Seeing a lionhead rabbit for the first time will stop you in your tracks. You won’t quite know what the tiny fuzz ball is until you get close enough to recognize little rabbit ears poking out from a fluffy mane of wool. Lionheads are distinguished by this mane, which results from the expression of a unique “mane gene” that arose through genetic mutation.
Lionhead rabbits are small and fluffy, weighing about 3 pounds at full size. They have compact bodies and erect, balanced ears that measure about 3 inches long. In addition to their manes, lionheads have longish fur on their chests and soft, glossy fur elsewhere. Some lionheads also have long wool “skirts” around their rumps. Lionheads come in a variety of colors, including gray, white, black, brown, and bluish slate.
Lionhead rabbits are known to have originated in Europe in the late 20th century. Exactly where and in what litter, though, remains unclear. It’s also not clear which breeds were crossed to produce the first litter of lionhead rabbits. In any event, the breed was imported into England in the mid-1990s, where continued crossbreeding established the current European version of the lionhead rabbit.
Introduction to North America
The first lionhead rabbits imported into the United States arrived in 2000 in Minnesota. In the following years, more lionheads were imported into other parts of the country. This stock, along with hybridizations made throughout the United States, resulted in the current American version of the lionhead rabbit.
Lionhead rabbits are raised mainly as companion animals, although they also are becoming an increasingly popular breed to show. Lionheads were officially recognized as the 48thbreed of the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) in early 2014.
The lionhead rabbit population in the United States is small but growing. The breed is considered stable.
At The Maryland Zoo
Lionhead rabbits are well-loved Ambassadors in the Zoo’s Animal Embassy program. These sweet and adorable rabbits captivate school children, Zoo visitors, and other audiences, and definitely inspire curiosity! Educators are able to point out adaptive similarities between this domestic breed and wild rabbits, and engage audiences in conversation about wild rabbits, their habitat needs, and their contributions to a healthy ecosystem.
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Subphylum: Vertebrata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Lagomorpha
- Family: Leporidae
- Genera: Oryctolagus
- Species: cuniculus
What is an Animal Ambassador?
The Maryland Zoo refers to its special collection of education program animals as “Animal Ambassadors.” The Zoo currently cares for more than 60 Animal Ambassadors, representing more than 40 species, both native and exotic. These animals are managed separately from the rest of the Zoo’s collection and cannot be seen on exhibit at the Zoo. However, many can be seen up close and personal on a rotating basis at Creature Encounters, the Zoo’s outdoor education center; at camp and school programs at the Zoo; as featured participants in community-based Outreach programs; and at special events on and off Zoo grounds.
Animal Ambassadors spend countless hours working with their human handlers, developing bonds of trust and communication that will allow them to appear in front of audiences large and small. They are not show animals. They behave naturally, focusing audiences’ attention on their natural behaviors and adaptations and giving living, breathing meaning to concepts and topics that students may be studying.
Animal Ambassadors travel all over the state of Maryland and beyond, and many also make local and national media appearances, educating about wildlife while representing the Zoo and its commitments to animal welfare and conservation.
What is The Animal Embassy?
The Animal Embassy at The Maryland Zoo is an off-exhibit area that is not open to the public. It is where the Zoo’s “Animal Ambassadors,” or education program animals, live. The Embassy is home to more than 60 individual animals representing more than 40 different species. It is staffed by its own dedicated group of keepers and volunteers and has both indoor and outdoor living space for the animals.