The Easter season is often associated with baby animals, from cute yellow ducklings to fluffy bunnies. And some families are adding these cuddly critters to their kids’ Easter baskets.
But Southern California duck and rabbit rescue centers have a message for them — don’t do it.
They’re warning people not to fall for the yellow feathers or little cottontails and make these critters their new pets. Soon after spring ends, the newborns’ cuteness wears off and the reality of caring for a live animal sinks in.
“People see the Easter Bunny, cute baby ducklings and chicks, and suddenly they want their own,” said Lauren Blunk, an exotic veterinary technician at Care Animal Hospital in Temecula. “It’s usually a spontaneous decision, and sometimes they can’t afford the care that’s needed.”
Each year around this time, rescue centers and sanctuaries are overwhelmed with domestic birds and rabbits — many with health issues — that were abandoned in the wild or surrendered by the former owners. It’s a year-round problem that worsens in spring when the babies are born or hatched and breeders are selling, rescue founders said.
They’re encouraging people not to buy ducklings, bunnies, chicks, or any baby animals if they can’t properly care for them.
“They’re babies for a couple of months, and then they grow up,” said Howard Berkowitz, who runs from his home The Duck Pond of Lake Elsinore, one of a few domestic duck sanctuaries in the Southern California region. “People think (ducks) stay these cute, little yellow things forever. They don’t expect them to grow so fast.”
Breeders and feed companies said they offer tips on the animals’ care and encourage buyers to do research, so customers know what they’re getting into before it’s too late. But those who run rescues and sanctuaries said more awareness is needed.
Berkowitz said 90% of domestic duck purchases are impulsive, from families wanting to buy one or two for their kids. They often come from feed stores such as Tractor Supply Co. or Kahoots, which often promotes the sales.
“They want people to walk in like, ‘Oh my God, look how cute that baby duck is! It’s only 5 bucks!”
But ducks take up space at home, children grow older and life gets in the way.
Sooner or later, families no longer want to care for the “messy, quacking, sometimes high-maintenance” ducks, Berkowitz said. He’s cared for injured ducks left in tiny apartments, and has too often found them abandoned near bodies of water — such as the Temecula Duck Pond — with mallards and other wildlife.
But a domestic duck — which typically lives up to 10 years — is not accustomed to living in the wild, where they are prone to starvation and predators, Berkowitz said.
The Lucky Duck Rescue and Sanctuary in Sun Valley also grapples with the situation.
On its website, the Los Angeles County facility called duck dumping an “astounding and overwhelming” problem. Ducks are being mass-hatched with breeders, in school classrooms, or being sold as “temporary Easter basket toys.”
Though it can’t take in every injured or abandoned duck, the organization said it is “going after the contributing sources of this ongoing atrocity to have the behavior stopped once and for all.”
“I am heavy-hearted about the situation,” owner Carol Chrysong said. “My little rescue is a bottle cap trying to catch a tsunami of ducks.”
Karen Oren, a spokesperson for Tractor Supply Co., said in an emailed statement that the company emphasizes “proper poultry care” to customers and provides a sheet with best-practice tips and instructions for the animals’ care. The company — which has eight stores in Southern California and others across the nation — has shared blogs about how to raise ducks. It maintains an online Chicken Learning Center with reading materials on brooding, housing, feeding and the life cycle of chickens.
“This is a responsibility we take very seriously…” Oren wrote. “We take every precaution to protect the health and welfare of the animals in our care before and after the purchase, from certifying our hatcheries to educating our customers.”
Tractor Supply partners with hatcheries for poultry. It sells live chickens, ducks, turkeys and other birds online year-round, and in stores during Chick Days in the spring and fall.
Representatives for Kahoots, which has pet and feed stores throughout Southern California, did not respond to requests for comment.
Sometimes the rescued ducks have lingering health issues, from bumblefoot bacteria infections to severe malnourishment, and the care is costly.
Berkowitz feels the financial strain.
In 2021, he spent nearly $36,000 on food and medical expenses for over 100 ducks, including the well-known all-white, orange-billed Pekins and Khaki Campbells. A duck surgery can cost hundreds of dollars, and today there are fewer duck sanctuaries and options for exotic veterinary care, Berkowitz said.
While working to make his duck sanctuary a full-fledged non-profit organization, Berkowitz is fundraising to build a bigger, permanent home for the ducks near his Lake Elsinore house, where he built a 1,000-gallon pond in his yard. He’s been fined by Riverside County code enforcement officers for having birds — including ducks, geese, parrots — in a non-rural neighborhood. The ducks have destroyed his yard, but Berkowitz said he would save as many as he could anyway.
“Why have I spent seven years saving all these animals, when people will just let them go back into the wild?” Berkowitz said.
While rabbit rescues are more common in the region, owners of the facilities said they have more abandoned rabbits year-round than available foster homes. Though adopting “Easter” bunnies is more common in spring, it’s not long before families realize they’re a lot of work.
Caroline Charland founded The Bunny Bunch in 1984. The non-profit group has since into an adoption and education center, with two locations — and about 300 rabbits being sheltered — in Fountain Valley and Montclair, that serve Southern California.
People often get rabbits as hand-me-down pets, or from swap meets or online breeders, Charland said. Selling non-shelter rabbits in stores is illegal in California.
Though some owners rescued bunnies during the coronavirus pandemic, many were quick to give them away to shelters once virus restrictions lifted. Charland has heard every reason — from moving away or going back to work, to the high cost of care.
She’s rescued and cared for just about every bunny breed, from 2-pound dwarf rabbits and the red-eyed New Zealand white rabbit, to the floppy-eared Holland Lops and Flemish Giant rabbits that can grow as big as a dog.
Rabbits are generally not good pets for children because they don’t like being outside too long or carried, and typically live between 10 and 15 years, Charland said. They are also “big chewers” with the ability to damage homes and possessions.
“They can’t be caged or they get aggressive … they’re not a toy to be held; they’re a living creature,” Charland said.
“People don’t know how much real work a rabbit is, how expensive they are for vet care,” she said. “So they just dump them in random places, mainly outdoors where they can’t fend for themselves.”
Common health issues include broken legs or fractured spines, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, and emaciation. A new hemorrhagic virus, common in unvaccinated rabbits, also poses a threat. Some abandoned rabbits Charland has seen were from owners who didn’t want to pay the high cost of treatment, or to get their rabbits vaccinated, spayed or neutered.
Nancy Woolf, president of The Lucky Bunny Rabbit Rescue, runs an adoption center from her Murrieta home. She receives requests weekly from owners wanting to give up their rabbits, but there’s a big waiting list — and “the financial strain is being felt.”
“I tell people, especially if you have young kids, don’t get a bunny. The kids are terrified and it’s certainly not a happy life for the rabbit,” Woolf said. “A month or two after Easter, people will start to call … we can only take what we can get, and what we can afford.”
Though spontaneous duck and rabbit purchases might seem fun, many families aren’t cut out for the cute creatures.
A Tractor Supply Co. blog post titled “Ten Reasons to Not Purchase a Bunny for Easter” advises families to “only buy a rabbit if you think 10 years is not enough time with such an amazing friend.”
“If you aren’t sure, please just buy a stuffed animal, not a real one.”