Last month, at a picnic in the Salt Creek Forest Preserve in Wood Dale, Illinois, Jan Rebmann finally met Guinevere, the cotton-white Angora rabbit she’d scoured shelters across the midwest to find. No other rabbit would do, Rebmann said. It had to be an Angora.

Originally a gift for a nine-year-old girl, Guinevere was among this year’s crop of “Easter dumps,” pets that are discarded weeks or months after showing up in someone’s holiday basket.

“It’s a lot of work having an Angora,” Rebmann said, running her fingers through Guinevere’s tangled fur. “They need haircuts every six weeks. You have to brush them every single day, and even so they just mat up after a while. They have to stay indoors with the air-conditioning.”

Rabbits like Guinevere are called house rabbits–meaning they’re kept inside and use a litter box like a cat. Rabbit owners don’t get out much either–at least not together. Dog people congregate with their pets in parks and on beaches and at backyard barbecues. They meet for Saturday morning play groups, or, leash in hand, settle onto neighborhood bar stools. It’s not that rabbit owners are any less obsessed. But a rabbit is more of a reading-a-novel-on-the-couch companion–except for one Sunday a year, when the local chapter of the House Rabbit Society throws its annual BunnyFest picnic, a small, members-only shindig. Guinevere’s foster owner, a shelter volunteer in northern Indiana, met up with Rebmann at the Chicago chapter’s BunnyFest 2004 at the forest preserve to hand over the rabbit.

Rebmann’s rabbit infatuation began Christmas morning nine years ago with Angel, a tiny English Angora her husband tucked under the tree. “I had two dogs at that time,” Rebmann recalled. All around her picnickers, some leading bunnies around on leashes, were admiring one another’s pets, exchanging rabbit health tips, and helping themselves to potato salad and cupcakes. “And I said, ‘Oh no, what do I do with a rabbit?'”

But soon Angel had her own Web site, where her owner posted photos of her in a pair of gold wings, a little Santa hat, a ring-size halo. Rebmann volunteered to become a foster parent for shelter bunnies awaiting permanent homes, even agreeing to take in animals whose chronic health problems rendered them all but unadoptable. “It’s so hard to give them up,” she said. “I kept my first two foster rabbits. After that, I had to have the mind-set that I’m just bunny-sitting. Just bunny-sitting. It’s temporary.”

Two months ago Angel died of cancer. For Rebmann, it was the third such loss in just six weeks. At the picnic she wore a silver locket around her neck, where, curled behind a miniature photograph of Angel, she keeps a wad of the rabbit’s fur. A heart-shaped charm on another silver chain held a teaspoon or so of Angel’s ashes.

“I know a woman in Colorado who spins rabbit fur into hairpins or any kind of keepsake you want,” Rebmann said, hoisting the locket with one hand while balancing Guinevere with the other. “She can make anything.”

A middle-aged man standing nearby at the picnic snapped to Rebmann’s side. “Really?” he said. A name tag on his chest identified him as Bob. “I’ve got a whole boxful of fur from our rabbit–I’ve been saving it for a year. I guess I ought to get something like a pot holder made out of it, or a picture frame or something.”

“Well, she can do it,” Rebmann said.

BunnyFest is part vegetarian potluck, part fund-raiser, and part sales booth for rabbit-related trinkets. At last month’s party, the ninth such event, onetime shelter rabbits lolled in playpens on the grass. A handful of the House Rabbit Society’s as-yet-unadopted rabbits were there too, crouching in wire enclosures behind brightly colored signs advertising their friendliness, intelligence, easy temperaments, and excellent litter-box habits.

“The picnic is kind of a reunion of foster rabbits,” said Joan Irwin, comanager of the Chicago chapter, which takes abandoned rabbits from euthanizing shelters and animal-control facilities. Without a brick-and-mortar facility of its own, she said, the animal rescue group usually has 60 to 70 rabbits farmed out to temporary homes throughout the city and suburbs.

Nancy Neubaum, who shares her northwest Chicago home with five rabbits, chimed in: “Everybody gets together and shows off. There’s no rabbit parks, so we don’t get to see each other very often.

“Rabbits really are social creatures,” she continued. “They love to be with other rabbits. As much as you may love them, you can’t talk rabbit to them.”

But getting them to “talk rabbit” to one another can be an ordeal too. Rabbits are finicky creatures, says Neubaum, and fiercely territorial, even after they’re spayed or neutered. That’s why most every rabbit at BunnyFest stuck to its own separate, if proximal, playpen, and owners with leashed animals steered clear of other bunnies. The only rabbits to share quarters were those who bunked together at home. “But once they bond, they really fall in love,” Neubaum said. “They become very attached.”

A rabbit devotee for more than a decade and a veteran matchmaker, Neubaum has a fail-safe method for yoking a reluctant pair of bunnies: “Put the two of them in the backseat of a car with a litter box nobody has used and try to drive as recklessly as you can without getting a ticket–you know, sudden stops, hairpin turns. Take some gloves and a spray bottle of water to break up any fights. Pretty soon you’ll look and see a little huddled fuzzball in the backseat. They’ll run into each other’s arms. You know the saying, ‘Any port in a storm’? Well, any rabbit in a storm.”

In 1996 Neubaum saved a Nether-land dwarf rabbit whose owner was feeding him dog food. “Of all things!” she said. “There were two of them. One of the bunnies died before I got there.” The other one she named Snuggy (and promptly changed her e-mail ID to nancysnuggysmom). Snuggy ate for two days straight after his rescue.

“People just throw away rabbits,” Neubaum said. “They redecorate the house and the rabbit doesn’t match the carpet. Or the rabbit grows up and it’s not a cute bunny anymore. We find rabbits thrown away everywhere–in parks, parking lots, alleys. A garbage person came in with one he’d found in the bottom of a Dumpster in a cardboard box.”

Irwin too has many tales of atrocity to tell. Every night she washes and towels off Sadie, who was long ago declawed. Without nails, the rabbit can’t groom herself. Sometimes she has trouble balancing. At the end of every day she’s dirty and damp. “It’s like amputating the ends of your toes,” said Irwin, who got her first rabbit 20 years ago instead of a puppy and hasn’t looked back. “We found Sadie wandering in a park.”

According to Irwin, the chief problem is ignorance. People who lay down $35 at a pet store don’t necessarily know what they’re buying. That’s where the House Rabbit Society comes in.

“Our main purpose is education,” said Irwin, who’s dedicated the better part of a decade to recruiting House Rabbit Society converts. Ask her about her own four rabbits and she’ll tell you about the thousands of others that need to be rescued. “The reason a lot of rabbits get dumped is because people don’t realize how a rabbit thinks. A rabbit is not a dog or a cat. It’s a prey animal. Basically, rabbits trust nobody. You have to earn it.”

For many at this year’s picnic–parents, dog owners, and cat lovers among them–rabbits came as an unexpected obsession. That’s how it was for Joe Puetz, who years ago was happily collecting tarantulas and walking his dogs. Puetz (pronounced “pets”) brought his latest acquisition, Dexter Bunjamin, to BunnyFest. At 18 pounds the steel gray Flemish giant is too big for a rabbit cage, so he beds down at night in a dog kennel. A former show rabbit, Dexter was forced into early retirement by a layer of under-fuzz that doesn’t match the color of his outer fur. According to Puetz, the rabbit’s original owner wasn’t interested in a has-been. “See, when you blow on it, his fur turns a different color,” Puetz said, giving Dexter a puff across the back, revealing a layer of light gray fur under the surface. “That’s a DQ–a disqualification.”

Puetz saw his first bunny staring out from a cage in a pet store where he’d gone for dog food. “My wife said, ‘Oh, this one’s cute,'” said Puetz, who then picked up the creature, now named Elsie May Clampett. “And then I would not put her down. I just couldn’t.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lydialyle Gibson.