Here we go, hopping down the bunny trail

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My family and I recently had the pleasure of getting to know my mother-in-law's new housemate, Lily Bell.

She was quite shy around us at first, perhaps not sure if we would like her. I suppose we were a bit loud and disrupted their normally quiet home.

Eventually, she got used to us and came out of her room for lunch in the kitchen. We all sat around the table while Lily enjoyed her kale and raisin salad on the floor.

Lily Bell is a rabbit.

She is one of the many hundreds of rescued bunnies that my mother-in-law, Caroline Gilbert, has cared for at the Rabbit Sanctuary in Simpsonville - a non-profit sanctuary that she started on her farm 50 years ago and continues to operate with the help of her daughter, my sister-in-law Becky Hummell.

Why, you might ask, would there be so many rabbits that a sanctuary was needed? One answer is "Because of Easter bunnies."

Every year since the beginning of the sanctuary, there has been a steep influx of young cast-off rabbits brought to Caroline shortly after Easter. Little bunny rabbits are adorable, of course, and unsuspecting parents think it would be cute and clever to buy their children a live Easter bunny.

Bunnies are quiet and they just hop around, right? They're soft and fluffy and not rambunctious like a puppy. What a great "starter pet" for a child, right?

Wrong.

Caroline explains in a recent newsletter: "Rabbits are prey animals by nature. They are physically delicate and fragile, and require specialized veterinary care. Children are naturally energetic, exuberant and loving. But 'loving' to a small child usually means holding, cuddling, carrying an animal around in whatever grip their small hands can manage - precisely the kinds of things that make most rabbits feel insecure and frightened.

"Rabbits handled in this way will often start to scratch or bite simply out of fear. Many rabbits are accidentally dropped by small children, resulting in broken legs and backs. Those rabbits who survive the first few months quickly reach maturity. When they are no longer tiny and 'cute,' kids often lose interest, and the rabbit, who has no voice to remind you he's hungry or thirsty or needs his cage cleaned, is gradually neglected."

If you still think your family would enjoy a rabbit as a pet, do some research first. Learn what house rabbits need to be good companions. Talk to those who have had pet rabbits. Ask your vet if he or she is well-versed in specialized rabbit care. And be prepared to care for your pet when the children lose interest.

Most importantly, understand that a pet rabbit is not a toy. He is a real, live 10-year commitment. Rabbits are happy, wonderful companions when properly cared for, and miserable when they are not.

Here are two good alternatives to having a rabbit in your home: buy a stuffed toy rabbit, or virtually adopt one of Caroline's sanctuary rabbits. The adoption fees help support the rabbits who live there. Visit www.rabbitsanctuaryinc .com to learn more.

And if you'd like to meet the rabbits in person, join us at the sanctuary for the 50th Anniversary Open House from noon to 4 p.m. April 8. It's free, though donations are quite welcome.

For directions, email AdoptARabbit @hotmail.com.

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