often do not have the knowledge to take care of other animals, such as rabbits. The Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society fills this gap. This group provides education on rabbits and hosts the agility course and Hoppy Hour.
Hosted by the Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society, these regularly scheduled social events are a chance to socialize with other bunny lovers and enjoy the cuteness of bunnies at play. Twin Cities locations.
Anna Matetic is a local freelance writer with a healthy bunny obsession. You can find her living vicariously through other bunny owners on Pinterest and Instagram.