Can Bunnies Play? A Deep YouTube Investigation - Atlas Obscura
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Can Bunnies Play? A Deep YouTube Investigation

Bun Bun, a creature we seek to understand.

Bun Bun, a creature we seek to understand. (Image: Amanda Engle/YouTube)

It’s been a long year, filled with tragedy and heartbreak, but balanced somewhat by the gift that keeps on giving—incredible animal videos. No 2015 list would be complete without the inclusion of a new classic, titled “Bun Bun, Destroyer of Leaves!” The basic action is sublimely simple: a human throws dry leaves on a bunny, and, over and over, the bunny flings herself through them, like a skateboarder off a rail, or a soccer goalie going for a top corner shot.

But these 50 glorious seconds bring up unanswered questions. It’s an oddly emotional video. What is going on with the bunny, cognitively? Can bunnies really play games like dogs, cats, or other more traditional companions? What does the bunny know and when does she know it?

The video begs for a close reading; we need to find out exactly what this this bunny was doing, thinking and feeling. 

Faced with this display, we did what any investigative journalist would–called someone who knows a lot about bunnies. Our expert today is Nancy LaRoche, founder and manager of the Colorado House Rabbit Society and co-author of Rabbits: Gentle Hearts, Valiant Spirits. LaRoche has been rescuing, placing, and living with bunnies for 24 years. Below you will find a transcript of our conversation, time-stamped for your convenience. Let’s begin.

0:00 First things first–is this bunny playing? Do bunnies play?

Yes, absolutely! They’re incredibly social and intelligent. Most of us see rabbits in pens or crates or something like that, and they just look like they just sit there, and they don’t attract our interest. If you put a human in that kind of environment and left them, we wouldn’t last very long. We would seem dumb to people that came by, because we wouldn’t be getting any mental stimulation or social stimulation. But when you have them in your home–as long as you rabbit proof and things like that–they can be just great. They play, they interact with you, they’re like a family member. They’ll even use a litter box.

0:02 We can assume from the bunny’s clear investment in the situation that this video starts midway through playtime, so we’ll have to fill in the blanks here. But in your experience, what inspires bunnies to play? Are there certain things that get them in the mood?

There are. One aspect of that is their sleep cycle. They typically sleep from midmorning through the afternoon, so of course during that period of time, they don’t really like to be bothered. That’s one of the reasons that rabbits make terrible pets in schools–a rabbit should never be in a classroom. They’re most active at dawn and dusk in nature, and they modify that slightly so that they’re most active around breakfast time and then again in the evening. A lot of people have their rabbits out in the mornings when they’re getting ready to go to work or school and the bunnies may run around the breakfast table and beg for Cheerios and things like that. Then in the evening as they’re allowed around the table, they’ll be begging for bits of salad. They love when the family gathers, whether they’re watching TV or doing homework or whatever, and at that point they sometimes will initiate play. 

  

0:10 The bunny now runs into the corner of the cage in order to get into the path of the leaves. This seems like the opposite of a normal prey response–prey animals typically run away from threats, not towards them. So this leads me to ask, do you think the bunny sees the leaves as a threat, or as something else? 

I think it’s just experience. The first time somebody threw the leaves at the bunny, she probably thought “What’s happening!” and panicked. And then it didn’t hurt, and it was kind of fun feeling it just fall around her, and it became a game quickly. They learn to trust certain people. In general, if people have not worked with the rabbit, the rabbit is going to be primarily fearful and cautious… but it’s amazing how quickly some of the rabbits suddenly realize that there are some people who are friends, and they can trust.

0:14 Here the bunny stands on her hind legs and waggles her front paws. I didn’t realize rabbits could stand up on their own–why do they do that?

I think it’s a way for them to get higher than the weeds around them or the grass, to see further and see what’s out there. They tend to like to go up high.

0:20 The man throwing the leaves scoots around the fence. Is the bunny aware that she’s playing with someone? Do bunnies prefer to play alone, or with humans, or with other bunnies? 

We always place them in pairs, because the wild European rabbit, which is what our domestic rabbits are descended from, bond for life. They raise babies together and all of that sort of thing–they’re not at all like native cottontails in this country. The domestic rabbits inherited all of that social and intellectual ability. 

This couple had adopted a pair from us, and the bunnies had grown fairly elderly, and the female was a little debilitated, she couldn’t get around very well. The human mom came in with treats, and the male rabbit stood up, took the treat from her, ran it to his wife, and went back over and got his and then they sat there and ate together. It’s things like that—people get accustomed to seeing a rabbit in a small crate or hutch, and they don’t get to express themselves that way. But when they’re in your home and they run around and interact with you, you get to see a whole lot more what they’re like.

0:28 A very impressive move here–the bunny refuses to get faked out and only jumps when the leaves are thrown and maximum payoff is possible. This leads me to wonder, can rabbits be trained to be better at their favorite activities?

One thing I have to say right away is, I do not like contests for any animal–if it’s trying to see how high a rabbit can jump, people keep trying to push them higher and higher until they end up getting injured. I do like the ones where there’s not that aspect and it’s just done for fun. They have some really cute obstacle courses, and rabbits can learn to do that.

Clicker training is a really good way to train rabbits to do almost anything you want. We had one adopter who, the day he got his rabbits, he started clicker training them. One of them would stand on their back feet and walk, and the other would stand on his back feet and hop, or they’d run in circles. They would even use the litter box on command.

0:32 Here there’s a pause in the action and I can’t help but notice the swinging rope on the fence. If this were a different small animal (say, a cat) they would obviously be attracted by very different parts of this situation. What kinds of toys and play interest bunnies?

It’s just amazing to me the things that bunnies will do. A lot of bunnies like to sit with their human dads and watch football. They love things like cardboard and paper to chew on. We often get a box and cut a couple of holes in the sides so that they could go in and out. it doesn’t take them more than a week or so to just about destroy it. Throwing games–we’ll toss something to them, and they’ll try to toss it back. It usually goes sideways, but they understand what they’re doing.

via GIPHY

0:39 Here the bunny does get faked out a little. What sense is paramount in terms of letting her know what’s going on? Sight? Hearing? Smell?

Their sense of smell is incredible, it’s very very good. Their sense of hearing is extremely good. Their eyesight is primarily to spot predators at a distance—motion and things like that. I don’t think their eyes play as much of a part in play as much as other senses do. They can’t judge distance–those of us with two eyes in one plane can judge distance, but animals whose eyes are on the sides of their heads can’t judge distance. You’ll sometimes see them bobbing their heads or moving them back and forth, and they’re using parallax to get some idea of what’s closer and what’s further away. I think that influences some of the way they play.

0:45 At this point it seems like the bunny could likely play forever and everyone would be fine with it. Can a bunny learn a game? Would this bunny be excited for Leaf Cage Match Part Deux with this guy?

I’ve seen a cat and a rabbit where they became friends, and the rabbit discovered what chasing was. And the cat would chase the rabbit, and the rabbit would turn around and chase the cat. It didn’t come naturally, but they learned how to do it. And they learn from each other. We often have bunnies that come in, and we always give bunnies some toys, and a bunny who has never been introduced to toys will look at it like “What on earth is this for?” But then they see other bunnies playing and they catch on. 

0:51 In this video overall, laughter is omnipresent. Why is it so much fun to play with bunnies?

I’ve always felt that rabbits get bad press. Over the years, there have been cliches like “dumb bunny,” things like that, that would lead you to expect them not to be much of an animal, but they are incredible. But you’ve got to get to know them.