The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals has written to the department of arts and culture, asking if it could take over the bronze rabbit.
Animal rights group Peta wants to adopt the bronze rabbit once it is removed from a statue of former president Nelson Mandela, Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile said on Thursday.
"The group intends to use the miniature statue to highlight the plight of billions of rabbits and other animals who are slaughtered for their skins, used in forced labour or kept in chains and who are innocent but imprisoned and denied the chance to be free," he said in a statement.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) wrote to Mashatile asking that the rabbit be donated to the group. Peta associate director Mimi Bekhechi wrote in the letter: "As we all know, Mandela was a great man who risked his life in order to advocate for the freedom of others.
"Mandela cared about cruelty to animals. He was a patron of the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ... We would be honoured to use the bronze rabbit, the same animal who proudly leaps across Peta's logo, to honour Mandela's vision of a more peaceful, kinder world."
Meanwhile, an online petition to try to save the microscopic rabbit has now been launched.
Although the petition has only a few signatures and hopes to pick up 10 000, it appeals to President Jacob Zuma, the Mandela family and government officials not to remove the rabbit from Nelson Mandela's ear.
"Don't destroy the small rabbit in the Mandela statue's ear! The small rabbit in our former president's ear is not a sign of disrespect but reflects not only a personal signature, but the sentiment of the country as a whole.
"It resonates with the country because it's a small sign of defiance and freedom, defying the selfish wishes of a small entitled cadre that wishes to benefit from the work of others, and there is no doubt that Nelson Mandela would have approved!," the petition states.
"Show that you are no longer just caught up in taking personal offence at small gestures of individual freedom, but that you can look past these things to see a greater South Africa united behind the ideal of freedom in Nelson Mandela's memory."
Those in favour of the sculptor's hidden signature have posted their tweets on the #savetherabbit hashtag started in Britain in 2010, when the Hackney Council in London bowed to public pressure after threatening to remove a street artwork of a giant rabbit painted on the side of a recording studio.
While the Hackney artwork was gigantic, you would need a telescope to see the tiny rabbit that the artists added to the Mandela statue's ear.
The department of arts and culture spokesperson Mogomotsi Mogodiri told the Mail & Guardian this week the rabbit would have to go.
The department had only become aware of the existence of the rabbit after a media query and it had contacted the company that had commissioned the two sculptors to complain.
"We asked them why they had done more than we had commissioned and added a rabbit to the sculpture," said Mogodiri. "The company said the sculptors apologised to the minister, the department and the family. We have this on record."
The department of arts and culture said it accepted their apology and that their intentions were honourable. The department said a more appropriate artist signature would have been preferred, and that it was considering how to retain the sculpture's integrity with damaging it.
Andre Prinsloo and Ruhan Janse van Vuuren, who sculpted the nine-metre bronze-plated statue, have said the rabbit was a "small trademark" of their work, as the department had not allowed them to engrave their signatures on the statue's trousers.
Prinsloo was reluctant to comment, and said he had had no direct contact with the department.
"I honestly don't know if we have been forgiven because I just read about it in the newspapers, and on the internet," Prinsloo said. "I am sorry that such a small thing could cause such a palava. It was just a hidden signature."
The symbol was selected because they worked to a tight deadline, and because rabbit is translated into Afrikaans as "haas", which meant haste. As Mandela loved children, the artists also believed he would have approved of the tiny bunny rabbit signature.
Dali Tambo, chief executive of Koketso Growth, the company contracted to create the figure, said on Wednesday that the addition of the rabbit was regrettable. Tambo said that after an agreement between the company and the government's "statue steering committee", the artists were instructed that no marks, including signatures, would be engraved on the surface of the bronze statue. The names of the artists would be printed on plaques, which were yet to be installed in the area surrounding the figure.
The statue was unveiled by President Jacob Zuma on December 16, the day after Mandela's funeral, as part of the annual celebrations of Reconciliation Day and the commemoration of the centenary of the Union Buildings. – Additional reporting by Sapa