Above: Rabbit fanciers Ellen and Carl Stilwell say their rescued pets bring them joy. “They’re soft and they’re furry and fluffy and they just elicit such a feeling of love and comfort,” Ellen Stilwell said.  All photos SPECIAL

Ellen Stilwell lives in a very hoppy household.

The Tucker home she shares with her husband is also home to nine rescued domestic rabbits, including a couple of senior rabbits and two certified as therapy pets.

Stilwell is an educator for the shelter that eight of her rabbits came from, a Marietta facility that’s unique in Georgia and one of very few like it in the country.

House of rabbits

It’s a shelter for rabbits only, operated by the Georgia House Rabbit Society (GHRS) rescue organization. To date, the organization has rescued more than 3,500 domestic rabbits.

“Some of these bunnies that we’ve rescued have come from horrific situations and yet their hearts are so big and they love the safety that you give them and they’re so resilient,” said Stilwell, who runs the Crime Victims Compensation Program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

“They bring joy to people. When you pet them, they’re soft and they’re furry and fluffy and they just elicit such a feeling of

Volunteer Linda Reed pats a bunny.

love and comfort,” she said.

Linda Reed, of Kennesaw, has volunteered with the nonprofit, no-kill shelter for several years. “I volunteer because, despite being 76, it gives me a purpose to serve in my community,” Reed said. “Bunnies have always been my passion, and this keeps me active while playing with these sweet ones.”

GHRS was founded in 1996 when rabbits were rising in popularity as house pets and there were few animal facilities that would take abandoned rabbits, according to shelter Manager Jennifer McGee.

“Rabbits are the third companion animal behind dogs and cats,” McGee said. “They stay in the home, they’re litter box trained, they’re very neat and tidy, and you don’t have to walk them.”

But the “prey animals” are often misunderstood pets that can get frightened when picked up. They bond in pairs and can reproduce at light speed, live for 10 to 12 years, and have delicate bones. “Dropping a bunny is a broken leg, for sure,” McGee said.

GHRS gets more than 1,000 requests each year from owners and breeders who want to surrender their rabbits to the shelter. Rabbits adopted from its facility can be returned, but other rabbits can only be taken under extreme circumstances, when space permits.

The shelter focuses on rescuing rabbits who are facing death at other animal shelters and rabbits that have been abandonto the outdoors where they could be attacked or eaten by other animals, get hit by a car, or die from sickness, starvation or abuse. In 2015, the shelter took in 186 rabbits in one day that had been confiscated from a backyard petting zoo in Gwinnett County. The shelter stays hopping with an average 150 to 200 rabbits on-site and in foster homes at any given time, McGee said.

Right now, the shelter is taking a giant leap of its own. Run initially out of members’ homes, GHRS moved into its current building in 2005. This summer, the group is relocating to a 6,500-square-foot building purchased in December that more than triples its space.

Shelter manager Jennifer McGee says that after dogs and cats, rabbits are the most popular companion animals.

Located near the historic district of Downtown Kennesaw, the new facility allows room to expand shelter operations, which include serving as an educational center, a boarding facility and a source for rabbit supplies.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, the shelter has been open to the public by appointment only and the adoption process has been refined, McGee said.

Bunny 101

“Because we were open to the public, people wouldn’t do their research before they would drive over and they would just walk in thinking they would leave with a rabbit, which isn’t the case. There were lots of crying children and angry parents,” McGee said. “We’ve found that that kind of spontaneity results in the rabbit not staying in the home very long.”

A two-hour Bunny 101 class was required and offered off-site due to space limitations. Now, due to social distancing requirements, that class has been converted to a 12-page digital presentation that is emailed to potential fosters and adopters.

“When they’ve reviewed it and it didn’t scare them off and they know they want to adopt, then they schedule a time to come in and take a knowledge quiz based on this presentation. Then they can adopt,” she said. “We’re not judging them. We’re just trying to make sure they’re aware of what they’re getting into.”

Ellen Stilwell dresses to show she’s a rabbit fan.

McGee is happy with the results. The shelter is experiencing the same uptick in adoptions as many other animal shelters since coronavirus set in and people find more time to add a pet to their lives.

“Our numbers have skyrocketed,” McGee said. “We’ve actually had to suspend our fostering program because we’re calling bunnies in from foster care to keep our pens full.”

In May, 73 rabbits were adopted; 58 were adopted in June. Before that, monthly adoption numbers were typically in the 30s, she said.

“We do get senior rabbits… and some people actually gravitate toward them because they don’t want a 10- to 12-year commitment. They want a 4- to 5-year commitment,” she said.

Stilwell and her husband, Carl, have taken their rescued rabbits to hospitals, nursing homes and community events. A few of them have also appeared in movies, including “Neighbors 2” and “Stuber.”

She uses her therapy rabbit encounters as opportunities to educate people about the animals.

Dante, about 7 or 8 years old, and Popcorn, 4, are her therapy bunnies. For safety, she typically puts them in a basket and places the basket on a child’s lap.

“Dante has an amazing personality. He is so outgoing, and he doesn’t mind being held,” she said.

Popcorn was part of the 2015 Gwinnett County confiscation and Stilwell has had her since she was two days old. They’ve got their own Facebook and Instagram pages, at instagram.com/dantethebunny and facebook.com.dantethebunny.

Therapy bunnies Dante and Popcorn

The rabbits are regulars at Tucker holiday events, especially during Easter season when the Stilwells let families take pictures of them with their children.

“Easter is a bad time (for rabbits) because people want bunnies and they get them, realize how much special care they require, and then they dump them in shelters or outside,” Stilwell said. “I explain that chocolate bunnies are the best.”

Learn More

The Georgia House Rabbit Society, located at 2280 Shallowford Road in Marietta, always needs volunteers just about around the clock to help with cleaning, grooming and staffing its Hop Shop, among other jobs. For more information on volunteering, donating or fostering or adopting a rabbit, visit www.houserabbitga.com or call 678-653-7175.

Donna Williams Lewis

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.