TOGETHER WE CAN PREVENT THE PREVENTABLE: HELP PROTECT DOMESTIC AND WILD RABBITS
In Winter 2020 my world changed with 10 characters: COVID and RHDV2.
Everyone was just becoming affected because of COVID while rabbit hemorrhagic disease outbreak in the Southwest United States began. Both foreign diseases arrived at nearly the same time and both were rapidly spreading.
Although there was immediate national press about the rabbit disease, to many it felt like something "over there" and the one and done news stories confirmed that attitude.
To most people I spoke with, they didn't see the connection of why it would potentially affect them. Either they didn't live in the area of an outbreak or they personally didn't have a pet rabbit that could get sick. But both premises are skewed. Humans are a main source of transmission -- our cars, our shoes, our pets, our outdoor activities. Every person is the key to stopping the spread. Plus this disease could wipe our a major rung of the food chain in our ecosystem and that means starving predators looking for food in new places. So it starts with us.
Watching both diseased was like watching a nightmare in slow motion while wishing that somehow the ending could be re-written if we did something now.
But it would take nearly everyone working together.
The Peacebunnies are healthy and in a voluntary quarantine through December -- the virus can live on surfaces for 90+ days without a live host. Gotta do what we can to keep these precious bunnies safe. It was so hard to cancel our programs at senior homes. We have contracts with over 40 sites right now each month. Ugh.
OUR PREPARATION PAYING OFF
Since the beginning I'd been on a mission, virtually tracking the spread of this almost-always fatal foreign disease that infects and kills domestic and wild rabbits. Mapping. Reposting details on a website that was designed for youth and for lay-people, sharing primary documents from federal and state agencies. Calling agencies. Calling nonprofits related to rabbits, trying to figure out best practices and trying to add my energy to it. No one person was going to fix this. But with all our indoor events cancelled for COVID, I could devote time.
From its first major eruption in the Southwest United States in winter 2020 -- about the same time as COVID --a group of us in Minnesota have been planning and preparing, upping our biosecurity plans and saving money for vaccines just in case, making posters for the State Fair, talking to 4-H groups across the country. We prayed the virus would be contained and then basically fade away. We needed a veterinarian to sign off on any vaccine purchases and a closer friendship with Dr. Megan Schommer began.
Although I started bugging our Minnesota Board of Animal Health to import the foreign vaccine, their answer was the same here as it was across the country: wait until RHDV2 is confirmed in your own state. Those decisions are way above my paygrade. So I chose to focus on preventing spread and preparing for vaccine, not mimic the freak out reaction I saw in other states. Once you're in a hot spot everyone sprints to make a large scale plan that takes weeks to months to implement, partly because of the funding plus the import time for the vaccines to get ordered and imported from France or Spain. I started petitions. I wrote an Op Ed that turned into a story in the Pioneer Press. People needed to know. And act. Before it got here.
While COVID warranted the top billing in the news and there was plenty to learn for the successes and missteps. What if you knew about the severity of COVID before it was everywhere? What if you could have kept COVID contained? What would we have all chosen to do differently if we knew back then what we know now?
I watched the toilet paper chaos at the stores as people shopped and hoarded and reacted to the COVID outbreak. I kept dreaming that somehow we focus on prevention because the precautions helped for both.. Sometimes you just need to feel like you're doing something meaningful --even if it's just busy work to start with --because it feels crushing to just sit by and watch the slow wreck. Grandma said that the next paper shortage would be for tissues.
The COVID quarantine of humans did help the rabbits -- for awhile. It slowed any potential spread at "hoppy hours" for pet rabbits, at rabbit shows because events were cancelled. ARBA -- the American Rabbit Breeders Association - recommends no rabbit transport or events within 125 miles of a hotspot of a confirmed case for at least 60 days. It's not mandatory but a best practice.
A fast scroll of Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist proves that not everyone was aware and potentially that not everyone was willing to change.
Like many other pets, people across the country bought rabbits in record numbers to deal with quarantine time at home, followed by record numbers of abandoned pets, increasing risks again.
Vet clinics across the Southwest have been diligent, hosting vaccine clinics and rabbit groups have been determined to share information in real time about hot zones and quarantines and biosecurity improvements.
By spring 2021 the rabbit shows and events began to resumed, as did people's travel to and through hot zones. According to Dr. Greg Sukovic from the MN Board of Animal Health during a zoom call this week, the most likely cause of transmission to Minnesota was a family who went hiking through several national parks in California, a current hot zone. Although not definitive, that is the most likely cause of spread to their own pet rabbits upon return from their trip out west. We're so sorry for that family's loss.
MY TIPPING POINT: Watching the spread to domestic rabbits over the past year was almost too much to bare as people posted photos and stories unfolding in real time. The uncertainty of what to do, who to call. The waiting to find out if it was isolated. The fear of spread. The feelings of blame and shame and guilt and anger. The reactions from others. The decisions about how many to euthanize. The panic to get vaccines. The vaccine day cancelled because the shipment's temperature wasn't maintained. The escalation of tensions and blaming and fear. So many questions. In one of the Facebook groups devoted to sharing RHDV2 information, my mom came across a photo of a young boy in Phoenix who was holding and weeping over his bunny about to be euthanized. Something inside me broke.
That's IT. Whether or not my efforts would ever amount to anything tangible, I committed to researching the disease and trying to focus on prevention through education and vaccine distribution (if we ever got approval). That became my way of coping, my therapy to get through this.
I began calling and email vaccine companies begging their leadership to create a vaccine that could be made and approved in the United States. "No one vaccinates rabbits." "There won't be any demand and it's not worth the money invested in research." "Maybe it won't get that bad here to warrant all the fuss."
Oh you don't wanna downplay the fervor of people who care for their pets.
I sent more letters. I left messages. I tried to get people to listen and understand that there will be a national demand and it might be too late. People WILL vaccinate their pets if they are facing an almost-always fatal dance with this disease that causes massive internal bleeding.
A nearly-crippling dread developing in my heart.
There is no wonderful way to ever say goodbye to a pet, but knowing there was a chance to prevent that death and doing nothing -- that was just too much to bear. I felt like I was talking to walls, but then chose a different approach, I decided that my calls would be prayers and that the people on the phone would just get to listen in on my conversation with God. No conversation with God goes unanswered even if the people on the phone don't respond how you want. I found peace in the process and timeline while I waited for the people who have authority to act choose to act.
A Unified Plan
The rabbit world operates mainly in silos -- pet owners, rescues, homesteaders who raise for meet, youth education programs like 4-H and FFA, breeders with show rabbits, preservationists, wildlife rescue, animal assisted interventions like education, therapy, crisis response, therapeutic activities like visiting prisons, senior homes. And somehow we needed to get all the groups working together. Without everyone taking this seriously, another group's lack of attention could open the door.
One day after the confirmed case, on Oct 1 the USDA approved an American-made vaccine through an EUA (emergency use authorization). Medgene Labs in South Dakota has been working on. I'm not sure what tipped the scale for their involvement but the response has proven that yes people will vaccinate their rabbits.
OPENING A CLINIC
We have scheduled a mass vaccination clinic option in the Twin Cities with location before it was confirmed. Although we had worked hard to devise a plan, we now needed to implement it. After no outbreak during show season and the state fair we were caught off guard on the timing.
We needed to recruit 20 vets/vet techs from different clinics to work together -- and they stepped up. So did UMN Vet students. So did volunteers from various rescues and rabbit groups. It's remarkable. We filled with 400 rabbits in less than 4 hours. Within 24 hours we had over 800 pre-registered and we needed to pre-order more vaccines. For October 30-31 weekend we have rented an airplane hangar in South St Paul for hundreds of families bringing their pet rabbits. They'll return Nov 20-21 for a booster vaccine and continue building immunity. Other clinics are offering vaccines to their clients this month too -- everyone doing the very best job the can in every which way they can to try to protect the rabbits in their care.
We hope our clinics helps fill the gap for those who don't have a vet relationship yet or who have large numbers of rabbits. We're excited to have other sites springing up too.
No one person could make this come together, and that's the most amazing part.
www.RHDV2.com for vaccination information.