Meet the bunny girl!

Diane Rogerson has sacrificed countless hours of her life, holidays and thousands of pounds to care for needy animals over the past decade - even buying them at market so they don't end up on a plate.

Steven Russell

Diane Rogerson has sacrificed countless hours of her life, holidays and thousands of pounds to care for needy animals over the past decade - even buying them at market so they don't end up on a plate. Steven Russell hears why she begrudges them nothing

THUMPERS, Diane Rogerson's one-woman rabbit rescue centre in Ipswich, is a picture of chilled-out contentment. Even Woody looks happy, thanks to finding a new lady-friend after his previous companion died. In many ways it's an unlikely pairing. He's a five-year-old dwarf lop; Bella's about 18 months old and a British giant. But they're getting on famously. Oh, and he's earless and tailless, thanks to his mum. She arrived at the centre heavily pregnant and gave birth that night, attacking her litter. It's a common phenomenon, says Diane, among anxious rabbits. Fearing the presence of young will attract predators, the insecure doe aims to remove all traces. Woody's mother killed five before her infanticide was discovered and the last three babies were plucked to safety. Woody was close to being victim number six, but escaped with his life despite losing bits of his anatomy.

“I could have rehomed him, from the sympathy angle, a thousand times over,” says Diane. He's got a funny way of showing his thanks, though. “I saved him, but he's the most obnoxious, ungrateful rabbit you could ever have! I looked after him from when he was that big, from day one - bathed him and reared him - and he hates me! He just doesn't like humans. A Victor Meldrew sort of rabbit - old before his time, bless him!

“Because she's younger, she's injected a little bit of life into him. He likes to follow her around.”

There, in a nutshell, is what Diane's been doing this past 10 years: taking in rabbits that need a new home, sorting out any health and behavioural issues and giving them plenty of TLC, and then finding a new owner to take care of them.

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About 2,300 have passed through since she opened on November 3, 1999, with three rabbits transferred from a full rescue centre. (The first to be rehomed was Willow, nicknamed Pillow because of a mass of white fur under her chest.)

The average stay is two or three months, which includes a minimum six-week assessment to see what the rabbit needs to be happy and healthy. “I have had some here a year, and thought 'Are they ever going to be rehomed?', but it just takes the right person to walk in.”

Is she sad when rabbits go?

“Can be. I've hardened up a lot - because you have to. When I started getting problematic ones - either physically or behaviourally - and spent a long time working with them, you develop an attachment. You must be made of stone if you don't. You see the transformation and they finally learn to trust you. When they're ready for homing, I have cried in the past.”

One whose departure brought on the waterworks was Ronnie, a male lionhead. “I was in bits,” Diane admits. But she recognises: “I can't give them what they ultimately need. I'm a stop-gap, purely - a foster parent. Long-term, if I kept them, I couldn't help any more.”

Diane has been an animal enthusiast for as long as she can remember, with “the typical - well, I don't know if typical is the right word - bedroom full of stuff. Rabbits, hamsters, rats - I love rats - budgies. In my defence, it was spotless”.

In the late 1980s, having left school, she applied on-spec to a pet shop in Norwich Road, Ipswich, and landed a job. Diane stayed until it closed about eight years later. “I had to slum it and go and work in retail!” she laughs.

In 1997 she got married and later had son Miles, now 10. “Within about three or four months of having him I thought 'I can't just do this full-time!' I needed something else.”

Perhaps a rabbit rescue operation would dovetail nicely with motherhood. She visited several, picking up tips on what and what not to do, and Thumpers was born.

After a few years it was looking after about 70 rabbits at any one time - a huge number, really, for a centre based in a residential back garden. Luckily, Diane had a team of volunteers coming in on Saturdays - often teenagers studying animal care - to share the load.

By about 2003/2004, though, those volunteers had largely moved on - as had she, with the birth in 2004 of Ethan. With two young children, it was difficult to juggle her limited time at the weekends, so Diane took the decision to scale back.

Nowadays there are usually about 20 rabbits in residence and she does the bulk of the work herself, with some assistance from the family. There are friends, too, who will help during open days.

Rabbits are taken in for many reasons. Change of circumstance - including having to move house and downsizing, perhaps prompted by redundancy or marriage break-up - accounts for a large number of arrivals, as owners are obliged to give them up.

Allergies are on the increase, too, and sometimes temperament means a rabbit proves unsuitable.

Diane enjoys the challenge of “reforming” the more aggressive newcomers. Working out what each rabbit needs, allied to a deal of patience, allows for most to be retrained. Neutering will probably help, as well as pairing them with a suitable companion.

It is a bit like matchmaking - “speed-dating, sometimes!” - she smiles. “You know you're genuinely making two rabbits, which have been single, happy - and, hopefully, homed as a pair.”

A rabbit with an aggressive streak might never fit the “cuddly bunny” stereotype and prove suitable for a home with children, but can still be a wonderful pet for someone happy simply to watch it contentedly mosey round the garden.

There is a lot of conflicting information out there, she says, including older books that reckon it's fine to keep two females or two males. “Time has told us you can't. What I know comes pretty much from looking after and observing X number of rabbits a day for 10 years - a major crash course, if you like!

“I started, really, with the cute, cuddly myth. The idea of putting a rabbit with a toddler . . . I'd rather put my dogs” - friendly Rottweilers - “with a toddler. Rabbits aren't suited to children under five, because they're not cuddly pets. The average rabbit doesn't want to be picked up. They are a prey animal, so if they're being picked up in the wild it's by a fox or another predator. That instinct about being lifted off the ground tells them 'instant death'. But if you have a little chair in the run and let them run round you, they'll often come and sit on your lap.”

Diane is not immune from a nip. She's been bitten “enough, but not as much as you'd think. You learn very quickly. You learn body language. If something's going to bite, I can usually tell and can avoid it.”

She displays a little scar from an encounter with a long-haired rabbit called Fudge many moons ago. “He hung on for dear life. He was a big thing and absolutely hated me! When he was homed, he adored his new owner. Every time he came back here on holiday, he would take one smell of me and launch himself at me. You can't please them all, can you!”

Diane's devotion to things Lagomorphan has seen her travel to livestock markets, seeking to outbid dealers looking to pay about 40p or so per rabbit for the meat. She hasn't bought any in 2009, but in the past it could be up to about 50 a year - bidding as high as �10 to secure the lives of some of them!

As a privately-funded operation, dare she imagine how much she's spend over the past decade on vets' bills, food costs and other necessities?

She exhales. “Thousands . . . thousands . . . probably on average . . . I dread to think . . . between �5,000 and �10,000 a year? It must be . . .”

Let's give a big hand here to Michael, who's helped make it all happen. The couple have been together 22 years and married for 13. He's more of a fish lover. “He really wouldn't have dogs or rabbits (if it were left to him), so bless his heart, he's very, very tolerant.”

Holidays? “Not often. As well as there being the rabbits to think about, I wouldn't leave the dogs. So if we go, it's usually to the Lake District - somewhere like that.”

Caring for furry friends has certainly involved major sacrifices, then. “There have been times, when Ethan was smaller, when I thought 'What on earth am I doing?'” admits Diane. “He was very full-on, and trying to run it alongside, without letting them down, or letting him down, was very, very difficult. But I enjoy it, and I'm looking forward to the next 10 years.”

Thumpers Rabbit Rescue: 01473 434902

The cost of TLC

CARING for needy animals doesn't come cheap. Diane Rogerson reckons the average young rabbit needs:

Vaccinations for myxomatosis (about �19 every six months) and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (annually, about �20);

Neutering - about �40-50 for a male and �60-70 per doe;

Worming - about �6, two to four times a year - and flea treatment.

A rabbit that needs more involved treatment - for a dental problem, say - will incur higher costs.

In an ideal world, when rehoming a pair of rabbits, Diane would need a donation of �150 or more to offset some of the outlay.

“I'm not going to get that,” she recognises. “No-one's going to walk through the door and say 'Here's �200.' But most people are very good. If a rabbit's coming in through a change of circumstances, they're usually very good and help out - getting the animal vaccinated before it comes in, or giving me a donation. So that's a godsend.”

New owners are asked to consider a minimum donation of �15, which would likely cover the cost of hay and food during its stay, “and, if there's been anything else, basically show them the receipts and look pleadingly for more!”

She digs out last month's vet's bill: �206.90. “I won't be showing that one to Michael!”

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