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PETS

The Tender Trap

Chicks and bunnies may look cuddly, but caring for them can push the limits of love.

April 09, 1998|JUDITH A. WILLIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As winter rains yield to spring's sweet offerings, is your reverie broken by the sight of the Cadbury bunny ad on television? While other parents are pointing out nature's cutest baby critters--bunnies and chicks--to their children, are you turning away in dread, fearing your child will remember the IOU you signed last March?

Because I am a parent whose children have, over the years, called in their IOUs and extorted many pounds of bunny and chick flesh, I can offer some pointers on making the experience not only tolerable but fun. In addition, leaders of the regional 4-H clubs share their tips here.

For example, I know a pair of flossy, long-feathered Polish chickens named Zsa Zsa and Eva. A bunny pair named Roger and Jessica, Bunny and Clyde, or Bunny and Cher is sure to be the talk of the neighborhood.

But before getting a new pet, consider carefully whether the new addition will be a welcome and cared for member of the family. Rose Hayden-Smith, youth development director of the Ventura County 4-H, points out that each year after Easter the 4-H Clubs receive many phone inquiries from families who can't care for the growing chicks or bunnies that arrived in their Easter baskets. Some of these are adopted by families who raise rabbits or chickens, but many are referred to the Humane Society.

Joleen Hoffman, shelter director of the Humane Society of Ventura County (in Ojai), is understandably distressed each year when four weeks after Easter, about seven bedraggled bunnies and other suddenly unwanted pets are brought to the shelter. Those that are still too untamed to be held must be euthanized. Fortunately, most are friendly and homes can be found.

The Humane Society makes sure rabbits go to homes that have proper hutches, which are clean and offer protection from rain, cold and direct sunlight.

Hoffman reminds parents that the pets are their responsibility, because young children cannot be held accountable for an animal's well-being. Her advice is that if your child won't be satisfied with a stuffed or candy version of a bunny or chick, take the child to the feed store and check out costs for the animal's habitat. Also call a vet to check out various expenses, including $45-$150 for neutering a male rabbit.

Finally, if your child wants to hold a bunny, she suggests visiting the Humane Society for a chance to play with their resident rabbits.

If you do plan on adding a chick or bunny to your household, here are some things to do before bringing home your bundle of fluff.

Read Up

Buy a basic book on the pet and read it with your child. Take notes on the supplies you'll need and make a care chart for each day, week and month.

Do Your Homework

Check zoning regulations for your area. Chickens are sometimes restricted, and although bunnies are not usually a problem in small numbers, the location of a hutch or coop can be mandated.

The Right Breed

Select a suitable breed, and have second and third choices. Banti chickens and mini-breeds of rabbits remain small. Certain chickens, such as Leghorns, are great egg-layers. Others are unique because of the colored eggs they lay (Araucanas lay green and blue eggs).

Mini-rex rabbits are shorthaired and don't shed on clothing. They are small and resemble the "Velveteen Rabbit." If you are looking for a rabbit with low-hanging ears, check out the Holland lops and mini-lops

Mary Robbins, rabbit project leader at the Eastside Kids 4-H Club in the San Fernando Valley, advises prospective buyers to be sure a child can fully support the weight of a grown rabbit in his or her arms. An unsupported rabbit will scratch and kick. She suggests purchasing a bunny when it is at least 4 weeks old and the sex has been determined, because Robbins recommends only male bunnies as pets. "The females after a year or less want to mate and can become mean when that doesn't occur," she said.

She also cautions buyers to be sure the rabbits' teeth are not crooked or overlapping. These defects can interfere with proper nutrition.

Living Quarters

Have suitable habitats. For chicks, prepare a clean, indoor living enclosure under a safely installed heat lamp for the first several months. Bunnies can be kept outdoors immediately, but the outdoor cage must have a roof for protection from sun and rain and be sturdy enough to keep dogs, raccoons, skunks, coyotes and neighborhood children from getting in.

Chow Time

Feed your pet the right food in the proper container. Because you'll probably buy your baby chicks or bunnies at a feed store or pet shop, check out the self-dispensing food and water containers there. Don't improvise. A friend's baby chick drowned in a teacup used to hold water.

The store manager will explain which feed is best for the baby animal and when it will be time to change over to adult food.

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