Bunnies bounce in Year of Rabbit

by Sayo Sasaki

Kyodo News

A sunny weekend in Yokohama finds a small room packed with young visitors eager to get to the dozen metal cages lined up on a shelf.

“Look, it’s getting all cozy and drowsy,” said a young woman to her husband as they sat on a bench, while a little boy timidly petted the furry little animal in his lap.

Usagi Cafe, or Rabbit Cafe, located not far from Chinatown, has been a key attraction in the area since it opened in November.

Like the numerous “cat cafes” that have sprouted up across the country in recent years as more people turn to animals for comfort or relaxation, the cafe allows people to spend time with its 11 rabbit “staffers.”

Rabbits are already popular pets, with animal clinics, pet hotels and clothes shops specializing in rabbits doing very well.

But their popularity has increased in recent months as 2011 marks the Year of the Rabbit in the Chinese lunar calendar, and the emergence of a rabbit cafe is the latest sign.

The quiet presence of rabbits is one of their main attractions, said Ruka, who goes by just the one name and heads the Japan Rabbit Committee, which has more than 5,000 online members. He also manages the group’s website, monyu.net.

“They won’t come after you like cats or dogs, so it’s a bit like having a roommate. That’s why rabbits often become exceptions for people who dislike animals,” he said.

A rabbit owner himself, Ruka founded the group two years ago when he discovered there were no online communities or places he could go to gather and exchange information.

Membership has grown steadily and he began hosting periodic offline gatherings called Usanpo, a mixture of “usagi” (rabbit) and “sanpo” (walk), where owners let their rabbits roam through parks such as Yoyogi Park in central Tokyo. Drawing only four members to the first event in 2009, they now attract around 30 participants each time.

But rabbits don’t need to be taken for a walk, and they can be raised in an apartment. They don’t make any noise and don’t need a lot of space — key reasons why they have become popular in Japan.

But Ruka warns many people tend to focus on how cute they are and overlook the difficulties involved in raising them.

“It is in a rabbit’s nature to hide any illness, so unless owners pay close attention there is a chance they may die within a few hours of the owner realizing something is wrong,” he said.

Experts say the mismatch between pet owners’ expectations and reality could lead to a rise in the number of rabbits being abandoned.

Rie Suzuki, an animal coordinator at the Ishikawadai Animal Hospital in Tokyo and author of “Kousagi No Jikan” (“Time with Baby Rabbits”), said the number of rabbits abandoned or neglected has been on the rise in the last 10 years.

“There are cases of people deciding to give up their rabbits as they grow up and become ‘no longer cute’ or because they won’t become attached to the owners,” she said, adding that in the worst cases some people have abandoned their rabbits before taking a vacation overseas, saying the pet hotel fees are too expensive.

Suzuki said at least 200 to 300 abandoned rabbits are found every year and fears it could grow worse in 2011 and the coming years. “The last Year of the Rabbit 12 years ago was horrible,” she said.