Who will help the helpers?
by Yma Johnson
"Most people in our country would agree that you don't go to a shelter and eat cats and dogs."
That's how Amie Brockman, an animal caretaker at the Great Lakes Rabbit Sanctuary, reacts when asked about a letter to the editor in the Ann Arbor News. Instead of caring for abandoned pet rabbits, the writer suggested, why not cook them and feed them to the homeless?
That person may have been channeling Jonathan Swift, but other writers were equally disdainful. One suggested euthanizing sick animals instead of paying for veterinary treatment, while another described the sanctuary's mission as "pointless."
Brockman acknowledges that people eat wild rabbits but firmly maintains that these bunnies are different: "These are not cottontails. They are not wild animals. They're not a food source. They're pets." GLRS board chair Tim Patino points out that the average domesticated rabbit released into the wild survives about two weeks.
GLRS is a no-kill shelter that takes in pet rabbits abandoned or surrendered by families that can no longer care for them. It's been around in various forms since 1995 but first hopped onto the national stage three years ago, when the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society rescued 800 rabbits from a Reno, Nevada, property.
"If we're struggling to survive as a small organization, let's become the biggest," Patino remembers thinking. GLRS agreed to take 200 of the bunnies-but 500 were sent. Today, about 500 rabbits are running free on its five-acre site south of Ypsilanti, making GLRS what Patino wanted it to be: the largest rabbit sanctuary in the country.
Patino, who is also general manager of Quarter Bistro and operations manager for the Original Cottage Inn, hoped that increased size would lure donors, sponsors, and grant money. Initially, it did just that. With help from the Utah group, grants from the PETCO Foundation and other agencies, and a mailing list of 4,000, the sanctuary's operating budget swelled from $73,000 to $300,000.
But since Michigan's devastating economic crash, GLRS has been beset
by trouble on all sides. Rabbits are the third-most popular house pets after cats and dogs. Home foreclosures have forced people to surrender bunnies, so rescues have increased. Although the PETCO Foundation has a program to help subsidize surrendered pets, it has financial troubles of its own and can't provide the same level of support it has in the past. At the same time, prices for food, medicine, and bedding have escalated-leaving the sanctuary facing a $100,000 deficit.
Despite the shortfall, GLRS continues to hold work projects with students and the public and hosts regular tours. Meanwhile, it is sending out more fund-raising appeals, crafting new promotional campaigns, and taking donations online (www.rabbitsanctuary.org).
Patino tries not to think about closing the sanctuary. "If I had to close out, I don't know what I would do," he says sadly. "I would place the rabbits throughout the country. I cannot walk away."
With just enough funds to operate through August, Patino lives with a peculiar mix of fear and excitement. "It's a lot of money" to raise, he says. "But considering how far we've come, I believe we can do it."
[Originally published in July, 2009.]