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The Easter Bunny's Seedy Underbelly

The tragedy of the Easter rabbit is that soon after its purchase, the novelty wears off. A month or so after Easter, thousands of bunnies bred for the occasion arrive at the shelters.
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It's that season again, the worst time of year to be born a rabbit.

At first, the opposite sentiment might occur: Easter and bunnies seem a happy duo, gushing forth the message of sweet cuddly love. Make rabbits, not war, man. When, if not now, leading up to Easter, are we more deluged with reminders of bunnies' cuteness?

As soon as Valentine's Day sweets go on sale, the gods of commerce trot out the long-eared creatures. Grocery stores woo with golden-foil wrapped chocolate. In pharmacies, the aisles that we take to pick up medications teem with candy-filled pink-and-yellow bunny-adorned Easter baskets made from felt and wicker. At a neighborhood mall, a photographer churns out photos of toddlers with live rabbits.

The greeting-card section, too, prominently features rabbits. We often see them carrying out some anthropomorphized task. They wear clothes or, in the case of one Hallmark audio greeting card, say "What? Huh? How's that? Shout for joy -- it's Easter!" upon having their chocolate ears bitten off.

Silly rabbits; perfect kitsch. Bad art, bad chocolate, and good marketing have long joined hands to commodify animals for sentimentally induced profit. Even for those of us who see through all this, it's hard not to feel the powerful urge that whispers, "Must Buy Live Bunny Now!"

Resist it -- especially if you have a small child.

It's not that I don't love rabbits. I am, in fact, devoted to them: I belong to the alternate universe of lagomorph aficionados called The House Rabbit Society and own two free-roaming bunnies. Just last night I received what I call a bunny facial -- a thorough grooming of my face with a little bunny tongue at 1 a.m. when one of my rabbits decided I needed it.

My heart skips a beat each time I witness one of my rabbits do the binky -- a spur-of-the-moment dance of exuberant joy, in which rabbits leap up, spin in mid-air, and land facing the opposite direction, sometimes several times in a row. Two bunnies grooming each other? I melt at the sight. My husband and I spent about $1,500 on life-saving care for a recently adopted rescue. So you won't find me denying the idea of inherent bunny cuteness. Per se.

The Easter-time push of rabbits puts me off not because I do not find them deserving of our society's affection -- just the opposite. But the sentiment must be educated. It is because I am familiar with real rabbits that the pimping of bunny cuteness bothers me. Margo DeMello and Susan E. Davis aptly subtitled their book Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature (Lantern, 2003). In it, they show how rabbits in America are pets and pests and toys and furs and food and sex symbols. They document something many rabbit-savvy vets and biologists know well: that lagomorphs are so much more than emitters of passive loveliness perpetuated by advertisers.

Yes, they are adorable and cuddly. But they are delicate. Foreign bodies, even a strand of cotton, can in the space of a day lead either to expensive surgery or death.

They are not good pets for small children. Noises, including those one expects from healthy kids, stress rabbits out. Getting picked up often frightens them, which can result in an injury or GI stasis and painful death.

With life spans around 10 years, domestic rabbits are a long-term commitment. They should not be lonely years: lagomorphs are social creatures; they do best in pairs or groups and get bored or destructive when left to themselves (a bite off the leather chair or wooden furniture, anyone?). Living outdoors in a hutch is too often a death sentence. If you're not convinced, consult a rabbit education listserve such as EtherBun or HRS's site for explanations.

The store-shelf cuteness contributes to a culture that for many bunnies has lethal consequences. I could avert my eyes from pastel bunnies hatching out of eggs or doing some other preposterous thing, if I didn't know that around Easter too many rabbits are bred by opportunists and purchased on impulse by well-meaning parents who approach them like stuffed toys.

Easy to breed -- and that's an understatement -- rabbits are cheap. For between $20 and $40 a pet store will sell you a picture-perfect bun. But few buyers swept up in the fuzzy Easter feeling know that thousands of discarded rabbits are waiting for adoption (you can see some here).

The tragedy of the Easter rabbit is that soon after its purchase, the novelty wears off. As many new owners face off with the strong will of the new creature in their homes, they become frustrated and lose interest. A month or so after Easter, thousands of bunnies bred for the occasion arrive at the shelters.

That is the Easter Bunny's underbelly; nothing sweet or cute about it.

Agnieszka Tennant is a journalist living near Chicago.