I schedule an appointment to play with bunnies hoping it takes the ease off existing during a pandemic. Marley, a black lop-eared bunny at Cuddle Bunny, hops around and evades my pets to nuzzle his playmate Moo. Marley licks his head as Moo burrows into his chest. I nudge my girlfriend and say, “That one’s you.”
Cuddle Bunny, a recently established business at 2901 N. Clark, advertises a variety of events centered around bunnies. The owner, Barbara Burdick, otherwise known as “bb,” came up with the idea after hearing a friend discuss the different animal cafes she visited in Japan.
“Initially, I wanted to make that a cafe and make this the bunny club part of it,” says Burdick. “After COVID hit, I was so glad I just did the bunny club. I would have been bankrupt if I had a cafe and no one was coming to the cafe.”
Many obstacles faced the official opening on June 22. Among the widespread worry of COVID-19, Burdick also stressed over Chicago riots and the vulnerable bunnies hiding in the basement. They eased their way into opening the place two weeks after the riots had settled, redesigning their business model to work with what they had.
“Enclosures were not our initial plan, but they help keep people socially distant and rabbits contained,” says Burdick about the three fenced play pens that separate the bunnies for customers to play with. “It serves a dual purpose. It provides a therapeutic, private, holistic experience for people because you’re separated and in your own space.”
“We had to wait until the riots died down before we let the bunnies get used to coming upstairs,” says general manager Maureen Warren, a lifelong friend of Burdick’s. “We had a very soft open. We put a sign outside and had a few customers, so they were able to ease into everything nicely.”
The two began discussing the idea in fall 2018 before Burdick signed the lease in June 2019. It took Barbara and her general manager Maureen a full year before they could move in. On June 9, they officially relocated 14 bunnies using every pet carrier they had.
“I made pillows during quarantine and facemasks for merchandise,” says Warren. “Then in April when things were lifting, we started road tripping to set everything up.”
The business started taking off after two people posted separate TikToks promoting the place. Following the viral videos, space was booked throughout the entire month of August. Suddenly, Cuddle Bunny was on the map.
“It was ten o’ clock in the morning, pilates ends, and the phone starts ringing,” says Burdick. “We didn’t have our online booking system set up yet, but we figured it out. Suddenly, the whole month of August was completely busy.”
Sophie Frieden’s viral TikTok centers around the Bunny Interaction experience. For $12/hour, customers can love, pet, and feed a variety of different bunnies. Cuddle Bunny boasts other special events as well, including Reading to the Bunnies, Bunny Yoga, and Halloween Movie Night. Of course, you can always create your own occasion, too.
“With a lot of our group activities, people are nervous about COVID, so we’ve started to offer group classes,” says Burdick. “You can bring six of your friends and do a tie dye party or poetry slam. We’re having girl scouts coming the first part of November for an educational event.”
Informing the public about bunny procedure is important to Burdick and Warren. On top of informing customers how to handle the rabbits while they’re there, the two have recently teamed up with the Anti-Cruelty Society in hopes people may adopt through Shelter Bypass, a program that would allow foster bunnies to stay at Cuddle Bunny instead of a shelter.
“The Anti-Cruelty Society said they’d like to do adoption events, so I’d like to do adoption/education events to let people know what bunnies eat and how they behave,” says Burdick.
“A lot of people think rabbits bite, so we’re trying to show people how wonderful, calm, great pets they can be,” says Warren.
Purple painted walls surround the warm room brimming with life, overflowing with love between bunnies and the people in their enclosures. A child reads to Gentle Giant, a gray, 15-pound rabbit, as her babysitter watches over her, gushing about how much they love coming here. Burdick waves goodbye and asks the girl if she wants a sticker before she leaves. As she leaves, Warren’s eyes begin swell. She covers her face, overwhelmed by the utopia she and Burdick have made together.
“It’s been a gift working here,” says Warren. “We’re helping so many people enjoy rabbits and educating them on how good rabbits can be. It truly is beyond my dreams.”