This post contains some graphic and potentially upsetting images below.

On Tuesday night, we welcomed Maya into our care.

We regularly see rabbits that have been casually neglected entering the rescue – rabbits that are underweight, overweight, stained in their own urine, caked in their own faeces, front teeth extending half-way up their face, riddled with ear and fur mites.  It sometimes feels like there isn’t anything we haven’t seen.

But it doesn’t make it any easier when one such case arrives at our door.

Earlier in the day on Tuesday, I received a call from someone looking for help to rehome their rabbit – nothing unusual in that as I receive several calls and emails of this nature every day.  I listened to the gentlemen explain his circumstances – he’d recently had cause to move home into a flat and the landlord had a no pets policy and so the rabbit needed somewhere else to go.  I explained that we didn’t have any immediate vacancies available within the rescue due to high demands (as always) but that I could place him on our rehoming waiting list.  He then advised that he had surrendered two rabbits to us earlier in the year, and was struggling to find the help he needed.

Next, he advised, “just to let you know”, that the rabbit had managed to escape her enclosure approximately a month ago and appeared to have been attacked by a cat or something and had a damaged foot which was “absolutely fine now”.  This immediately gave me concern.  I asked what the vet advice had been for treating the foot and was advised that she had never attended a vet at all.

This changed things immediately, and whilst I genuinely didn’t have any space available I knew I had to do something.  I knew that somehow, by the end of the night, I would have found a way to find space for her somewhere, but I just had to make sure this wee girl was safe and that her foot was ok.  I asked her owner if he would be able to bring her to us later that day when our care team shift started, and he agreed to bring her in.

Later on, Tuesday evening, when our care shift clocked on for the night, the owner was already waiting for us at the door.

Maya arrived in a crisp box, with no bedding or any attempt to make her feel comfortable for the trip to the rescue.

I take great pride in our charity’s management of owners who have perhaps got things wrong when it comes to the care of their rabbits.  With so many myths, and a complete lack of education around rabbit welfare across the pet industry, vet industry and even school education, it is very easy to think you are doing the right thing whilst getting it completely wrong!  So, we prefer to educate owners about the mistakes they have made, as opposed to scorn or judge them.  We explain what they could have done to improve things and what we will do for the rabbits whilst they are in our care to get them back on track.

Maya was severely malnourished.  We use body condition scoring techniques to assess a rabbit’s condition, but it wasn’t necessary in this case – a basic visual check on seeing Maya and it was obvious that she had been casually starved.  As I assessed her further, I overheard her owners telling a volunteer colleague, Lynne, about her typical diet.  They listed a string of all the right foods: nuggets, grass, daily veg of various types; a smorgasbord of food options that would make even the greediest rabbit struggle to finish their dinner.  They did say the only issue they had was that they just couldn’t get her to eat hay.

I checked for signs of diet-related illnesses – something that might explain why she would be so thin whilst enjoying such a good quality of food.  The usual signs were not there and whilst I can’t rule it out completely without a vet assessment, I was confident that the list of food was at best exaggerated, but in all honesty much more likely to be a fable.  All too often owners feel the need to tell us what they think we want to hear when asking about a rabbit’s history, whilst the reality is we just need to know the truth so we can make the right decisions about their care moving forward.

I then turned my attention to the part of her assessment I knew I must prioritise, but I had been dreading.  I looked for the damaged foot.

Her foot was redraw, with a large scabbed wound where one of her toes should have been.  There was some indication of infection and several other scabbed areas.  It was obvious that the foot had not really received any attention at all, and Maya had essentially been left to tend to her own injuries for goodness knows how long.

It was at this point that my level of understanding had reached its limits.  There is a level of general ignorance I have come to expect over the years, but this case was different.  Nobody could reasonably consider this rabbit to “be ok”, or that it was acceptable to have left an injury of this scale untreated.  I couldn’t just sit back and not say anything.

As Lynne completed the surrender paperwork, I sat in front of the owners and calmly but sternly advised that Maya “was not ok”, and that in fact, in my opinion, she was very unwell!  I explained that she was malnourished, which aside from causing issues in itself would further impact her ability to recover from her foot.  I explained that it was never acceptable for the foot to have been left unattended and that a vet visit should have been an immediate priority.  I explained that we would do everything that we could to help her, but in all reality, the odds were against her.  I was not sure whether her foot could be saved as it would need a professional opinion, but surgery options would be limited due to her physical condition and there was a risk that she may lose the foot completely.  In no uncertain terms I advised that this was a borderline criminal offence to have allowed a rabbit to suffer to this degree and whilst I did not intend to report them formally for it, it was my opinion that they should never consider rabbit ownership again in the future.

The man seemed shocked at my direct approach, offered a courtesy “Sorry, I didn’t realise” and left shortly afterwards.

We called upon one of our volunteers, Lauren, who is a registered vet nurse.  Lauren dropped everything to jump down to the office to help us provide immediate care.

Whilst waiting for Lauren to arrive, Maya settled into one of our temporary living spaces in the office and immediately started to wolf into various foods and treats we offered.  She lapped water from her bowl in a manner that indicated she had been denied water for some time. Within minutes she was pulling strands of hay from the feeder and thoroughly enjoying every bite.  A number of us commented on how quickly she seemed to relax into the environment.  For a rabbit to settle into eating so quickly after the stress of changing environments and the pain she must have been experiencing was an indication to us as to how rare it was for her to access food

It was comforting for us to think that she may be eating so well in recognition that she was now, at last, safe.

After enjoying some food she started to groom herself and I noticed how intently she focused in on her damaged foot – again in a manner that indicated it was still causing pain and irritation for her.

Maya had been kept as an outdoor rabbit but given her condition and the level of care we think she will need, we decided that placing her with an indoor foster carer was best.  Whilst all this was going on, other members of the team were dealing with another rabbit arrival due to go to our only vacant indoor placement the same evening, and so it was a mad dash of phone calls to re-arrange things and secure safe spaces for both the rabbits.  As always, our team of foster carers were very understanding and accommodating and within no time at all, we had secured the right spaces within our network to allow them both somewhere warm and safe, without compromising on their need for adequate space and levels of care.

When Lauren arrived we agreed that there was nothing an emergency out of hours service could offer in this case, and our objective was simply to try to make her more comfortable for the night until we could get her to a vet the following day for a full assessment.  With some consultation online with a veterinary colleague, we decided it was best, for now, to clean up the foot as much as possible – clearing away as much of the scabbing and infection – and offering some pain meds.

Maya sat perfectly as we gently worked away cleaning her foot.  She was obviously suffering, but extremely well behaved.

Once we had finished her foot was looking a lot better – still very raw and sore, but at least clean now.

We agreed on a plan of action with Maya’s foster carers, Lynette and Robbie, settled her into a comfortable pet carrier, and she headed off home for the night.

It was a tough night for the care team, and I don’t hide from the fact that we had a real mix of feelings, and many tears were shed.  We shared so much sympathy for Maya, that she had found herself in this sorry situation, unable to control her fate and unable to help herself.  We shared disgust and anger that someone had allowed her to get into this situation at all, not just in terms of her injury but to let her get so thin too.  We shared hope and joy as we watched her relax so quickly and enjoy her food, treats and water.  And we shared relief knowing that whilst there was still so much work to do, she now at least had a chance to get better.

It’s now Wednesday, and as I sit here waiting to hear about her vet assessment and writing out the tale to share with you, I am still in shock that someone allowed her to get in this state.  Is it anger that I feel?  I don’t think so – it would be all too easy to get angry about this.  But for me, it is more than anger.

My feelings stretch to deep concern, not just for Maya but the hundreds if not thousands more rabbits in our communities right now who are going unnoticed, suffering from a range of ills and pains, whilst owners are oblivious to their failings to provide the right level of care needed.

I feel frustrated that our legal system, both through legislation and enforcement, means that whilst this kind of treatment exists there is little in real-terms we can do to act upon it: why do things need to get to an extreme or volume before we can intervene and secure prosecution or bans?  I am thankful for organisations like Advocates for Rabbit Welfare who continue to fight our legal systems to secure better protection for pet rabbits and hopeful for change in the near future.

I am confused how, in a modern society such as ours, our basic understanding of animal welfare does not provide individuals with the common sense needed to recognise when an animal, rabbit or otherwise, is in pain, distress or hunger.  What wrongs are within our education system that allows something so basic to be overlooked?

And I feel grateful that I am part of a team of passionate “rabbit nutters”, some of whom gave up their Tuesday night to be there when it mattered.  It may have only helped one rabbit on this occasion, but we are all optimistic that we have made a significant difference for her.

This post was authored by David Bell, Director of Beloved Rabbits.