If you stroll through the Amherst town common on any given weekend, there’s a good chance you’ll see 15 to 20 rabbits hopping around, surrounded by a small crowd of student admirers.
The bunnies are owned by Ruth Higbe-Harrah and Angel Guzman, who bring them to the town of Amherst every weekend. The owners notify the community of their appearance in the area through image posts uploaded on their Facebook page, “Cotton Ball Bunnies.”
Higbe-Harrah is originally from Minnesota, where she began rescuing bunnies when she was a kid. As soon as Higbe-Harrah graduated college, the first thing she did was adopt a pair of bunnies and bring them with her when she moved to the East Coast three years ago.
Angel Guzman, a Puerto Rican truck driver who works for Graybar Electric Company, met Higbe-Harrah and her bunnies in the Forest Park of Springfield in 2019, while he was taking his own bunnies out for a stroll. Higbe-Harrah had two bunnies with her at the time: One was a Netherland Dwarf, and another was a Polish and Lionhead Mix Rabbit. Angel was also the owner of two short-haired rabbits. Unfortunately, shortly after the two met, her Netherland Dwarf died of lung cancer, and the Polish and Lionhead Mix passed away due to old age.
“I actually met Angel because he was in the park with bunnies. We started doing that every weekend and just meeting up with our bunnies. Eventually, we ended up actually raising the Angora [Rabbits.] I moved in with him so we could be roommates and both take care of the bunnies,” said Higbe-Harrah.
The co-owners now have 30 English Angora rabbits, around 20 of whom are albino.
Higbe-Harrah spoke on how she and Guzman take care of the bunnies. “They mostly eat hay so we just buy a small bale of hay,” she said. “And then they just eat palettes and leafy greens, so we just get different herbs and vegetables from the grocery store for them. They like fruit as treats.”
One thing that the co-owners have to be cautious about is breeding among the bunnies. “There was one point where one of our unneutered males got in with our females and then all of a sudden we had like five litters at once,” Higbe-Harrah recounted. “That was stressful.”
Another challenge that goes with it is the cost of spaying. These bunnies are listed as exotic pets, so it costs around $300 to spay each. “We pay for these costs out of our pocket. Neither of us have kids. We just think of them as kids we’re raising.”
The two are also concerned about the contagion of RHDV-2, a rare disease that has been getting more common among bunnies.
Higbe-Harrah explained that baby bunnies also pose other challenges. “Babies are higher maintenance — you have to watch your steps to not step on them at home,” she said. “Things like that.”
In the winter, there are also obstacles to getting the bunnies outdoor time. Higbe-Harrah noted one solution she and Guzman came up with. “Sometimes when [we are] in Stanley Park and then in the winter when the parks are wet, we will just bring them in their stroller to like two different malls and walk around,” she said.
During her time off from work, Higbe-Harrah also teaches the bunnies tricks with strollers and carriers. She also potty-trains them, and tries to train them to stay within a certain radius of [the two owners] and come back when called. “They know how to jump into [the stroller] and usually [when] we have the carriers put down for when we’re packing up, they’re just getting into the carrier's themselves,” she added.
“They feel safe whenever I stay near so they kind of want to stay nearby and then if they do go exploring a little too far we just kind of herd them back to the area we’re in.”
Typically, setting up an area where people can come and have fun with pet animals takes time and demands money from those who are interested. However, Higbe-Harrah and Guzman make playing with rabbits a zero-cost experience for people. “Tons of people come each time we visit, and they definitely seem therapeutic,” Higbe-Harrah said. “People feel just distracted from whatever they might be stressed about. Lots of oxytocin and serotonin are released.” Higbe-Harrah said, referencing the biology knowledge under her belt from her major during college days.
To many’s amazement, Higbe-Harrah and Guzman’s bunnies are far from being shy or getting intimidated by people. “We started bringing them out to the parks from such a young age — usually from when they’re three weeks old,” Higbe-Harrah explained. “So from the very beginning, they’re exposed to lots of people [and become] accustomed to it and they’re affectionate.”
Some of the bunnies that the pair owns are up for adoption. Many adopted the bunnies to be family pets. Many are researchers from the STEM field who have done thorough research to understand what owning bunnies entails. “We definitely want to make sure they don't end up in cages,” said Higbe-Harrah. “We encourage people to if they’re not just loose in the house to at least have an exercise pen so they have plenty of space to move around and exercise.”
They ask for $100 for one and $150 for a pair. “We strongly recommend that they adopt a pair so that they have a friend.”
Guzman and Higbe-Harrah also said that the bunnies enjoy the time they get to spend in the park. “They probably get really excited when they have a whole park to run around in with lots of space,” she said. “I think they are really happy playing here.”
Higbe-Harrah noted that bunnies “binky” — a movement native to them in which they jump straight in the air whilst quickly twisting their head, hind, or both — whenever they’re on cloud nine. She also explained that the bunnies show they are happy when they rub their teeth together, adding: “If they’re off on their own, and then they just like really dramatically flop over — that’s something they do [when] they’re happy.”
Back in Springfield, Higbe-Harrah used to have a part-time job where she supported people with illness. Now, she said that the bunnies are the biggest supporters of her mental health. “Anytime I’m sad or anytime I’m feeling down for whatever reason, just snuggling with them always helps,” she said.
When a bunny in the family passes away, Higbe-Harrah and Guzman always have them cremated and their ashes spread at a small pet memorial, while donating their bodies to a small animal hospital. In giving away their organs for medical reasons, Higbe-Harrah hopes that doctors and scientists can look, learn more about the cause behind these pets’ diseases, and eventually help future rabbits with the same condition.
Guzman, the other half of the bunny duo, seemed more quiet and reserved, always trying to show the kids the proper ways to touch the bunnies without scaring the animals off.
“These bunnies are like kids. Carrots are candies for them. Apples, bananas, and berries as well,” Guzman said, “I only reward them with carrots and other fruits one or twice per week, especially during the weekend.”
Since the academic year started, the rabbit co-owning friends have received many requests from students asking them to come to town. As of now, they spend their time at the Amherst Commons every Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m until 6 p.m.
As a residential counselor at a group home for LGBTQ+ youth, Higbe-Harrah often brings her bunnies to her workplace, believing they will help strengthen education and build positivity for the children. Higbe-Harrah shared: “Something that they look forward to and they’re always asking me, like, ‘When’s the next time you’re bringing in the bunny?’”
One perk of raising these bunnies, according to Higbe-Harrah, lies in their abundant provision of fur, which can be used as a fiber. “Typically they’re raised for their fiber rather than as pets like we have them. You can sell their fur, and it’s really valuable to people who make yarn and stuff like that.”
“I just need the furs to be like two or three inches long [to sell them]. I usually just wait for them to grow out, and then I brush out the loose hair and keep it. Once they get too long, I’ll just use the scissors and cut it and then sell it.”
Pointing at the yarn hat that was covering her head, Higbe-Harrah said, “I’ve just spun their fur into yarn myself. Like this hat I made from their yarn store now. This I blended with already dyed sheep’s wool, and then the white is just natural bunny colors.”
In the next few months, Higbe-Harrah is moving back to Minnesota to work for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and to pursue a graduate degree in biology.
“If you work for [the clinic] for a year and commit to working for two years after, they’ll pay for your grad school. That’s kind of what I’m hoping to do: to go there and work in a lab or something with the undergraduate degree I already have and then apply for that program they have and apply to grad schools.”
She is planning to take five to six bunnies with her, and the rest will stay with Guzman.
When asked about his own future with the Angoras, Guzman said he would keep taking the bunnies to the public parks. “It will definitely be a bit more to handle alone, now that the number of bunnies is expanding. But I have no problem with that. I love taking the bunnies here.”