Consider the Rabbit

Baby bunnies rescued by licensed wildlife rehabilitator Tresa Candelmo of JC Sanctuary in Old Greenwich


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On Easter morning in Switzerland, children hunt for chocolate eggs left for them by the cuckoo bird.

In Australia, the bilby, a desert-dwelling marsupial, brings goodies to children on Easter morning. 

On the day before Easter in the German tradition, children prepare nests of hay and moss for the fox, which fills them with sweets before morning.

In the United States, the magical Easter treat-dispensing animal is the bunny, which is sometimes not just the giver, but the gift.

But that’s not always good for the rabbit.

“They make very good pets,” said Tresa Candelmo of JC Sanctuary, a wildlife rehabilitation group in Old Greenwich. “They’re smart. They can be litter-box trained and they can learn commands. They are very social, they like to be cuddled, and they generally get along with other animals.”

People, however, have misconceptions about rabbits, Candelmo said.

One is that a pet rabbit lives mostly in a cage. But a rabbit is more like a dog or a cat than a hamster.

A second misconception is that a rabbit lives for about a year. But they live a decade or more.

A third is that rabbits eat pellets purchased from a pet store. But the mainstay of their diet is timothy hay, which is key to their digestive health, along with parsley, basil, carrot tops, leafy lettuces, and kale. 

Rabbits are energetic and need daily exercise and social interaction, and they are incessant chewers known for destroying electrical cords. But any unwanted behavior can be curbed with proper exercise, litter-box training, and spaying or neutering – which is performed only by a limited number of veterinarians and expensive.

“People may not want to put in the work or spend the money,” Candelmo said.

Because of that, rabbits – the third-most popular pet after dogs and cats – are also the third-most abandoned pet. According to a National Geographic report, rabbit abandonments spike the summer after Easter, but are a year-round problem.

“People see them as disposable,” Candelmo said. “It’s very sad, because released bunnies cannot relate to the wild. They don’t know what to do.”

Pets can’t be wild

Domestic rabbits have no survival instincts, she said. They don’t know how to find food or build safe shelters, and their bodies can’t fight infection or adapt to cold and heat.

“They cannot survive at all,” Candelmo said.

Norwalk has the only domestic bunny rescue she knows of in the area, Candelmo said. It’s called Hopalong Hollow Rabbit Rescue.

“They get inundated with domestic rescues,” Candelmo said. “We work together, so if Hopalong Hollow gets calls about wild bunnies, I will take them.”

Now is the start of the baby season among the wild cottontails, she said. Last year she and her husband, Michael Pavin Jr., rescued about 100 of them, she said.

“Right now I have three bunnies. The biggest is 50 grams (less than 2 ounces) and the smallest is 38 grams (a little more than 1 ounce.) They’re extremely tiny,” Candelmo said. “Their eyes aren’t open yet, and they have to be fed every three hours.”

Among wild cottontail rescues, the survival rate is generally 10 percent, she said.

Part of the reason is that rabbits are “low on the food chain,” Candelmo said – they provide sustenance for hawks, coyotes, wolves, ferrets and many other animals. 

“So rabbits end up with a high stress rate,” she said. “They will have a heart attack and die of stress during rehabilitation.”

Wild rabbits live six months to two years – far shorter than their domesticated cousins, she said.

“Cottontails have four to five litters a season. The mother picks fur from her belly and makes a den in the grass. We try to inform people to check around. If you see fur in the ground, it could be a nest,” Candelmo said. “Most of the rescues I get are dog-caught bunnies and mishaps from lawn mowers.”

When the babies are about three weeks old, they enter the wild on their own. 

Not so squirrels, which she also rescues, Candelmo said.

Consider the squirrel

“Bunnies can be released directly into the wild, but with squirrels, you have to do a soft release,” she said.

She and her husband built a pre-release pen in their backyard. Rehabilitated squirrels spend three or four weeks in the pen. 

“It has a special door that I open in the morning and close at dusk, so the squirrels have someplace to come home to,” she said. “They need time to figure out how to survive at night, and find a place to shelter.”

Until she began working with squirrels, she didn’t know they are smart, Candelmo said.

“They can learn commands. They have their own personalities. Some are affectionate, some are not,” she said. 

Unlike the skittish cottontail, the squirrel may approach a human for a hand.

“If you’re walking around this time of year and a young squirrel tries to climb your leg, it means they’re looking for help. Something happened and they can’t get back to their nest,” Candelmo said. “There’s nothing to worry about. Squirrels don’t carry rabies, even though a lot of people think they do.”

Rehabbers need help, too

Wildlife rehabilitation is fulfilling, she said. 

“To help out Mother Nature is nice.”

But it’s time-consuming and expensive, and fully dependent on volunteers, donations, and veterinarians willing to work for free. People sometimes assume that wildlife rehabilitators, because they are licensed by the state, are paid or otherwise funded by the state. They are not.

Candelmo has been at it for about a year. JC Sanctuary, named for her late father, John Candelmo, another animal lover, will have a website by the end of the month. Its 501(c)(3) status – an IRS designation that will allow JC Sanctuary to accept tax-deductible donations – is pending, Candelmo said.

“Formula for the babies costs a lot, and I need to buy an incubator. They are $1,000, and I need a few of them.”

The other frustration is that people who come upon sick or injured wildlife don’t know how to find help, Candelmo said. 

“They aren’t clear on what to look up on the Internet. A lot don’t know the term ‘wildlife rehabilitator,’” she said. “People call Animal Control, but they can’t always do something.”

Her dream is that someone in Greenwich or nearby donates space for a rehabilitation center, as has happened in other communities, Candelmo said. She plans to work with her cousin and fellow animal advocate, Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo, on ideas, she said.

Camillo said Friday he would love to be involved. 

He was part of an effort by former Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia to establish a wildlife refuge on the Stamford-Greenwich border, and started an Animal Welfare Caucus in the Connecticut General Assembly – the first of its kind in the country – when he was a state representative, Camillo said.

“I would be happy to spearhead a partnership with Stamford, since we have state delegates who represent both towns,” Camillo said. “We have lots of interested residents who I don’t doubt would love to be involved, too.”

There’s a huge need in lower Fairfield County, Candelmo said.

“We don’t have enough people doing this, and we don’t have enough resources,” she said. “If we had a facility, we could get state grants. Now groups like mine work out of our homes, and we aren’t eligible for any state help.” 

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.