A non-profit group based in Portland, Oregon, brings therapy rabbits to hospitals, senior homes and schools. Bunnies in Baskets was founded by Sarah Baran, and the good work that she, her volunteers and their bunnies do was recently written up in The Oregonian in an article by Monique Balas. Here are highlights…
Before launching Bunnies in Baskets, she did therapy work with a black Labrador named Asher.
An activity director observed that Baran had a heart for the work and asked if she had other pets at home. Baran said she had a house rabbit, and the worker asked her to bring it.
The rabbit, named Sadie, was a hit. Baran went to register her through Pet Partners (then Delta Society), but felt the program was too canine-centric at the time.
After lots of research and discussions with her husband, Bunnies in Baskets was born.
That was six years ago, and the volunteer-run nonprofit now has Visiting Rabbit Teams operating in every state (except Alaska and Hawaii) and Canada. There are about 50 teams in the Portland area alone.
People do however much – or little – they have time for, says Baran, who works in the Battle Ground High School Counseling Center. She personally does about two to three visits each week.
“I’m not entertainment,” Baran explains. “I’m also not mental health treatment. What I do is provide positive emotional and physical experiences for people who need them the most.”
Danette Utley has worked with Baran for about seven years during her time as an activities director at Courtyard at Mt. Tabor and The Quarry Senior Living in Vancouver.
The effect the rabbits have on residents is incredible, she says.
“It’s one of the most amazing things that I have ever seen,” says Utley, who now works at Flagstone Senior Living in The Dalles.
“For somebody who is kind of shut down or has lost some of their cognitive or physical abilities, this is wonderful for them, because I’ve seen them come to life,” Utley says. “They will respond to an animal in a way they won’t necessarily respond to a person.”
The rabbits often have a powerful effect on residents because they connect them with their sense of touch or smell. Sometimes they can unlock long-lost recollections, like that of a childhood pet.
“There’s something about it that triggers memory,” says Utley, recalling one resident who sniffed Sadie and said she smelled like grass. “A lot of times with the elderly, their short-term memories may be gone but their long-term memories are there.”
During a recent visit to the Assisted Living & Memory Care division at Courtyard at Mount Tabor, a woman held Daisy, Baran’s therapy rabbit, in her lap. The woman didn’t speak to anyone, but she sang softly to Daisy as the rabbit sat quietly.
At Mallard Landing Assisted Living in Battle Ground, the residents eagerly anticipate Baran’s weekly visits.
“If they’re not feeling well, you put a bunny in their arms and everything melts away,” says activities director Tracy Shanks. “The softness of the fur, just touching them, brings a light to their eyes.”
Finding the right rabbits
The ideal candidates for therapy work are rabbits with a curious disposition.
Well-socialized rabbits that enjoy being the center of attention are ideal candidates.
“Rabbits with disabilities are often perfect for this because they still maintain their personalities even though they might have had surgeries or were born differently,” Baran adds.
Other than getting the rabbits accustomed to their baskets or carriers, there’s not much the rabbits need to learn.
“It’s more about training the people to recognize signs of stress,” Baran says.
Owners should be very familiar with their pet rabbit’s body language, since each might express stress differently.
Daisy, Baran’s rabbit, will dig her paws into her blanket when it’s time for her to leave.
Others might yawn or turn around to show their backside when they’re done.
The rabbit’s health and well-being always comes first, she says, even if it means packing up and leaving before a visit is over.
While Bunnies in Baskets is intended to help people, Baran believes it benefits bunnies as well.
“We can’t save all rabbits everywhere but we can give one person at a time a positive experience,” Baran says. “So when they read about rabbits, when they read about ethical treatment, it’s going to be a whole lot harder to be disinterested.”
You can read the complete story online at http://www.oregonlive.com/pets/index.ssf/2014/12/pet_talk_therapy_rabbit_group.html
If you are interested in finding out more, please go to Bunnies in Baskets website at www.bunniesinbaskets.org. Rabbit owners who are residents of the USA or Canada can gain certification by taking a correspondence course, the application form for which is available on the BIB website. Bonded pairs of bunnies are also eligible. All rabbits have to be certified healthy by a veterinarian in order to qualify.