UC Davis Student Chapter Jumps in to Help Abandoned Rabbits

May 22, 2014
by Leslie Neely, Hanna Wachtel, and Sarah McPherson Buckenberger Mantovani

The rabbits, the day they were rescued.

It's hard to tell the story of the 27 luckiest rabbits in California without involving the multiple people and groups involved that helped to make their rescue such a success. It was a collaborative effort of so many good people and organizations that care so much about all species, not just the one(s) they tend to focus on.

In early March, second year UC Davis veterinary student, Leslie Neely,heard that a couple in Dixon, Calif. single-handedly rescued 27 New Zealand White rabbits who were dumped at a local landfill, and they desperately needed assistance. Leslie reached out to her network of veterinary students, which is how HSVMA student chapter advisers, Drs. Janet Foley and Nicole Stephenson, caught wind of the story. They called together chapter presidents Sarah Buckenberger Mantovani and Hanna Wachtel and said "let’s do this!" With the help of more than a half dozen different rescue groups, the rabbits were healed, neutered, housed and on their way to forever homes. This project had a huge impact on not just the rabbits, but on everyone involved:

“This project has been a roller coaster of emotions for me. From being initially heartbroken at the dire shape of these rabbits, to elated at the sight of each one on its way to a new forever home. What we were able to accomplish by working together has been amazing. Rescue organizations that usually focus on dogs stepped in to help, local businesses donated supplies and asked for nothing in return, veterinarians with barely a free moment of their own gave up weekends and evenings to assist, and students, in between studying for finals, welcomed these guys into their homes while they recovered. Together we sexed, separated and triaged the rabbits, eventually placed them in foster homes and got them all neutered. We are currently in the last phase of finding them all loving homes. It’s truly amazing to see that from 27, we have 5 left. These rabbits have touched a special place in my heart and I feel a sense of fulfillment and responsibility as I watch them heal and thrive in our care. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find enough people to help who felt the same way. What I found is that it doesn’t matter the species, and when the call went out that animals needed help, that call was answered.”

-- Leslie Neely, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2016

“With limited pet rabbit experience and our clinical year only weeks away, I was hesitant to take on project of this size. However, our HSVMA-SC club members were ready and willing to commit to these rabbits, so we set about on our rescue mission.

Despite my initial trepidation, this project turned out to be a great experience for our club and a success for the rabbits. We were able to quickly foster the rabbits out into homes, and students—including myself—were able to learn firsthand about rabbit husbandry. Many of us were surprised about how much fun and interactive a rabbit can be

I believe this experience provided me with a better understanding of rabbit husbandry needs as well as the challenges and benefits of owning a pet rabbit which I hope to pass along to my clients. Not to mention performing surgery and anesthesia under the direct guidance from experienced veterinarians has made me much more comfortable working with this species, and hope to utilize these skills in the future. With the collective efforts of our HSVMA-SC club members and foster homes, we were able to significantly improve the lives of these rabbits and help them transition into their forever homes.”

-- Hanna Wachtel, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2015

“When I first saw Leslie's email about 27 abandoned rabbits that needed help, I honestly didn't finish reading the whole thing. It just seemed too large to take on. For starters, finishing my 3rd year in vet school had been hard enough; the thought of taking on this huge of a project was a little mind-numbing. Not to mention that as vet students, we probably get a few emails a week of very sad stories about animals that need help. It's really hard to know where to draw the line and realize that you just can't help them all. But Leslie was persistent, and after the 3rd email pleading for help, I thought back to why I had wanted to be a veterinarian in the first place. It was so that I could step in during times like these and actually make a difference where I could. It didn't matter that I had no hands-on experience with rabbits, I could tell that there was someone on the other end of this email who did, and who was ready and willing to do whatever she needed to in order to make a difference in their lives. I also knew that I had an outstanding co-president who may think I was crazy for getting involved, but who was also probably on the other end of her email trying to figure out how to help as well. When I stepped into my advisers office and saw both of them reading the same email, I knew it was on—we were about to be up to our elbows in rabbits, and I couldn't wait!”

-- Sarah McPherson Buckenberger Mantovani, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2015

Veterinary student, Maris Brenn-White, spending time with one of the rescued rabbits. Handling the rabbits also helps socialize them, which will increase their chances of getting adopted.

How did it all get done? With help from:

  • House Rabbit Society, who gave us a generous grant to help buy supplies for surgery
  • PitsRUs dog rescue for temporarily housing most of the bunnies
  • Western Ranch and OxBow, who donated food and housing supplies
  • Solano County Animal Services, who helped in collecting and rescuing the rabbits from the field near the trash dump
  • Volunteers from multiple organizations who went out to the rescuers’ house every weekend to treat and check on the rabbits
  • Fix our Ferals Fairfield for donating surgery supplies
  • The UC Davis Laboratory in Infectious Disease Ecology, who supervised and helped perform the rabbit surgeries
  • The UC Davis Center for Health & the Environment, who graciously let us use their surgery space
  • More than a dozen veterinary students who took rabbits into their home and are still working tirelessly to find them all good homes!

No one has asked for anything in return, except to know how all the bunnies are doing and when they all find forever homes. This experience was a moving example of how different organizations can come together and achieve the unthinkable.

All photos courtesy of the UC Davis HSVMA Student Chapter.



In 2007, Leslie Neely decided to leave her career in Human Resources and pursue a career in veterinary medicine. She completed her undergraduate prerequisites at UC Berkeley while volunteering for San Francisco Bay Area shelters and clinics. Leslie is currently in the class of 2016 at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and hopes to focus on rabbits, dogs, and cats – specifically geriatric and animals with mobility issues. She also plans to continue volunteering her time to shelter rabbits, a population she believes is underserved.




Hanna Wachtel is a veterinary student in the 2015 class at University of California Davis. Prior to veterinary school, she worked in wildlife rehabilitation and exotic and small animal medicine for over ten years. After graduation, Hanna plans to return to small animal medicine as well as continue her efforts in bringing veterinary medicine to underserved communities, both locally and abroad.





Nearly six years ago, Sarah Mantovani made the decision to leave her 12-year career in marketing in order to pursue her passion for working with people, animals, and science. After graduation, she plans on continuing with her current volunteerism that focuses on and benefits animal shelters and field medicine organizations, such as HSVMA-RAVS. Sarah's passion for shelter and field medicine is tied to seeing first-hand the difference a shelter veterinarian can make in the well-being of animals and their family members in a resource-constrained setting.