Thu February 20, 2014
St. Louis Rabbits Live A Therapy Dog’s Life With A Mardi Gras Flair
Some St. Louis rabbits are working like dogs – as service and therapy animals. On Sunday, one will also don another hat – more of a crown, really – for the Mardi Gras Pet Parade.
It’s not uncommon to see service dogs assisting vision- or hearing-impaired individuals. But a St. Louis woman named Nisha Full Moon uses a Flemish Giant rabbit as a service animal.
The doctor of naturopathic medicine, who also has masters degrees in veterinary science and animal-assisted therapy along with several other advanced degrees, trained her own service rabbit. He lets her know about sounds in her home that she would otherwise miss because of her deafness.
“Smoke alarm, microwave going off, doorbell, any sound, he will alert me,” Full Moon told St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon.
Full Moon has 18 rabbits in all. Four of them are Flemish Giants. She's in the process of training another one as a service animal. They and some of her other, smaller bunnies also provide therapy and comfort to children, people who are ill and senior citizens.
One of them will head to Mardi Gras on Sunday – in a custom-made costume – to promote her fledgling organization. The regal green, gold and purple outfit was created by Lyn DeMoss of L Studio Designs, who volunteered her time and talent.
"How often do you get a request to make a costume for a rabbit?" DeMoss said.
The get-up also includes a kind of throne. It matches the beaded and bejeweled costume and fits into a double stroller in which the rabbit will ride like royalty.
"We went a little crazy but that's what Mardi Gras is all about," DeMoss said.
The costume was originally meant for Full Moon's own service rabbit, 17-pound Bruce Lee. But he's recovering from a fall so the slightly larger 20-pound Jane Eyre, who's in training to become a service animal, may take his place.
How many people does it take to dress a rabbit? On Wednesday, four assistants helped Jane Eyre when she came in for a fitting. She offered little resistance to the eight hands, the hat's loose strap and the shiny cape. When DeMoss' dog Blu tried to get in on the act, Jane Eyre did seem somewhat alarmed but Full Moon held her gently and offered comforting words.
"Relax, relax," she told the rabbit, who quickly if reluctantly settled back into the task at hand.
Fulfilling a Mother's Last Wish
When Full Moon’s mother was fighting cancer a few years ago, a bunny named Iorek, named for a Viking warrior, comforted her through chemotherapy and deep fatigue. It wasn’t long before Full Moon and her mother sensed a greater potential in the 23-pound pet.
Over a period of a year, she taught Iorek, and later Bruce Lee, to recognize some simple sign language – like the words for "oatmeal" and "apple" – and how to respond by wiggling an ear.
Before her mother died two years ago, she urged Full Moon to find a way to share her remarkable rabbits with others.
“My mother asked me to start the organization to train these rabbits for therapy and service,” Full Moon said.
Full Moon’s organization has a simple mission but a complex name: IorekSkAAt, pronounced EYE-or-ek-skate. It’s a combination of several words, including the name of her first rabbit, Iorek (who passed away two years ago); her mother’s initials, S.K.; and an acronym for “animal assisted therapy.”
Recently, Full Moon took the gray-coated Jane Eyre and a three-pound bunny with Siamese coloring named Buddha to Tower Grove Manor retirement community on South Grand. Residents like 91-year-old Marie Haggerty spent an hour enjoying their soft fur and calm presence.
“They’re so beautiful and so peaceful,” Haggerty said. “I love something like that especially at my age -- it’s wonderful.”
For resident Lucy Hamm, the rabbits’ visit was a belated present for a recent milestone.
“I just had a birthday. I was 106,” Hamm said.
Miss Lucy, as many call her, was intrigued but cautious as she contemplated the creatures before her, one as large as a toddler.
“[They’re] soft, tranquil -- are they mean? I wouldn’t want to get too close,” she said.
As Miss Lucy studied the rabbits further, she reminisced about the menagerie her son used to bring home from his grandmother’s, not only rabbits but dogs, cats and chickens.
“My son used to tie a string on the chicken’s leg and take him for a walk,” she recalled.
The retirement center rabbits experienced only gentle pats and appreciative words. At one point, Jane Eyre jumped from her stroller to perch quietly underneath a table of residents.
As Full Moon calmed Jane Eyre down, she explained that rabbits hardly ever make a noise unless they’re frightened or in pain. On this occasion, any of Jane Eyre’s concerns must have been mild, given that she uttered no sound at all.
Eighty-nine-year-old Gertrude Myers, who recently lost her sight, enjoyed running her hand over the smaller rabbit’s back and head.
“Is this his little ears? she asked. “Aw, he’s so tiny. It’s just a good feeling to know you’re able to touch and feel his little heart beating.
Miss Lucy soon also warmed up to the rabbits and invited Full Moon and her volunteers to return: “You girls come back to see us. Bring the rabbits too.”
Looking to Expand
Full Moon’s wants to expand her efforts and eventually train more Flemish Giants to become service animals for others. IorekSkAAt is working toward its 501(c)3 status but is able to accept small donations from private donors and individuals. Full Moon hopes to build a new home for her rabbits.
Jane Eyre is a particularly intelligent rabbit, Full Moon said, within a breed that’s already known for its unique ability to learn.
An example of Jane Eyre’s training was illustrated during our interview. As we sat on the couch, Jane Eyre began to show interest in a cable attached to the audio recorder.
“Sit, stay, do not touch the wire!” Full Moon said firmly, several times, while signing the same message with her hand over the rabbit’s face. While Jane Eyre’s eager eyes remained fixed to the cable, her mouth and and paws remained still, resisting the urge to chew and grab.
Then Full Moon praised Jane Eyre for her obedience: “Good girl, good girl."
Find Out More About Service and Therapy Animals
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
Upcoming Mardi Gras events
Feb: 22: Missouri Lottery Run For Your Beads 5K
Feb. 22 & 23: Southern Comfort Taste of Soulard
Feb. 23: Banfield Pet Hospital Kids & K-9s
Feb. 23: Beggin’ Pet Parade and PetSmart Wiener Dog Derby
Feb. 28: Mayor’s Mardi Gras Ball
March 1: Bud Light Grand Parade
March 1: Bud Light Party Tent and Bud Light Concerts
March 4: Fat Tuesday Parade on Washington Avenue- Downtown
Soulard Mardi Gras