MIDDLETOWN, N.Y.—At the Promenade Assisted Living Facility in Middletown, Bunnies in Baskets is the third event of the day listed on the schedule in the foyer.
A few yards away in a community room, Tommy Meyers is unpacking his bunnies into a mesh pen in the center of the room and taking out baskets and blankets from plastic bags.
On his shoulder sits Joshua, a brown bunny so-named because”he likes to be up on my shoulder all the time, high on the mountain like Joshua from the Bible,” Meyers explains to a curious resident.
Seniors slowly trickle into the room where he is setting up. Once people are seated, he places a bunny in a basket or wrapped in a blanket on their laps.
“[With] some of the elderly people, if a bunny scratches them and they’re on blood thinners, they’re going to bleed. So that’s why it’s called Bunnies in Baskets,” Meyers explained.
The 10 or so rabbits he has brought with him are called therapy rabbits, similar in concept to therapy dogs. He’s the only one in Orange County, and possibly in all of New York, who has therapy rabbits. He said he knows some people in Connecticut who also provide therapy rabbits, but generally working with rabbits is more popular on the West Coast.
“I’ve seen dog therapy, but not with rabbits on this large scale,” said a Promenade volunteer who has also volunteered for 15 years at Orange Regional Medical Center.
Kathleen, a resident of Promenade, is one of the first there, and she gets a young brown bunny that she names Brownie.
“They’re so content to be petted,” she said, stroking the top of its head as it sits calmly in the basket.
The bunny brings back memories of the rabbits she bought to keep her German shepherd Sparky company while she was at work. She says she misses her dogs, rabbits, and cats and enjoys seeing the bunnies when they visit the facility.
“All the residents just adore and enjoy these rabbits,” said Activities Assistant Steven DeBuck. “It’s amazing.”
From Rescue to Therapy
Seven years ago, Meyers wouldn’t have called himself an animal person, let alone a rabbit person. He didn’t have dogs or cats and only occasionally had fish.
He was doing a job in a pet store when he saw two rabbits in a small, glass cage.
“That’s not a life for a rabbit,” he said to himself.
He took the two rabbits home, and seven years later, Gracie and King Asland, as they are now named, have become the first, and now mostly retired, generation of his therapy rabbits.
Later came White Cloud, Snoopy Girl, Cheyenne, Dakota, Blues Berry, Joshua, Mama Patches, Maybeline, Bun Bun, Faith, Hope, and Mr. Hop Hop.
One thing led to another, and he now has 30 rabbits.
“Kind of my calling, I guess,” Meyers said bashfully.
His basement is a maze of cardboard boxes with holes cut out of the sides to create tunnels, wire cages that act more like beds than confinement areas, and abandoned play equipment that together make up a bunny jungle gym.
He estimates he spends over four hours a day cleaning, socializing, and feeding the rabbits.
“[Sometimes] you just want to stay in bed and not do anything, but I can’t because I have to get up and I have to take care of them,” he said. For that reason some people get rabbits to help them with depression, he said. He knows some who have them for PTSD and have had them certified as emotional-support animals.
When one first enters the basement, only a few rabbits are visible. As Meyers shakes a bag of lettuce, they start pouring out of their hideouts, waiting at his feet to be fed their second daily meal.
“A lot of people have rabbits that … are not social,” he said. “Mine, I’ve been able to have them be social. They like to be petted. They like to meet people.”
When he runs errands, he takes Joshua with him, perched on his should where he likes to be, and he will take the others out in a stroller when he has the time.
The bunnies’ ages range from 2 months to 7 years, and they are all either rescues or offspring of rescues. He has not intentionally bred them, but because rabbits breed every 28 days, he says, sometimes a female gets pregnant before he can take a new male to get neutered.
Meyers picks up Snugabuns, a sandy-gray, 1-year-old rabbit with a white belly, the only one that allows Meyers to turn him on his back.
Snugabuns came to him through a friend whose friend was moving, and instead of taking Snugabuns with him, was going to let him go in the wild.
“They [domesticated rabbits] are used to being taken care of,” Meyers said. “They don’t really know about being outside. There are hawks, coyotes, and foxes, and stuff like that are looking for them.”
He said it’s unlikely Snugabuns would have survived.
Many of his rescues come with similar backgrounds. Mr. Rumples, an English lop-eared rabbit, was found on the side of the road in Walden. The Walden Humane Society contacted him because they don’t take rabbits, and now he is one of the therapy bunnies.
About six years ago, Meyers’ wife’s aunt moved to a nursing home. When he would visit her with the rabbits, everyone would stop him in the hall and tell him stories about their own beloved rabbits.
“It’s like everybody had a rabbit when they were young,” he said.
He started looking online for information about therapy rabbits and found an organization in Portland, Oregon, called Bunnies in Baskets, which certifies therapy rabbits.
Even though the six nursing homes he visits do not require certification, he had eight rabbits certified anyway.
“A lot of rabbits are not calm, or they’re jumpy, or they’re very skittish, and they don’t like to be held,” he said. “[To get your rabbit certified to be a therapy rabbit] you have to go to a vet and make sure that the bunny likes to be handled.”
On the Tuesday afternoon he visits the Promenade, he wears a shirt that says “Friends of the Bunnies” in Spanish.
“This one came all the way from Chile,” he said. “I got it for Christmas.”
Meyers has two Facebook accounts dedicated to the therapy bunnies that have gained something of a following. One is a public group called “some bunny loves you,” which has 1,555 followers, and the other is a page called “Joshua and the therapy bunnies,” which has 519 followers.
Through these accounts, he has come to know a lot of other people who, like him, love rabbits, and sometimes they send him things. He shows a wall hanging in his basement that a woman in North Carolina sent him of a rabbit sniffing tulips and holds up a small square box with Joshua written on the address label.
“Joshua gets his own fan mail,” he said.
In the group, he posts photos of the bunnies in costumes, doing therapy work, and little vignettes. One picture he posted shows a brown rabbit coming out of a Quaker Oats box with the caption “I put the coco puffs in the oatmeal.”
In his basement, he pulls out a bag of costumes he has collected for the rabbits’ photo shoots.
“Betty White has a nice Christmas outfit; Mr. Rumple, he’s got a nice hat for Christmas; Joshua’s got a pirate outfit, and he’s got hats,” he said, pulling out the costumes one by one.
He holds up a purse that Betty White, a New Zealand white rabbit, uses in her photo shoots.
“As long as it’s not done for too long, they’ll tolerate it,” he said.
While Meyers does all of the work for the rabbits by himself, he does get help in other ways.
Hannafords Supermarket donates about 9–10 boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables each week, and he gets discounts on hay and pellets from Northern Bear Pet Food and Supplies.
His vet in Otisville, Dr. Roeder, let him skip the three-year wait list to become one of her clients and gives him discounts on neutering services.
“If it wasn’t for my vet in Otisville, I would be in a lot of trouble,” Meyers said.
He looked into getting 501(c)(3) nonprofit status so he could, among other things, give college credit to interns in exchange for help, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through to get it.
“It costs about $1,200, and then you have to have a board of executives. You have to have a president, a vice president. Then you have to have a manifest of what you are, rules and regulations, … a lawyer to draw up all the papers,” he said. “We’ve been doing pretty good so far just being who we are.”
At some point, he would like to become a formal rescue center, but right now, he would just like some help with his therapy visits, so he can do more. At the nursing homes where the staff don’t help him out, keeping an eye on so many rabbits and seniors at once is a challenge.
“You get 20, 30 elderly people and everybody wants to hold a bunny, and everybody wants to talk to you, so it’s kind of hard to get around the whole room,” he said.
Right now, he visits five nursing homes, cycling through them on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the month.
Last October, he did a program at the Albert Wisner Public Library in Warwick where kids got to read to the rabbits, and he’s been invited back in May.
He would like to do more of that if he can find more interested libraries, he says, as well as more nursing homes.
“Life is short,” he said. “I just want to make people happy and spread some joy.”
He has also toyed with the idea of one day opening a rabbit café, like the cat café Meow Parlour in New York City. The cats roam around the café, and people can pet them while they eat and drink. He said rabbit cafes are popular in Japan, but he thinks this would be the first in the United States.
To contact this reporter, email [email protected]
Correction: The rabbits used to assist those with PTSD should have been described as “emotional support animals.” The Epoch Times regrets the error.