The Long Tale of the Rescued Rabbit

My niece Evelyn Roeloffs was in the Washington, D.C., area last week helping plan the best way to spend federal stimulus money awarded to the U.S. Geological Survey. She is a geophysicist specializing in the study of earthquakes, and she lives in Portland, Ore. Evelyn (I call her Evie) is a scientist, a practical thinker, not one given to flights of fancy, which is one of the reasons I found the story she told me about her volunteer activities as a rabbit advocate so compelling. The Rabbit Advocates organization works with animal shelters to find homes for domestic rabbits that have been abandoned or neglected. (Click here to follow Eleanor Clift).

It all began one morning when an injured rabbit appeared in her yard. Not knowing what to do or how to catch it, she consulted the Internet, and by the end of the day, four rabbit advocates showed up with netting to capture the rabbit. She took it to the vet, who gave her two choices: put the rabbit down or have its wounded leg amputated and adopt it as a pet. You can guess what she did.

That's how Evie and her then-partner, Louis, started on the road of rabbit advocacy. Hoping to find a friend for their three-legged bunny, they acquired four more rescued rabbits only to discover that rabbits are even pickier than humans about relationships. Each preferred to be alone, necessitating separate pens. When Evie and Louis parted ways a few years ago, they divided the rabbits; she got three, he got two.

And that's where the story might have ended except for an alert that went out in October 2006 from Rabbit Advocates in Portland. A woman had been charged with animal neglect and abuse after police seized 158 rabbits from her home in nearby Hillsboro, Ore., and found 88 more rabbits dead in freezers. The live rabbits were being held as evidence, and volunteers were needed on a daily basis to clean their cages and feed them. Evie signed up, and on one of her shifts she encountered an undersize and sickly-looking bunny that volunteers had named "Little Old One."

She learned that he was a dwarf rabbit and that he had almost starved to death because he didn't have the buck teeth we associate with rabbits. He had an underbite, and his upper teeth had grown down and curled around, making it impossible for him to eat. Volunteers had seen to it that his teeth were trimmed by a vet, but the police refused to release the sickly bunny to a healthier environment, undoubtedly thinking the worse shape he was in, the better evidence he made.

That seemed unreasonable to Evie, and she decided to take the matter into her own hands—literally. As a friend created a stir in the parking lot by feigning illness, Evie scooped up Little Old One and plunked him into an oversize handbag. Rabbits don't make noise, so she was able to leave the facility without anybody noticing.

She took Little Old One to her vet, who pronounced him the most decrepit rabbit he'd ever seen. One eye had been gouged blind and chunks of his nose were missing, the result of fights with the other rabbits. She was given an array of prescriptions to care for him, and so the story might have ended yet again but for the police. Realizing the cage labeled Little Old One was empty, they threatened the local Rabbit Advocates group with felony charges if someone didn't come clean. One night, when she was at home with a friend, the police rapped on her door. She didn't answer. She knew her rights.

Evie was advised to get a lawyer. She called several before she found a veterinary malpractice specialist who agreed to take the case. He found the story amusing and told her he would represent her without charge, but first he would call the officer in charge at the Hillsboro Police Department to see if he could settle things amicably. Minutes later, he called back to say the officer was really angry, and she'd better give back the rabbit. "If they want the rabbit, they'll have to take me," Evie declared, knowing this would not be good PR for the police. Seeing that she would not back down, the lawyer negotiated a settlement whereby Evie would return the rabbit, and the rabbit would be released into the custody of one of the other Rabbit Advocates.

When she brought this less-than-two-pound bundle of joy back with his array of prescription medications, the police were only too happy to let someone else assume the nursing duties. They had already bungled the investigation when they failed to notice on their appointed rounds one evening that someone had broken into the facility and stolen 130 of the rabbits.

The perpetrator was none other than Miriam Sakewitz, the same person whose compulsive accumulation of rabbits had led to Evie's life of crime. Sakewitz was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered not to go within 100 yards of a rabbit. She turned up in the news again earlier this year after being found with a baker's dozen of rabbits in a hotel room.

The newly named "Felonius Spunk," a.k.a. "Spunky," wasn't returned to Evie until the Sakewitz case was resolved. Rabbit Advocates does not condone unlawful behavior, and for a time Evie was excommunicated from the organization. She is back now in good standing, attending meetings with Spunky, who enjoys being passed around and petted like a rock star of the rabbit world.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.