How to Catch a Stray Bunny

by Mary Ann Maier

Every year, rabbit rescuers beg people not to release unwanted domestic rabbits out-of-doors but we still get calls almost daily from people who have sighted domestic (pet) rabbits in their yards, on local streets, near highways, in parks, golf courses, and on commercial property. If you see a domestic rabbit running loose outdoors, here are some tips on catching him.

1) Plan your Schedule: Allow plenty of time and assume you will not necessarily be successful on your first try. It may take several attempts before the bunny is comfortable enough to let you anywhere near him.

2) Assess the Geography: If the bunny is near a busy street or highway, preventing him from running into it is your number-one challenge. Look around for a safe direction in which to herd him. Get a few friends to form a line, preventing him from entering the road.

Wooded areas present a problem, too, because it is easier for the rabbit to navigate through brush than it is for you. Find an open area and try to get him to approach you there. Look for fences, porches, sheds—anything he can hide under or wiggle through. It may be wise to cover up these escape routes before attempting to catch him.

3) Assess the Bunny: If the bunny seems relatively relaxed, settle in for a nice long chat to get him acclimated to you. Talk to him: at close range, a rabbit’s hearing and sense of smell are better than his vision (rabbits are farsighted) so a steady chatter from you (and anyone helping you) will enable him to tell precisely where you are,
and may help him relax enough to concentrate on your pats and treats. The bunny may perceive your looking at him as a “predatory gaze,” so it may help to avert your eyes while talking to him.

If the bunny is very relaxed he will accept steady, consistent pats on the head. If you are lucky, you’ll be able to gently but firmly scoop him up into a cat carrier. Line the carrier beforehand with a thick bath towel so that he won’t be sliding around in it. Putting a section of newspaper under the towel will help to keep the towel itself from sliding.

Shyer rabbits may tolerate your handing them treats as they inspect you and warm up to you. Sit or lie down and have carrots and alfalfa hay and banana on hand. Do not overfeed the bunny and do not leave these treat items behind for him—you want him to crave these special foods and you want him to associate them with only you. You also do not want him to gorge on them and thus not be interested when you return to try to catch him again.

In new situations, bunnies tend to come forward to explore, then retreat to a known safe spot, Then they’ll advance a bit more, then retreat. Advance, retreat. Watch for this pattern. Be patient—don’t try to lay your hands on him on the first or second advance. With each time he is getting more relaxed, and it is easier to catch a relaxed rabbit than a tense one. Use foods like carrots, banana, and—my favorite—alfalfa hay, to lure him. Often it helps to eat a carrot yourself, crunching loudly. Every bunny knows that sound, and it can tempt him to come nearer. Chat calmly and steadily—remember that rabbits can hear you better than they can see you. And don’t despair if you do not catch him on the first attempt. With each visit, he will become more acclimated to your voice and to your offerings of treats. There is no such thing as a failed attempt or a wasted trip. With every visit the bunny will relax a bit more.

If the bunny is very timid and you cannot get within five to ten feet of him, some equipment may be necessary. A length of deer fencing or an open puppy pen can be held by someone on each end and used to encircle a bunny eating a treat off the ground. This should be done very slowly, while the two people talk in calm voices, letting the rabbit know neither is getting too close. When the rabbit is encircled, one person climbs in the pen with a readied pet carrier to collect him. Be alert and be swift: many bunnies will panic and run and jump frantically when trapped.
A last-ditch tool is a net. Do not, however, use just any kind of net, or use a net in just any situation. A net can seriously injure the bunny if he gets a limb caught in the mesh. If the bunny panics, he can thrash enough to break his own bones. In addition, if you miss with the net, you could damage the trust you’ve built and set yourself back.

I use a bat net that has a very fine mesh (a bunny limb cannot fit through) and a wide (eighteen-inch) mouth. I only use the net “head,” and never use it on its long pole, so that I can control it. Never chase a bunny with a net; instead, sit down on a level, debris-free area. Make sure that if you place the net mouth on the ground it will lie perfectly flat. Place some alfalfa within arm’s reach. Hold the net by its “neck,” poised over the food. Talk to the rabbit to assure him you are not approaching him. Many bunnies will smell the alfalfa and draw near and retreat in the pattern described above.

Do not rush. Wait until the bunny has approached and retreated about five to ten times. When he feels comfortable enough with you to eat the alfalfa in a relaxed posture and not run at the slightest sound or movement, swiftly place the net mouth over him. Be careful not to let the mesh brush him in the process and spook him. Hold the net mouth down on the ground and immediately place your chest over him to gently but firmly still him; he most certainly will be thrashing about. Pick up the bunny and hold him to your chest while he is still in the net. Do not attempt to transfer him to a carrier until you are indoors or inside your car with the doors shut. Make sure the bunny is properly confined once inside your car; it is extremely dangerous to drive with a rabbit loose in the car.

Once the bunny is rescued, be careful not to overload him with too much food or overly rich foods. A badly malnourished bunny can be made sick by a sudden diet of rich foods. Feed free-choice timothy hay and water, and about a teaspoon of pellets the first day. Gradually increase pellets and add greens to the diet. Consult a rabbit-savvy vet as soon as possible to check the bunny for illness, malnutrition, parasites, etc.

BACK TO INDEX (From 2004 NYC Metro Rabbit News)

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