On a breezy day in mid-March, a few days before Easter, Mariah Bellaire sits in the John T. Washington Center and begins taking supplies out of her bag. Then, almost like a magician, she starts pulling out rabbits and placing them on a table.
Bellaire, a sophomore studying sports and exercise science, has been breeding rabbits for six years and estimates that she has bred over a hundred. She discovered rabbit breeding while showing horses at fairs through 4-H, a youth development program.
“I sort of fell into the world of rabbit breeding,” she said. “I discovered rabbits serve so many purposes, like meat, fur, wool and pets.”
Being around animals was not new for Bellaire. Her first pet was a bearded dragon, and she lives on a farm that has housed animals like horses, chickens and turkeys.
Right now Bellaire has 23 rabbits living on her farm and generally breeds two to four litters a year. Most of the rabbits live together in a colony with an intricate social hierarchy. As she bred more rabbits, Bellaire began to focus on studying their genetics.
“I started off researching the rabbits’ body types and how they inherit different skeletal shapes,” she said. “This year I’ve been focusing on the size and breadth between their vertebrae.”
Through her genetic research, Bellaire has reaffirmed that rabbits won’t grow taller or shorter than their parents and that body length is inherited easier in shorter rabbits.
She looked at publishing her research at UCF but found that it was too specific for undergraduate research. She has thought about furthering it in graduate school but is satisfied with sharing it with other breeders for now. There is a strong community of ethical rabbit breeders, such as the American Rabbit Breeders Association, which Bellaire is a member of.
Bellaire posts photos and information about how to take care of rabbits on her Facebook page, Bunnies at UCF. She also posts the dates and times when she brings the rabbits to school. Bellaire has been bringing rabbits to campus for over a year.
“I started bringing them to socialize the rabbits and give people stress relief,” she said. “I noticed people brought dogs for stress relief, so I thought, ‘Why not rabbits?’”
She has received a lot of positive feedback from students who interact with the rabbits.
“A lot of people say just looking at them makes their day better,” Bellaire said. “It makes me happy to see that.”
UCF student Tyler Dye, who stopped by the table to pet the rabbits, agreed.
“Seeing the rabbits made my day," she said. "I feel a lot less stressed. I was thinking about my grades, but now I’m thinking about bunnies!”
Bellaire used to sell some rabbits to people as pets but stopped after realizing that most pet owners don’t know enough about rabbits to meet their demanding needs and distinct personalities.
“As pets, rabbits are so affectionate, but they’re like cats — it’s all on their own terms,” Bellaire said.
For people looking to add a pet rabbit to their family, Bellaire recommends going to a rescue organization and carefully finding the right rabbit for your lifestyle.
“There are a lot of rabbits in shelters that need homes,” she said.
According to the House Rabbit Society, rabbits are the third most surrendered animals in shelters, behind dogs and cats.
The anti-breeding movement is huge, but Bellaire is steadfast in her practices. She says that people who are against breeding need to look more in-depth about what breeders are breeding for and where the rabbits end up.
“My rabbits don’t end up in shelters or neglected in pet homes,” she said. “And when I trade or sell them to other breeders, I make sure they have humane and ethical practices.”
The rabbit-filled holiday that is Easter is actually a tough time for rabbits. Bellaire explained that many people impulse buy rabbits for Easter presents and then don’t take proper care of them.
“A lot of the rabbits that people buy for Easter end up getting neglected for years and shoved into the corner of a room,” she said.
According to the Huffington Post, almost 80 percent of rabbits given as Easter presents are later abandoned to shelters.
After 45 minutes of having students visit with the rabbits, Bellaire packs up the supplies and carefully puts the rabbits back into their carrier case. While packing up, her eyes light up as she describes her hopes for continuing breeding in the future. She has aspirations to have her own farm with cows, goats and horses.
“I want to go bigger with this,” Bellaire said. “I want to really get into it and become more self-sustainable.”
For now, the sophomore will continue to educate and provide stress relief to the UCF students that walk through the John T. Washington Center, as well as taking care of her almost two dozen rabbits at home.
Isabelle D’Antonio is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.