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Welcome to Watership Down 

by Leah Sottile

June and Jessie cuddle on most days in their condo, nuzzling and playing. Their living room is spacious, with accents of cranberry and grass green. It appears that they've recently had the place re-roofed. They're best friends, and they show off when I say hi.

Next door is a chestnut brown home, seasonably decorated with swathes of branches and custom woodworking. It's a duplex-style house, with Josie and Jumper sharing one side and their friend Buckaroo in the other. It's a smaller version of a row house, with two floors and plenty of nooks and crannies -- a cozy, quaint country-style abode.

The neighborhood's filled in since the arrival of Minnie Mouse, Rufus and Tobey, Daisy and Dylan, Sparky, the earless old man, Cowboy Curtis, Hoppy Dots and God knows how many others.

Give or take a few spots and splotches of color, however, and all the new faces start to blend together. When you meet 19 rabbits at once, it's hard to keep their names and faces straight -- no matter how unique each one may be.

They all belong to Tracy Martin, graphic designer by day, fervent rescuer of lost rabbits by weekend. Over the years, she's accumulated a herd of bunnies -- and not one of them is related. All were rescued from abandonment and even from bunny death row. They've all ended up here in her Peaceful Valley yard -- a true rabbit utopia. Each rabbit gets care and love, a furnished insulated condo with heaters for winter, fans for summer, litter boxes, feeders, toys and tiny painted houses. She greets each one differently, petting some, talking to others. If you're a flop-eared star, Tracy Martin's backyard is the Hollywood Hills.

Martin caught the bunny habit after years of having meaningful pet-owner relationships with rabbits. She wanted to save those who were forgotten or mistreated. Now she has 19 of them, all inhabiting their own condo, each handmade by her husband. To take on any more, Martin would have to build a full-service bunny hotel.

Knowing that she can't save every long-eared, furry friend, Martin has taken to spreading the word about rabbit adoption, care and companionship. She's hoping to raise awareness about the animals she loves. And it's not a coincidence that she's done it just in time for Easter.

Martin created the Web site (that's Rabbitron, like a rabbit-robot) and posted rabbit billboards and advertisements around town in hopes that careless pet owners might be deterred from adopting rabbits for Easter gifts.

"Rabbits are not kid's pets," she says, "but they are perfect for adults."

Her Web site provides pointers on how to care for a rabbit, discusses what kind of people might want to own one and supplies links to the House Rabbit Society and to local veterinarians who are versed in rabbit care. The billboards simply say, "Small animal. Big responsibility. Rabbits are NOT Easter toys."

"Maybe if at least a few people get the message this year, then it's all worthwhile," Martin says.

Because what Martin wants people to know is that rabbits are not boring animals. They shouldn't be kept in boxes or crates or cages, and they can be wonderful pets, if treated correctly. Rabbits, in fact, are more like cats -- and timid ones at that. Owning a rabbit takes time and energy, trust and companionship, and a whole lot of compassion.

Owning 19 rabbits requires even more. But there are compensations, too. "The really fun thing about owning a rabbit," says Martin, "is when you're laying on the floor, watching TV, and your bunny comes up and you can pet it."

Granted, the Martins have their electrical plugs covered in industrial strength metal sheaths, and bunny toys abound, but she says anyone can have a bunny in their house, just as long as they understand them.

"I don't advocate having rabbits in cages," she says, explaining the luxurious bunny condos. "I really think rabbits should be in the house. They have to learn to trust you. We're big, scary predators to them."

Martin does let her bunnies inside in shifts, depending on who gets along with whom. Daisy only associates with humans. Sparky doesn't get along with anyone. Some respond well to hearing the Martins talk; others prefer National Public Radio.

While Martin is showing me what a rabbit litter box is comprised of (wood stove pellets and hay), she does something even the most loving pet owners might not do: She picks up a handful of rabbit droppings. "Rabbit poop isn't gross. It doesn't stink or anything," she says. "It makes them really good house pets."

Good rabbit owners like Tracy Martin anticipate their rabbits' needs. To keep Jumper's condo nice and be a good owner, you have to be cool with rabbit poop.

Publication date: 03/24/05

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