In the Cranberry Mall on a recent afternoon, a dozen or more youngsters clustered around a pen in the pet shop, fascinated by the soft, fuzzy bunnies on display. This past weekend, some of those children nodoubt found real, live bunnies in their Easter basket.
But Lois Szymanski of Union Mills doesn't view that as an entirely positive outcome.
"Often, people buy a rabbit because it's cute and cuddly, withoutthinking about the fact that it's a lifetime commitment," she pointsout.
When the charm of the new pet wears off, many rabbits face an ominous future -- they are released into the wild.
"Turning loose a tame rabbit is practically the same as killing it, " Szymanski says. "The tame bunnies don't know how to forage, and nine out of 10 ofthe ones released into the wild are killed by predators."
Szymanski and her family have many years of intensive experience with breeding and showing rabbits. They specialize in English Lops, huge, sweet-faced bunnies that look as if they just hopped out of the pages of a Beatrix Potter book.
Ashley, 8, and Shannon, 10, are members of the Carroll County 4-H Rabbit Club. They have many suggestions to offernew rabbit owners.
Shannon describes the correct way to pick up arabbit: "You can hurt a rabbit by picking it up with your hands under its stomach," she notes. "Big rabbits should be picked up by the scruff of the neck and supported (with one hand) under their rump. And you never, ever pick up a rabbit by its ears. That can hurt a rabbit bad."
Continuing with instructions on rabbit care, Shannon says: "Rabbits need feed and water once a day, although in winter you may have to water twice. The cage should always be kept clean. And make sure your rabbit has enough room."
She suggests that nest boxes with straw inside are a necessity for both male and female rabbits in winter, and for females when they are about to kindle, or give birth to their kits, as infant rabbits are called.
A female pulling hair from her neck is evidence of her readiness to give birth. The English Lops substantiate the belief that rabbits are prolific multipliers -- they have litters of between five and 10 babies. The Dwarfs, which theSzymanskis also breed, have fewer kits, usually between two and fiveto a litter.
Surprisingly, rabbits are easily housebroken, although their tendency to chew can be hazardous to furniture.
Ashley Szymanski offers some suggestions for the rabbits' diets.
"We buy regular rabbit pellets at Bowman's or Southern States," she says. "Oatmeal is one of their favorite treats, and we also give them raisins, apples and carrots. We feed the big rabbits sunflower seeds to keep their coats shiny, but the dwarfs get too fat if we give them sunflowers."
Lois Szymanski points out that, despite a commonly held belief, lettuce, spinach and grasses are not good for tame rabbits. In fact, Dwarfs have been known to die from diarrhea as a result of being fed lettuce, she says.
The Szymanskis usually have about 20 rabbits in the backyard hutch built by Daniel Szymanski, the girls' father. They limit their travel to rabbit shows within the area, although somemembers of the Carroll County Rabbit Club travel all over the UnitedStates showing their rabbits.
At the shows, rabbits are judged ontheir closeness to perfection for their particular breed. One point -- called a leg -- is given for each win, and three legs are requiredfor a grand champion.
"Once a rabbit wins grand champion, we retire that rabbit for breeding," Lois says.
The Szymanski's prize-winning bunnies are in great demand both for show and as pets. Whenever she sells a rabbit, Lois gives the buyer an application to the American Rabbit Association and information about rabbit supplies, care andfeeding.
For $5, children can join the ARA; they will receive a book about rabbits and a bimonthly magazine, Domestic Rabbit.
In addition, each of the 43 different breeds recognized by the ARA has itsown club and its own newsletter.
For information about rabbit clubs for both children and adults, call Catherine Rauschenberg at 795-2527 (home) or at the Carroll County Farm Museum, 876-6303.