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Health Team

Meet the bunnies that helped people survive 2020

Posted February 20, 2021 4:02 a.m. EST
Updated February 20, 2021 7:59 a.m. EST

— It's National Love Your Pet Day on Saturday, and a couple animal buddies in particular are earning their snuggles. Rabbits Finn and Budgie are more than just lovable companions — they provide their owners with emotional support.

"So many people think of cats and dogs when they think about emotional support from an animal in their life. And I think many people would say that they get all those same benefits in their relationship with their rabbit," said Anne Martin, executive director of the House Rabbit Society, an international nonprofit animal welfare organization headquartered in Richmond, California, that helps bunnies find homes and live their best lives.

While rabbits can make great emotional support, they shouldn't be brought into the home as a pet for only this purpose, Martin said.

Just like cats and dogs, she said, rabbits have a wide range of personalities. Some enjoy their independence, and others might be more needy or affectionate.

"I would just want people to make sure that they would want the rabbit even if they felt like they weren't medication," she said.

Finn, who rose to college celebrity status over the past year, and Budgie, who has helped one woman live through Parkinson's for more than a decade, have supported their owners through some of life's biggest challenges.

Finn the big red bun

Erin Scannell said Finn, her 2-year-old Holland Lop, was her perfect match.

"He's quite the character actually," she said. "He's also probably the most loving animal I've ever owned. ... He's just obsessed with me."

Often his curiosity will get Finn into predicaments — like jumping into a box that is too big for him to get out of. When Scannell comes home, Finn loves running up to the door to "chin" her — which is the term describing the bump bunnies will give to something, or someone, they want to "claim."

Finn has been an integral part of Scannell's mental health journey, which began her freshman year of high school, when she was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

"I was super shy, like extremely shy, I didn't talk to anyone," she said. "And it was hard — really, really hard for a while."

Now, Scannell has been in therapy for at least five years, and during that time she was able to work toward a point where she was able to open up more, especially during her first year at the University of Delaware.

Then she was given the opportunity to transfer to Cornell University in upstate New York. As an animal science student, she was thrilled to participate in its program, which has ranked in the top three in the nation.

"It's a program that I couldn't say no to, and it was always my dream," she said. "And it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I thought it was going to be an easy transition, but the classwork here was insane."

The transition brought on some intense symptoms of anxiety for Scannell, including panic attacks during the night.

Her therapist offered a possible solution: Adopt a furry friend. Scannell got Finn in February 2019 and her doctor helped her certify him as an emotional support animal — that allows him to live with her in places he might not otherwise be welcome.

"Finn was the perfect reason, I remember her saying, for me to always come home at night and not spend all day at the library, working myself crazy," she said. "I was able to go home because there was someone who needed me at home."

Finn hasn't only helped her mental health; Scannell said he has become a support for the whole community through his Instagram page. At nearly 7,000 followers, his handle, @BigRedBun, was a play on a slogan for Cornell's sports teams.

Finn's social media has created a way for students to connect with the campus and see it through his perspective while they are away and unable to socialize in person due to the pandemic, Scannell said.

And by starring in her Valentine's Day cards, Finn helped Scannell raise $2,252 for a good cause. She sold 500 of the bunny-grams to students and their parents at the university. The funds are going to Cornell EARS, the campus peer-counseling program — a community and mission Scannell said Finn has supported since day one.

Taking care of each other — through Parkinson's and arthritis

Jean Mellano of Greenport, New York, and her life partner, Steve, loved their rabbits Snoopy and Budgie very much. After her husband's passing in March 2015 and Snoopy's death three years later, she spends most of her time with Budgie now.

Seven months after the loss of Steve, Mellano was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Mellano said Budgie has been invaluable in allowing her to live with Parkinson's, a brain disorder that affects the central nervous system and limits movement.

"Because I've got Parkinson's disease, sometimes I'll get into these pity parties, and I'll just get on the floor and start crying and he'll come over and kiss my face," she said.

When Budgie was younger, he would often do what rabbit owners call a "binky" — when rabbits run, jump and twist in the air — what Mellano calls an expression of "pure joy." With this move, Budgie has always been able to bring a smile to her face.

Now, Budgie, recently diagnosed with arthritis, is nearing the later years of his life at age 11. The binkies of his youth are expressed with a much more subtle movement — a head nod — as he is limited in mobility like his owner.

"I wake up in the morning to him and it is great, because I'm not alone," she said.

Moved to tears, she reflected on the value Budgie has brought to her life. "He took care of me and now I'm taking care of him."

Rabbits have something special to teach humans that other pets might not, Mellano said. While they can become extremely affectionate, it takes time to bond with them and earn their trust. In a world where instant gratification is constantly sought after, Mellano said Budgie taught her "patience is a virtue."

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