For years, Bob Betts was known as the “bunny man” of downtown Raleigh. He took his pet rabbits on daily walks in their stroller. Pegasus and Thumper rode regally, tethered inside to ensure their safety.
Betts began struggling with mental illness in 2002. It wasn’t until he owned his first pet rabbit, Usagi, that he began to feel safe within the ranks of society.
He was open about his condition, writing about his bouts of panic and severe depression on Prose and Poetry, a website he founded. In a post titled, “My Rabbit Story – You’re not Alone,” he wrote, “I bubbled to my therapist about Usagi. I told him that my episodes of deep depression were less often now. It became apparent to both of us that Usagi was having a very positive effect on me.”
Betts also agreed to be a named source in numerous News & Observer articles in which his mental health issues were addressed. He advocated for rabbits as service animals, and was quick to talk about the ways in which bunnies make extraordinary pets.
Betts, 68, died last month from complications of lung cancer.
Pegasus and Thumper were taken in by Thea Rogers, a rabbit-owning compadre. The two enjoyed loading their furry friends in their strollers to hike the Neuse River Greenway Trail, or grab a slice of pizza in Clayton. She recalls how fun it was to have all four of their bunnies get together for play dates in her backyard.
“We were kind of like the preschool mothers sitting there, watching our kids play in the park and talking away,” Rogers said.
Rabbits brought him back
That Betts was able to chat away with anyone was nothing short of a miracle. He could not say with uncertainty what precipitated his mental illness, but in 2002 he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, and began suffering from panic attacks.
He went from sailing his 30-foot sailboat around the coast of Florida to being unable to work or leave his home. Betts had earned a degree in chemical engineering and served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during the Vietnam War, but his illness left him helpless. He moved from Florida to Raleigh to live with siblings, and began the lengthy process of securing disability payments.
Once he was able to live on his own again, he decided he would decorate his apartment with a bunny theme. A stuffed rabbit his sister once gave him had offered solace. His therapist suggested he try owning a real rabbit, and he adopted Usagi, a 1-pound, 12-ounce black Netherland dwarf.
“He had a personality that weighed several pounds more than he did. His favorite program was Animal Planet and he would sit and watch the TV for hours,” Betts wrote.
Usagi died, and Betts secured Pegasus and Thumper. When a friend gave him a stroller for his rabbits, he began daily strolls near his downtown Raleigh apartment. They proved life-changing.
“He took his rabbits everywhere,” said Lindsay Blackburn, founder of a Triangle rabbits meet-up group. “Many don’t handle that very well, but his always did. The rabbits really brought him back, I think.”
In 2008 Betts began volunteering at the Wake County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, spending hours everySaturday as a “bunny buddy.”
Here he met Beki Schmickley, a fellow volunteer. She said Betts was particularly good with children, including her granddaughter.
“He was always ready to get a bunny out that they wanted to touch and help them learn – it was a real educational program for him,” she said. “Bob’s loss is going to be really felt. The little children are already missing their best teacher.”
He clicker-trained his rabbits to do tricks, and wrote a booklet on his method.
“He wanted to show they were trainable pets, they were fun,” Blackburn said.
‘I get very nervous’
When the U.S. Department of Justice rewrote its interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2011, it specified dogs and miniature horses with special training as service animals. Previously, any animal could be considered for the certification. North Carolina’s law states that any animal can be considered a service animal, a point that Betts made sure to point out when he was occasionally prohibited from entering buildings with his bunnies.
“If you ask me to leave, I leave,” Betts told the News & Observer in 2011. “That’s part of my disability. I don’t make issues. I get very nervous. I think it’s better for me just to leave.”
The rabbits were a lifeline. “Otherwise, I’m scared to death of people; otherwise, I’d be a shut-in,” Betts said. “Since I’ve gotten the rabbits, they’ve increased my functioning.”
Rogers was able to bring Pegasus and Thumper to visit him at Duke University Hospital during his treatments. It was only fitting that in the obituary published by his friends and family, it read that all, including rabbits, were welcome to attend.
News researcher David Raynor contributed to the reporting of this article.