The were cuddly and cute, but they were also being used to earn money in a dangerous environment. Janhavi Gosavi reports.
On Saturday afternoons, Nixie and Oscar used to hang out by the rainbow crossing on Cuba Street.
They would hop around inside a raised tree planter, surrounded by honking cars, barking dogs and drunk pedestrians. Passers by would stop to cuddle them. Most were gentle.
Nixie and Oscar are rabbits.
Beside them was a money box and laminated signs that read: “Please pat us. Bunny therapy. Donations appreciated.”
Over the years the rabbits became local celebrities. An Instagram account and website advertised them as bookable for private events and therapy sessions. Capital Magazine even featured Nixie and Oscar in an Easter article this March.
But Nixie and Oscar weren’t licensed therapy animals. There’s no such thing as “bunny therapy”. What appeared to be wholesome mental health support was, in reality, glorified busking.
Their celebrity status invited debate — public opinion was divided about the rabbits.
The fans included dedicated rabbit-picker-uppers who found joy and reprieve in Nixie and Oscar’s company. One fan went as far as telling the rabbits’ owner they might have harmed themselves had they not regularly seen Nixie and Oscar on Cuba St.
But others disapproved of placing these fragile pets on busy, noisy streets and using them to raise money. Alongside cars, dogs and humans, exposure to Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus posed a danger to rabbits in public spaces. Introduced to New Zealand to control wild rabbits, the virus is lethal, non-curable, and spreads through insects, human clothing, and equipment.
After four years working the streets, the rabbits were surrendered to Wellington Rabbit Rescue in May 2023 and are currently in a foster home, awaiting adoption.
So, how did Nixie and Oscar wind up scrounging around for spare change on the street?
The rabbits were owned by Ben* and Oliver*, a couple who used to live in the Wellington central city, and who The Spinoff has chosen not to identify. In 2019 they started taking Nixie and Oscar on walks along Cuba St, where people would stop them and ask to pat the rabbits. After a while, people started giving the owners koha.
“That’s when it became ‘therapy’, because people had talked to Ben about how nice it was interacting with rabbits after a stressful day at work,” recalls Oliver.
Oliver was “always very uncomfortable” with taking Nixie and Oscar out regularly. At the height of their popularity, the rabbits were out every weekend and a few days during the week.
On a busy day, the rabbits made $100-$200 on Cuba St under Ben’s supervision. “I know because he’d get back and sit down and count it all,” says Oliver.
Nixie and Oscar were booked about once a month for private events. Ben charged $30/hr for an adult’s birthday party, $45/hr for a child’s birthday party and $150/hr for corporate events.
Wellington City Council regulates busking permits in the city. In May 2021, it granted Ben a temporary street permit on a trial basis which allowed him to collect voluntary donations for Nixie and Oscar.
The council claims it monitored the situation to ensure Nixie and Oscar had water, food, shade and a “stress free environment”. The trial permit wasn’t renewed.
A new Public Places policy implemented in July 2022 stated that performances involving animals “are not considered busking” and would not receive a permit.
Oliver remembers the rabbits being scared by people on Cuba St loudly playing music. He says they grew comfortable in sitting inside the garden beds because they realised that was the safest place for them. “That didn’t mean they were happy … there are dogs on Cuba St, so many fucking unknowns, it’s just not where a rabbit should be.”
Ben says that out of the “hundreds of times” he took the rabbits out, he “only recalled three negative interactions with dog owners”.
Kat from Wellington Rabbit Rescue spent four years hoping to rescue Nixie and Oscar. Wellington Rabbit Rescue is the longest-running rabbit-focused rescue in New Zealand. It’s a volunteer-based non-profit that takes in unwanted rabbits and educates the public about rabbit welfare.
When Kat first saw Nixie and Oscar on Cuba St, she remembers they had laboured breathing, which suggested they were stressed. She approached Ben, concerned about his rabbits. Ben remembers her having a “holier than thou attitude”.
“They were coming to me like they knew everything about every single rabbit on this planet, and saying that I didn’t know my animals … when none of them realise I grew up on a farm.”
Ben had never owned a rabbit before Nixie and Oscar. Kat had owned rabbits for 30 years and ran a rabbit-specific rescue.
“I wasn’t gonna listen to their crap… saying what I was doing was animal cruelty, blah blah blah,” Ben says now. “They can go to blazes.”
WRR didn’t go anywhere. Between 2019 and 2022, the SPCA received many complaints about Ben, at times getting multiple calls in the same month. Several inspectors were sent to monitor his treatment of the rabbits, but the SPCA did not find him to be in breach of the Animal Rights Act.
Members of the public raised concerns on social media for years.
In May 2022, a post made to the Wellington-based Facebook group VuW Meaningful Confessions called out Ben for being aggressive towards Nixie and Oscar. “I have seen him stomp at them with his shoe, yell at them and frighten them when they leapt out of the pen […] because apparently that’s them ‘obeying command’.”
The comments were flooded with disapproval. One rabbit owner was also worried that if someone picked up the rabbits incorrectly, they could “try to kick out and break their spine” in the process.
Ben doesn’t deny these accounts. “When you’re in public, you’ve got to raise your voice, especially when there’s tradies around using drills and that,” he says.
When asked whether he was worried that his rabbits were exposed in an area where construction was being done, Ben is adamant that he “wasn’t ever concerned for their safety”, though he admits there were many times Oscar had hopped out of the garden patch and jumped around the street.
Following his split from Ben in 2022, Oliver surrendered Nixie and Oscar to the rescue “to do right by them”.
Kat believes the rabbits were loved by Oliver and Ben but says the biggest issue they had was their “lack of knowledge about rabbits and their body language”. Rabbits are prey animals and they respond to danger by flighting, fighting, or freezing. That means if a rabbit is sitting still, it isn’t necessarily happy.
Happy rabbits are curious and will binky, which is when they shake their bodies mid-jump. Scared rabbits might withdraw from interactions, particularly when they’re being interacted with against their will.
It’s a game of subtleties, which makes it easy for people to misinterpret—or ignore—signs a rabbit is unhappy.
There are over 120,000 companion rabbits across the country. But there are currently no minimum standards for rabbit care in New Zealand, and the number of complaints the SPCA receives about rabbits rises every year.
The Animal Welfare Act (1999) does not cater for the specific needs of various species so the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) established Codes of Welfare.
These Codes contain species-specific information on handling, housing, nutrition, breeding, health, and more. Dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, goats, horses, chickens, pigs, deer, ostriches, and llamas are just some of the animals with their own welfare codes.
There’s no Code of Welfare for rabbits.
In 2021 SPCA collaborated with stakeholders like WRR to submit a draft Code of Welfare for rabbits to NAWAC. It’s been two years and the draft is still stuck with NAWAC. The code was discussed at the NAWAC General Meeting on 16 August 2022, where it was not addressed as “a formal priority”.
WRR says 80% of the abuse it sees is unintentional, caused by owners receiving “bad information” from rabbit breeders and pet shop assistants. A Code of Welfare for rabbits would serve as a reliable source of information that could prevent future abuse.
Another gap in the Animal Welfare Act is its lack of regulation or definition of what a therapy animal is. Animal therapy programmes have cropped up across the country and the SPCA is concerned with how unregulated they are.
WRR says these gaps in the Act “allow for purposeful misinterpretation by the owners”.
Despite Ben’s attempts to train Nixie and Oscar to be therapy animals, rabbits are not a suitable species for therapy because they are easily stressed, have fragile bones, and can suffer spinal injuries if picked up incorrectly.
Happy rabbits make for incredible companions. They’re gentle and energetic creatures with funny personalities and complex social lives. Their small size and silent nature has allowed people to dismiss their needs and write them off as being low-maintenance. Like Kat says, “rabbits are only ‘easy to care for’ when they are not being cared for properly.”