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Soft sighs, satisfied snorts and even brief hints of a relaxed snore fill the small therapy room this Saturday morning. These are satisfied massage clients who know all too well the value of being touched, even if they can't tell us so in words. They do tell us with behavior. Suki doesn't tense up anymore when he's massaged. Robby doesn't bury his head in fear. And Cocoa no longer kicks and fidgets during the session.
These massage recipients -- some 150 strong -- are "guests" at the Colorado Chapter of the House Rabbit Society, an organization devoted to rescuing abandoned and abused rabbits, providing them necessary medical care and finding them good homes. It's a labor of love for Nancy LaRoche who has nothing but devotion for her bunny visitors.
And it's devotion that's needed for this responsibility as LaRoche's commitment to the animals has exposed her to their many stories of horror and abuse. Her solution to help these fragile critters mend from their physical and emotional wounds? Massage. As the result of an affiliation with a nearby massage school, student interns get to practice their craft, while the rabbits reap the benefits of caring touch.
Just like their human counterparts, these furry massage clients have many reasons to receive bodywork -- not only for relaxation, but also post-surgical rehabilitation, a combatant to the effects of trauma and abuse, and as a socialization tool. The time the rabbits spend getting massage increases their comfort and trust toward humans and their subsequent chances for adoptability.
It's evident that massage helps these bunnies, but this success doesn't make their stories any easier to hear. Take Trooper, for example. Near death when he was rescued, Trooper survived literal torture from neighborhood children. Rescuers were unable to save a badly damaged eye, but the little white bunny pulled through. "He's the sweetest rabbit I've known," said LaRoche. To add insult to injury, Trooper has been stricken with a degenerative disorder that is attacking all his systems and organs. Even though he's lost most of his motor control, Trooper responds tremendously to the massage sessions.
For Robby, massage is a reminder of good touch and comfort. He needs it. Purchased as a child's pet, Robby was mauled by the family dog and left to drag his hind leg behind him for a week before being taken to a veterinarian. LaRoche was called to take the animal into her care. Unfortunately, it was too late for the mangled leg, which had to be amputated. Today, Robby sits comfortably in the lap of his massage therapist, enjoying the attention.
The stories, sadly, just get worse. There's the bunny bought to feed a python, but rescued before the reptile could work up its appetite. There are the bunnies dumped in fields to fend for themselves before being rescued by caring neighbors. And there are the "Pueblo" bunnies -- animals who endured the most horrible conditions imaginable.
The Pueblo moniker describes thousands of bunnies who lived and died over a 10-year span. The group of animals began with one small bunny (a mini lop) purchased by a woman living in Pueblo, Colo. She thought it would be a fun idea to breed the bunnies, not understanding rabbits reach sexual maturity at 2 1/2 months. They only need one month for gestation, and an average litter is 10-12 bunnies.
The Pueblo bunnies started out in the house, went out to a garage-size shed and then eventually were "given" the home by the owner who moved elsewhere in town, but returned to feed and water the animals. Ten years later and life for these mini lops had changed drastically. When the scene was uncovered, there was four feet of manure throughout the home and ammonia levels were so high that hazardous material precautions were taken.
After years of "survival of the fittest," these rabbits had a tough road ahead. Nearly 50 of the rabbits were put in the care of LaRoche. Extensive medical care was the first order of business, after which the Pueblo bunnies started going through socialization skills, specifically receiving massage to make them comfortable with humans and make them happier animals.
One of those Pueblo bunnies is Suki, and today, Rhonda Reich, the animal program coordinator at the Boulder College of Massage Therapy, is giving him a massage. "He was so stiff; tight as a rock," said Reich of Suki's first session. "After the first massage, he turned into a puddle." Since then, Suki has become more accustomed to being touched, hopefully allowing him greater chances for adoption.
Reich and her group of student interns visit the Rabbit Society facility several times each semester. Their job is to give touch where it is most needed. After the students' arrival, LaRoche walks past the cages of rabbits, picking and choosing who's in most need. For today's group, there are many: one bunny is recovering from surgery and is working through aches and pains; another was brought to the shelter the night before and needs special attention; others are still discovering how to be friendly again.
Rabbits are brought back and forth from their cages as each therapist quietly works with the bunny on their lap. Some of the therapists struggle getting the animals to relax; other rabbits know what to expect and are eager for their turn. A series of strokes is applied to the rabbits, with the students always addressing any specific needs the animals may have. Covered in hair, the students try to work with as many rabbits as they can in the allotted time, knowing they could always do more.
An important element massage offers to these bunnies, outside of the obvious need for touch, is one of companionship, even if for just a short time. "They bond with their partner for life," said LaRoche, and when they don't have a mate, the rabbit often will put that attachment onto their human. She explained that when these animals (which really should be purchased and raised in pairs) are abandoned, their hearts are broken. A half hour being massaged is a reconnection to that past attachment.
One of the most important pieces to any type of animal massage is the intention with which you approach the animal. Reich said it's important to approach the animal client, whether it be bunnies or horses, with a completely different psychology than human clients. "How do I make sure the animal is comfortable? How do I make sure intention is known? I have to convince the animal this is a good thing," she said.
It's obvious the students enjoy this part of their curriculum. The love and attention they give the rabbits is palpable. They chat quietly about the work, staying focused on their clients all the while. They share moments: "I just got kisses." "I got bunny drooled." "He's out." They compare notes on bunny reactions and behaviors. They quietly giggle when one of the clients drifts off into a snoring slumber. And they work on their SOAP notes together, recording the work they just performed and the results.
In the end, the bunnies aren't the only ones who benefit from the massage sessions. "Working with animals helps your work with people," said student Harmony Brown, obviously hitting a chord with classmates. "You have to be more intuitive," furthered Amanda Wedow. "The animal can't tell you what's wrong." Chris Capitelli said the energy with animals is different than with humans. "You have to ground yourself a lot more with animals," he said. "It really helps me in my other sessions."
Animals are very straightforward, said Reich. "With animals there's no fooling. If they feel something and they want to let you know it, they do. They are very unpretentious." As evidenced by the satisfied sounds emanating from this therapy room, what the bunnies are saying today is very clear: "Massage is a good thing."Karrie Osborn is the former editor and current contributing editor of Massage Bodywork magazine.