Think Twice Before Making This ‘The Year of the Rabbit’

This could be a double-whammy “wabbit” season for rabbit rescue groups and animal shelters. Not only is Easter almost here, but 2011 is the Chinese year of the rabbit. Cities have celebrated with special events and activities, particularly in “Chinatown” neighborhoods. Celebrating rabbits sounds benign, but now, with Easter imminent, rabbit advocates are bracing for an onslaught of impulsive rabbit purchases that would — a few months from now — no doubt mean many rabbits will be dumped on their doorsteps.

Rabbits are wonderful pets for people who really understand what having a rabbit is all about and are dedicated to meeting their needs. “However, rabbits are not as low maintenance as some think, and they’re not a pet for every family,” says Jacelyn Heng, president of the Singapore House Rabbit Society. In an interview conducted via Skype, Heng adds, “People have so many misconceptions about rabbits.”

No question, the most noteworthy mistaken belief is that bunnies are wonderful pets for young children.

“Children like to carry things around, and rabbits detest being carried around,” says Mary Cotter, vice president of the International House Rabbit Society. In fact, rabbits are probably downright acrophobic. “Young children — being the primates they are — like to hold, squeeze and hug, and that makes perfect sense,” adds Cotter, who is based in New York City. “But for rabbits, the only things which hold and squeeze them may want to kill them.”

Cotter adds, “Children are also unpredictable, and rabbits are most comfortable in predictable surroundings.”

Rabbits are the most common small animal pet in both Singapore and America. Certainly, many people do enjoy having pet rabbits. “I think they’re a great pet for people who like to watch nature shows,” says Cotter. “They’re not as interactive as dogs or cats. Though rabbits appreciate our affection — it’s on their terms.”

Heng says that while most people do spay or neuter their rabbits, some people don’t. Many of those intact rabbits are given up because they become unpredictable and occasionally aggressive pets. Also, the risk of reproductive cancers is significantly less when rabbits are spayed.

Rabbits and folklore seem to go hand in hand. According to websites, people born in the Chinese year of the rabbit are sensitive but sometimes on their guard (an accurate description of the demeanor of many rabbits). Of course, a rabbit’s foot is considered a good-luck charm. And, for centuries, rabbits have been associated with Easter. “I’ve heard so many stories,” says Cotter. “It seems no one really knows how it all began.”

Easter could have been associated with roosters, cows or giraffes — no one knows how rabbits were chosen. Records do confirm that edible Easter bunnies were a German dessert pastry, dating back to the 1800s. Soon after came Easter egg hunts, stuffed Easter bunnies, and eventually the giant Easter bunny in the mall, munching on carrots.

Of course, it’s true that rabbits do like carrots. However, because of the relatively high sugar content in carrots, they should only be an occasional snack. What rabbits do require daily is grass hay, such as timothy hay, brome hay or meadow grass. Additionally, various lettuces and manufactured rabbit diet should be added.

Rabbits are popular in Singapore, and major metro areas in the U.S. because they are perfect apartment and condominium pets. They don’t require outdoor walks or lots of space. Neighbors rarely complain about their barking. Rabbits are clean pets, who are easily litter-box trained.

In fact, when a rabbit is acting “a little off,” it’s an indication that something may be wrong, and a vet visit is a good idea. While they’re subtle about illness, just as dogs and cats require regular veterinary care, so do rabbits. “They are a commitment, which people don’t think about when they first get them — because they’re so cute as bunnies,” Heng says. Cotter and Heng do both encourage one idea for an impulsive rabbit purchase — a chocolate rabbit:

Again, nothing wrong with real rabbits as pets — particularly if you visit a shelter or legitimate rescue group. But do your homework first.

Learn more about pet rabbits at


Celebrating Petfinder and the Internet

Steve Dale,CABC, Board Member and National AmbassadorI’ve been covering the pet beat for about 20 years now, and there have been lots of changes. One is that today it’s considered “cool” to adopt a pet from an animal shelter or rescue group. There are lots of reasons for that, ranging from Benji to shelter outreach programs. Arguably the most significant contribution is from

Jan McHugh-Smith, president of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators and CEO-President of the Humane Society of the Pike’s Peak Region in Colorado, says, “Petfinder has been the most significant innovation and tool for animal shelters.”

And not limited to animal shelters, rescue groups — from organizations whose mission it is to rescue only French bulldogs to those which rescue parrots — benefit by instantly being able to reach the entire nation through Petfinder with a click of the mouse.

An estimated 17 million pets have been adopted since the site’s inception!

How did it begin? Stuck in traffic one day, Betsy Saul and her ex-husband Jared were bantering about how this new phenom — called the internet — might work if people could search by zip code or specific ideas. For example, search only for four-bedroom homes if they weren’t interested in two-bedroom houses for sale. But, instead of diving into the real estate world, Betsy, an animal lover, sought to help animal shelters. was launched in 1996 from Betsy’s home.

Seventeen million pets is hardly insignificant, particularly since so many of those animals might have been euthanized if they had not been adopted. Some of those pets have amazing stories, such as one dog who saved a family from a carbon monoxide leak. But perhaps as important is the awareness and positive approach Petfinder has taken to shelter adoptions. No question, Petfinder has elevated the status of shelter pets, as well as dispelling so many misconceptions.

Try to congratulate Betsy and she diverts the praise. “Thank the internet,” she says.

Well that’s exactly what Petfinder is doing on Tuesday, March 15 — they are thanking the internet — actually “adopting” the internet as their own to celebrate their anniversary and millions of stories with happy endings. The idea is to encourage bloggers to write about and support pet adoption. And you can participate merely by posting a photo of your adopted pet on your Facebook page and by telling your pets’ stories on Facebook and Twitter.

If you’re not into social media, do it the old-fashioned way: Holler out your windows, stop people on the street, bring framed pictures of your adopted pets for your desk at work (as if you don’t already have that…). Spread the word — as has been doing for 15 years. And while you’re at it, spread the word about American Humane Association’s legacy Adopt-A-Cat Month® (June) and Adopt-A-Dog Month® (October).

March 15 will be a great day. “I can see it now — dogs Skyping and cats playing with the “mouse” at the keyboard,” says Jan. “Taking over the Internet with adopted pets — a very good thing.”

It is a very good thing. American Humane Association and I congratulate for their commitment to homeless animals, and for participating in changing society.

More Than Just a ‘Good Hair Day’ — Connecting Across Cultures

Connecting Across CulturesIt’s always difficult for children who have been taken from their families and are living in foster care, are adopted by a new family, or live in a residential facility. Even more challenging is when children of color are placed with White foster and adoptive families. This happens often and creates special cultural challenges. Since our culture is predominantly White (consider the lack of characters of color in children’s media), it may be especially difficult for foster and adoptive parents to provide children of color with adequate exposure and interaction with their cultures of origin, and sometimes to assist the children with everyday needs.

I experienced this firsthand the first time I worked in human services. I had just graduated from college and took a job as an educational mental health worker at a local residential treatment care facility. I assisted a special education teacher in a therapeutic classroom of 8- to 12-year-olds. I had never been exposed to children who experienced abuse and neglect, and I was constantly learning new things about child trauma, development, resiliency, and the systems that serve children.

Sarah was 11 years old, and one of few African American girls at our facility. When she arrived, her behavior was so extreme that many of us felt unprepared to meet her emotional and behavioral needs. Sarah had experienced extensive abuse and neglect during her development, and the effects on her behavior were significant. She would often act out in dangerous ways, and children and staff soon became fearful of her. Sarah was violent and would often injure herself and others in an attempt to cope with overwhelming anger and frustration. Because she was in my class, I spent nearly 8 hours a day with her. After awhile, I was at a loss for behavioral interventions.

The girls in my class used to love to style staff’s hair or paint our nails. We would often use this as incentive for completing school work. Sometimes the class would earn “spa” parties for positive behaviors. We would spread nail polish and hair accessories out on the table, and everyone would fix each other up. Despite the spa parties, I noticed that, over time, Sarah’s hair became more and more tangled, brittle and matted to her scalp.

I mentioned Sarah’s matted hair to her one day, and she told me she had a grocery bag of products, tools and accessories for her hair. I was surprised because I thought her hair looked the way it did because the residences were ill-equipped to meet the hygienic needs of African American hair. It seemed that the only difficulty was that nobody was taking responsibility for Sarah’s grooming and hygiene. Maybe staff, who were predominantly white, were unsure of how to care for African American hair, perhaps they thought her hair was OK as it was, or perhaps her extreme behavior provided little opportunity for staff to help her with her grooming. I asked Sarah if she would like me to help her with her hair, and she was ecstatic. We looked at pictures on the internet, and she showed me the style she liked. We spent the next 6 hours washing, conditioning, brushing, combing and styling her hair.

I had never styled African American hair, but with her instruction and guidance, the finished product looked great. She looked like a different child. She was proud, and spent the rest of the day showing her new style off to staff and her peers. I saw this positive response as an opportunity to encourage her to have better behavior, and agreed to style her hair weekly if she could agree to be safe with peers and staff. Reminding her of our weekly “salon” sessions often proved effective.

I continued to work with Sarah until I left the treatment center several months later to start graduate school. We continued to use one-on-one hygiene time with staff as a behavior intervention. The connection between Sarah’s hair and self-esteem was obvious — when she felt that she looked good, she was more motivated to improve and sustain her behavior. Overlooking this seemingly insignificant part of caring for Sarah was likely a contributing factor to her destructive actions. Before leaving, I made sure other staff knew how to care for her hair, and thanked Sarah for all she had taught me — not just about hair care. Sarah reminded me of why I love this work — connecting with people and positively impacting one another is essential when working towards a more just, equitable society.

Black History Month reminds us of the long way we, as a society, have come in the fight for equal rights for all. However, there are still many inequities that must be remedied in order to move forward as one human family. American Humane Association is working to correct some of the inequities in the child welfare system through its Disparities Resource Center.

The overall focus of the Child Welfare Disparities Resource Center is to develop solutions that respond to the complex causes of inequities in the child welfare system. The center works to increase awareness among county department managers of the actual levels of disparities in child protective services by monitoring the development of state and county plans and by obtaining and using data from an automated system that tracks all child protection cases in the state.
The center began in Colorado as a project to provide accurate accounts of the disproportion of families and children of color in Colorado’s system, as well as disparities in the state’s child welfare services. We have since broadened the center’s scope to apply the knowledge gained in Colorado to address disparities in other states and address this issue across the country.

Celebrating National Adoption Month: One Family’s Legacy

Tiffany and TyMarionBy Tiffany Mitchell, manager, public and private child welfare initiatives

Not flesh of my flesh, nor bone of my bone — but still miraculously my own. Never forget for a single minute — you didn’t grow under my heart, but in it!” –Author Unknown

My son TyMarion is 5 years old. I named him after a special family member whom I have always been in awe of — my grandfather. Initially, my grandfather scoffed at the idea of someone being named after him, since the name “Marion” is unusual for a man. But I was determined to carry on his legacy.

You see, my grandfather and his three younger siblings were dropped off at an orphanage by their mother when my grandfather was 9 years old. His father had left the family, and his mother was overwhelmed and unable to care for her four children on her own. Although his three younger siblings were adopted quickly by three separate families, my grandfather remained in the orphanage until he was able to work. He promptly enlisted and served in World War II.

Due to the numerous trials and life circumstances my grandfather was faced with, I believe he had every excuse to be a disappointing father, husband and grandfather. Instead, he chose to build a family legacy of integrity and resilience. So why wouldn’t I name my son after him? 

It’s easy to explain to my son why he was named after his grandfather; however, it may not be so easy to explain to TyMarion where his father is since I am a single parent who adopted him when he was 2 years old. Before adopting my son, I had been a foster parent. TyMarion was the eighth child I cared for.

Originally, I hesitated to become a foster parent, as I felt I would be doing a disservice to children by not offering a two-parent household. Eventually, I came to the realization that there are so many children who don’t have anyone to love them unconditionally — children like my grandfather. When I became a foster parent, I definitely did not intend to adopt. But perspectives shift when you care for a vulnerable child, whether that child is a sweet little baby, a fun-loving teenager or somewhere in between. For some, there comes a point when you can’t imagine a child with anyone else. I don’t look at TyMarion as my “adopted son”; he is simply my son.

While it absolutely warms my heart when people tell me that TyMarion looks like me and has many of my mannerisms, this past summer another child asked him, “Were you adopted?” My son said no, and then immediately looked to me and expressed how absurd the question was. Then he asked me, “Am I adopted?” I told him yes. While he was slightly puzzled, he also thought it was a cool thing and proceeded to sing, “I’m adopted, I’m adopted!” Later that evening I asked him if he knew what that meant and he replied that he didn’t. I told him it meant that he is my son, and I am his mother. And to me, that’s the best definition of adoption. What’s mine is his, which is a simplified version of the legal terms stated in the adoption decree.

I am not the only person who adopted my son. My entire family has adopted him; he is ours, and we are his.  Our legacy is now his legacy.

Have you ever considered adopting a child? It’s National Adoption Month — the perfect time to learn whether adoption might be right for you and your family!

Homeless, Toothless and Priceless: The Story of Miss Millie

Miss MillieBy Dori Villalon, vice president, Animal Protection

It’s here! October is American Humane Association’s Adopt-A-Dog Month®,  and this year we’re asking: “What can an adopted dog bring to your life?” My own answer to that question is “comfort in difficult times, joy on a daily basis, and a constant companion I can carry in my purse.”

Miss Millie was a 10-year-old Chihuahua who was abandoned at the front door of a veterinary hospital in California. She was brought in as a stray to Sonoma County Animal Care & Control, where I was director at the time. Miss Millie had clearly been loved by someone because of her incredibly sweet disposition, but her health had obviously been neglected — she was unspayed, and she had dental problems that eventually required 95 percent of her teeth to be pulled. Perhaps her owner couldn’t afford her increasing medical needs as she aged — who knows? But as we cared for her at our facility, she became a staff favorite.

Although I had never adopted a geriatric dog before, I succumbed to Miss Millie’s charms and brought her home to live with me and my elderly Lab, Parker. The two dogs bonded in the short time they lived together, and Miss Millie was at Parker’s side when it was time for us to say goodbye to him. She was a great support to me, as well as a wonderful “bridge” between Parker and our newest addition to the family, Addison, a golden retriever mix who I adopted from the San Francisco SPCA when I was vice president there. Miss Millie now lives the good life, peering out of my purse in shops and restaurants, flying with me on airplanes, even meeting Martha Stewart and Howard Stern on a business trip to New York City!

Adopt-A-Dog Month was established in 1981 as a way to promote awareness of the millions of shelter dogs who need homes, and to help reduce euthanasia of these wonderful animals who have so much to give. Today, this annual event is also a tribute to all the adopted dogs who have enriched our lives, like Miss Millie and Addison. (You can read stories of other adopted dogs, submit your own adoption story and search for your next adopted dog at our online Adoption Center.)

In the past 29 years, shelter dogs have come a long way. In many communities, having a shelter dog is a status symbol, and some shelters actually transfer in dogs from overpopulated shelters because they can’t keep up with the demand for them.

Today’s shelter dogs come with an amazing array of benefits: They are typically spayed or neutered, vaccinated and given a head-to-tail veterinary exam, and many have been temperament tested and received behavior training at the shelter. Shelter staff members are experts at matching the right pets to the right people, and many shelters offer free behavior hotlines that adopters can call for advice on helping their new pet adjust to life outside the shelter. You get so much more when you adopt a shelter dog — and as a bonus, you’re saving a life.

Find out what an adopted dog can bring to your life — and if you can’t adopt a dog in October, remember that every month is a great time to adopt a dog!

Don’t Let Compassion Hold You Back

By Dori Villalon, vice president of animal protection

I’ve just come on board here at American Humane Association and I am eager to join the organization’s mission to end the abuse and neglect of animals and support the animal welfare agencies that serve them.

I have been the director or vice president at several animal shelters in San Francisco, Cleveland and Colorado. When I tell people about my sheltering work, they often say, “I could never do what you do – I love animals too much.”

Now, I’m sure that these people don’t think that I’m heartless or that I don’t love animals. I think they mean that they would be too broken up at the sight of a homeless animal in a shelter to be able to cope. But their professed compassion is exactly what homeless pets in animal shelters need.

Aside from swaying one’s choice of profession, this same compassion may be keeping potential pet adopters out of shelters. They may see it as a depressing environment. They may fear that if they walk in the door, they will want to “take them all home.” Or they may be afraid they will be looking at animals that will not survive the shelter and will be euthanized.

These are precisely the people who need to take a trip to their local shelter.

I won’t get into all the reasons for adopting from a shelter – my colleague Dena Fitzgerald covered that in her blog. But I will say that if you adopt an animal from a shelter, you are potentially saving two lives. You are saving the life of the animal you adopted and you are freeing up the cage space for another animal to be placed up for adoption. Another adopter comes in, and the cycle continues.

But people who “love animals too much” can do more than just adopt a pet. They can volunteer, donate, offer to serve on a shelter’s board of directors, help with office or fundraising tasks, foster pets and more, and all of that will help shelters do what they do best – place pets in responsible, loving homes.

Don’t let your love of animals translate into fear of animal shelters. Compassion shouldn’t hold you back. It should be used to help.