What’s up doc?

Dr Gerry Skinner
Dr Gerry Skinner is just mad about rabbits. Photography: Eamon Gallagher

Despite the bad PR rabbits receive in Australia, they remain a very popular pet—and Dr Gerry Skinner is their champion. By Frank Leggett

Dr Gerry Skinner may be the only vet in the world who only sees rabbits—a lot of rabbits. At her practice, The Rabbit Doctors, run out of the Centre for Animal Referral & Emergency in Collingwood, VIC, she treats over 2500 rabbits each year.

“I don’t think people realise how popular rabbits are as pets,” says Dr Skinner. “Despite this, rabbits are still not treated the same as other pets. The laws that apply to minimum housing and welfare standards don’t actually apply to rabbits. In Victoria, it is mandatory to microchip dogs and cats but not rabbits.”

A large part of the problem is that rabbits are seen as feral and vermin in Australia. When Australian farming is struggling, the ills of the industry are often blamed on that introduced pest, the rabbit. In Queensland, there is a fine of up to $44,000 for keeping a rabbit as a pet.

“The only way you can obtain a permit to own a rabbit in Queensland is if you’re a magician,” says Dr Skinner. “Which makes me wonder how many ‘magicians’ there really are in Queensland? The problem is that people simply can’t tell the difference between wild rabbits and domestic rabbits. Sometimes people mistakenly release their pet rabbits into the wild. Unfortunately, most rabbits won’t last more than a day or two. They’re just not capable of surviving out there.”

While Dr Skinner doesn’t downplay the problems wild rabbits can cause, they are a very different animal to a domesticated pet rabbit. “An indoor, desexed, vaccinated rabbit is no threat whatsoever to the Australian landscape,” she says.

One of the myths that Dr Skinner is trying to correct is that rabbits make great children’s pets. There is a belief that rabbits love to be picked up and held, they’re easy to look after, cheap to own, they can be kept in a hutch in the garden and you just feed them carrots. 

“That’s all completely wrong,” says Dr Skinner. They’re actually very complicated animals, even more complex than cats. A vaccinated, desexed rabbit can happily live indoors. I live in an apartment and I have nine rabbits. They’re litter trained and they come when I call them. It’s very important to house, feed and treat them appropriately.”

Early career

The path Dr Skinner took to become Australia’s rabbit doctor is a twisted one. Originally from the UK, her first degree was in archaeology and she spent many years working as an archaeologist and forensic anthropologist. She completed a doctorate on human skeletal remains and taught at the University of Bristol. 

Dr Skinner vividly remembers the moment she received her PhD in 1997. “The last thing is an oral exam and then the examiners say, ‘Congratulations, you’ve got your PhD.’ At that moment, my first thought was, ‘I never have to do another exam in my life.’ My second thought was, ‘Hang on, I’m not finished yet’.”

One week later, Dr Skinner was on her honeymoon with her new husband. She chose that moment to tell him she wanted to change careers. She had owned rabbits since she was seven years old and thought that being a vet might suit her better.

“I went to a local vet clinic and they let me do work experience for a week,” remembers Dr Skinner. “I felt like I’d come home. It was just the most incredible experience. I knew this was what I was supposed to do.”

Dr Skinner applied for vet school at the University of Bristol, the same university where she was teaching archaeology. At the same time, she was appearing on television on shows like Time Team and despite her infamy in the archeological world, she was accepted to vet school. Dr Skinner graduated in 2003.

Australia bound

Dr Skinner worked in a few mixed general practices in the UK where they soon realised she was mad about rabbits. At one practice she persuaded a few local breeders to get all 200 of their rabbits vaccinated. On top of this she was performing about five rabbit surgeries a week. Eventually she started an exotics qualification but her husband was offered a job as a paediatric cardiac anaesthetist at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

Dr Skinner recalls an important conversation with her husband. “I remember coming home from work one day and he said, ‘I’ve had a job offer in Melbourne; what do you think?’ And I said, ‘Let’s go.’ That’s how we decided to emigrate.”

On arrival in Melbourne, Dr Skinner discovered Australia has a really sound basis in emergency and critical care. She put the exotics qualifications on hold and instead gained ECC qualifications.

“I ended up running an animal emergency centre with a really wonderful team,” recalls Dr Skinner. “However, after many years of 80- to 100-hour weeks, I was feeling burnt out. I took my long service leave to have a think about what I was going to do.”

“We do have a very active Facebook page with 10,000 members from around the word. There’s a big rabbit community and they all like to talk to each other.” 

Dr Gerry Skinner, owner, The Rabbit Doctors

Dr Skinner also used this time to do a lot of rabbit charity work with various organisations, including Rabbit Run-Away Orphanage from where she had adopted her first Australian rabbit, Elvis. She was also in contact with the Big Ears Animal Sanctuary in Launceston, Tasmania.

Eventually she contacted a friend, Dr Guy Yates, who runs the Centre for Animal Referral and Emergency in Collingwood and proposed a rabbit clinic offering 24-hour critical care and emergency services. Five years later the clinic has six vets, six nurses and Dr Skinner is seeing 2500 rabbits a year.

“Between us, the rabbit doctors probably see in excess of 5000 rabbits a year,” says Dr Skinner. “Every time I get a new vet to help spread the load, we just get busier—and we’ve never advertised. We do have a very active Facebook page with 10,000 members from around the word. There’s a big rabbit community and they all like to talk to each other.”

Big ears

In 2012, a rabbit meat farm in Tasmania was put up for sale on Gumtree. Big Ears Animal Sanctuary, some other animal care organisations and a lot of individuals—including Dr Skinner—came together, donated money and bought the farm.

“We purchased all the rabbits, all the equipment and closed it down,” says Brett Steele who founded Big Ears Animal Sanctuary with his wife, Jacqui. “Suddenly we had 300 rabbits, some of which were pregnant and all of which were in poor condition. They had been kept inside in cages and there were a lot of abscesses from fights and wounds on feet from living on steel wire. All of them needed to be treated with antibiotics.”

Initially they were treated by local vets from Launceston as Dr Skinner was unable to get away from work. That was soon to change.

“There was a video posted on the Big Ears Facebook page that showed these big white rabbits being released into a fenced paddock,” recalls Dr Skinner. “They had never seen daylight or grass before. The tears roll down my face every time I see that video.”

Dr Gerry Skinner
Dr Gerry Skinner examines a rabbit’s ear with an otoscope. She says ear disease is one of the most common—and challenging—problems she treats in the many rabbits brought to her clinic, especially those with lop (droopy) ears.

Six months later another group of volunteers flew over from the mainland and this time Dr Skinner was among them. She brought and administered vaccines for hundreds of rabbits and examined each animal individually. This has been happening every six months since then and the number of volunteers has grown to about 60 people, including vets and vet nurses.

Big Ears Animal Sanctuary is entirely run on donations without any kind of government support. They are unique in that no-one earns a wage, everyone is a volunteer. Somehow, they manage to look after 500 animals on $120,000 per year. Obviously, there’s not a lot of money to throw around.

“Gerry and all the other volunteers pay their own airfares, pay for their own accommodation, and supply their own medications and vaccines,” says Brett Steele. “All we do is provide a beautiful, fully vegan barbecue lunch for them. It’s become a bit of a highlight of our working year.

“Gerry maintains contact with the sanctuary throughout the year. She also presents rabbit talks for the AVA in the Launceston area. She is upskilling the local vets and nurses on all matters rabbit.”

Mental health

It’s common knowledge that the veterinary profession has a terrible record in regard to mental health. A lot of people are struggling and the suicide rate among professionals is way too high.

“One of the ways I maintain my mental health is through charity work,” explains Dr Skinner. “It’s good for the soul. You get so much more out of it than you put in.”

Dr Skinner also works with a company called Platinum CPD which offers continuing veterinary education courses. Two years ago, it helped her set up the first rabbit expo in Melbourne. There were three streams available—a vet stream, a nurse stream and an owner stream. The next rabbit expo is scheduled for November this year in Melbourne.

“I can promise a really informative event,” says Dr Skinner. “We have brilliant lecturers, a variety of rabbit doctors and a lot of crazy rabbit people. It really is a good, fun day. V

The Rabbit Expo is running on 2 November 2019 in Melbourne. Visit www.platinumcpd.com


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