Rupert the therapy rabbit warms hearts at Chilliwack General Hospital

Norm Keller and his pet, Rupert the rabbit, have been volunteering at Chilliwack General Hospital for two years.

Five-year-old Ava Esau gets a visit from Rupert the Rabbit while in hospital.

Five-year-old Ava Esau gets a visit from Rupert the Rabbit while in hospital.

Norm Keller shows up at 11 a.m. sharp with his friend, Rupert, for their volunteer shift at Chilliwack General Hospital.

Keller walks at a quick pace, carrying a basket in his left hand as he makes his way from one patient to the next, offering a glimpse of what’s inside the wicker box.

Rupert pops his head out and perks up his ears. His nose twitches. He’s eager for pats.

Rupert is a six-year-old Netherland dwarf rabbit, and he’s an official volunteer at CGH. He has a badge to prove it.

“Rupert,” the badge reads. “Pet Therapy Volunteer.”

His full name is Rupert Charles Wulsten Bunny, but there’s only so much room on the white card.

The ID badge even has a photo of him, in case another rabbit tries to impersonate him.

His fur colour is “black otter,” says Keller. Rupert appears to be almost entirely black with subtle tan spots on the back of his neck, under his chin, around the eyes, and splashed throughout his paws. But flip Rupert over (he hates that), and you’ll see a stark-white belly.

With Rupert in his basket, and the basket in his hand, Keller heads into Doug Peach’s room.

Peach (pictured at left) has been in the hospital for a few months and has seen Rupert several times, but that doesn’t change his reaction.

The moment he spots Rupert, a huge smile comes across his face. He gets a bit choked up.

“I just love animals,” says Peach. “It really gets to me.”

Keller places Rupert in his basket on the bed. Peach curls himself into the rabbit and starts patting him. He adores Rupert. He doesn’t take his eyes off his furry friend.

“Seeing animals like this, it gives you a real boost,” says Peach.

Keller and Peach chat for a bit before moving on to the next patient.

Rupert’s quite content in his fabric-lined basket as he’s carried from one room to the next, then down the hall to the neighbouring ward.

They stop near elevators. A teenaged girl gasps from afar.

“Mom, look! A bunny!”

She quietly comes over and gently pats Rupert.

“People always react so warmly and openly,” says Keller. “Everyone knows him.”

Patients, staff and visitors are all smitten with Rupert. Keller can’t walk for more than 15 seconds without someone stopping him, or without him bringing the basket of fluff over to them.

“Oh Rupert, Rupert, Rupert, you just have a knack,” says one nurse.

“Well that’s something to cheer people up with,” exclaims a visitor.

“Oh. My. Goodness,” squeaks another nurse.

People drop what their doing just to see Rupert. Some give him a quick pat, others crouch down beside him and touch his soft fur for several minutes.

“He brings out the good in everyone. You can see how delighted people are with that,” says Keller. “All this positive feedback is just amazing.”

He has noticed that not only does Rupert bring joy to a patient’s day, and a pleasant surprise to visitors, but the staff’s stress levels drop.

People don’t realize how stressed doctors and nurses are, he says.

“Staff are reluctant to stop petting him. Their stress level goes down.”

Keller has been retired for seven years. He and Rupert have been volunteering at CGH for nearly two years, but it’s been official — now that they both have ID badges — for about three months.

It began in 2014 when Keller would visit his father in the hospital and he’d bring Rupert along for the ride.

With staff encouraging them to return time and time again, and with Keller’s rich volunteer background, he couldn’t say no.

Now, the two are at CGH nearly every day, and their average visiting time is about three hours. Over the two years, Rupert has put in hundreds of volunteer hours at the hospital.

Throughout those hours he’s met hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Nearly every single one of them is drawn to Rupert.

With his relaxed personality, it’s not difficult to see why. Rupert is very mellow and just wants to be patted all the time.

“They are very social creatures; they like to hang out with everybody,” says Keller.

To some degree it’s their independence that makes people love rabbits, he adds.

“You can’t dominate them because it makes them fearful, and you can’t step on their personality.”

At home, Rupert is free to run around the house. He likes curling up on the swivel chair in Keller’s home office, and is house-trained just like a cat.

His favourite foods are cookies and Scotch oat cakes.

“He thinks he’s in charge at home,” says Keller. “He’ll growl quite loudly if he doesn’t get what he wants, and swat at your feet.”

But when it’s time to work, Rupert shifts into his cozy, please-pat-me-now, look-at-me-I’m-a-cute-bunny role.

And he does it really well.

Up in the paediatric ward, five-year-old Ava Esau is not feeling well. She was just in emergency and is waiting in the children’s ward to see a doctor when Keller brings in Rupert.

Ava is shy and not feeling like her normal self, but she still wants to pat Rupert. Keller scoops him out of the basket and places him directly on the bed beside Ava. Rupert enjoys the tiny, soft pats.

Back down in the emergency ward waiting room, one young girl who’s quite upset with a cut hand, doesn’t pat Rupert but she does nod when asked if she wants to see him.

Keller gently places the basket beside her on her chair and takes a few steps back to give them a quiet moment together. The young girl settles for a few minutes with Rupert before being called into an examination room.

With that, Keller scoops up the basketful of Rupert and hops over to the next patient. There are a lot more people who need cheering up.

Those wanting to see updates on Rupert can follow him on Facebook. Do a search for ‘Rupert Bunny’ — he’s the black rabbit in the rust-coloured basket.

jenna.hauck@theprogress.comtwitter.com/PhotoJennalism