Thumper and Shortcake are two very lucky rabbits. Until recently, they were both living in the median of a busy Victoria highway and facing a probable death sentence—either by speeding car or B.C. conservation officer—for their transgression. Now, thanks to a Herculean volunteer effort, the pair and several dozen other rabbits are kicking back in Texas at what amounts to bunny Club Med.
In all, 110 long-eared evacuees have so far made the 3,600-km cross-continent journey, by truck and plane, to the Retired Rabbit sanctuary near San Antonio. It’s the Texas facility’s biggest-ever shipment of rescued rabbits, and the first to arrive from a foreign country—though it’s unlikely to be the last.
The saga began several years ago after a few careless B.C. pet owners deposited their unwanted pet rabbits at the Helmcken Road overpass, near the Victoria suburb of View Royal. The rabbits then proceeded to do what rabbits do best: breed, creating a sizable colony and immediate headaches for local police and transportation officials. “People were stopping to look and feed the rabbits,” says Janelle Erwin, the deputy director for the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s South Coast region. “In one extreme case, we actually saw a family picnicking with the rabbits on the edge of the highway.”
While Victoria has had run-ins with feral rabbits in the past, the Helmcken interchange rabbits, as they’ve come to be known, are a particularly vexing case. Not only is a TransCanada Highway interchange an odd place for people to discard unwanted pets, the covert drop-offs continued even as the province scrambled to relocate the colony earlier this year. Officials even posted signs that warned of $345 fines and are now planning to install a surveillance camera. The total cost to taxpayers (including relocation): $33,000 and counting.
Not everyone supported the pricey rescue. “I would be happy to demonstrate how rabbits have been killed for centuries,” wrote one no-nonsense resident to a local newspaper. But animal advocates counter that rabbit abandonment is a growing problem in Canada—several other cities have grappled with feral rabbit populations in recent years—and that, as with dogs and cats, killing them should be a last resort. Besides, they argue, rabbits are simply misunderstood. “Parents give them to their children when they’re bunnies because they think they’re cute,” says Jordan Reichert, a Victoria animal rights activist that helped organize the Helmcken rabbit rescue. “But once they become older, they realize they’re not as interactive as a cat or dog might be. So they lose interest.”
Being cute, it seems, isn’t always enough.
Rabbits were first spotted at the Helmcken interchange about three years ago. At least that’s when Laurie Gaines, a local veterinarian, began planning the rescue effort. She says it took two years to secure the necessary relocation permits and organize the rescue, and another 12 months to carry it out with the help of the province and local volunteer groups. Gaines, now in Ontario, performed several surgeries to spay and neuter the rabbits, as well as dewormings. The costs were defrayed through local fundraising efforts, including a variety show event that was dubbed the “Buntacular Spectacular.”
Gaines believes the process of relocating rabbits is far more cumbersome than it needs to be in B.C.. That’s because the province classifies the bunnies in question—domesticated European rabbits—as a nuisance animal once let loose into the wild. They can be easily trapped and killed, but those wishing to relocate them face a mountain of paperwork. “The SPCA can’t help because they aren’t considered pets, and the wildlife rehabilitation centres can’t help because they aren’t native wildlife,” says Gaines. “This is very different from rescuing a stray dog or cat—no permits are required to do that.”
A husband and wife volunteered to drive the first batch of 47 relocated rabbits from Victoria to Texas last May. The trip took four days on account of the frequent stops to feed the passengers and clean their cages. More recently, a second load of 63 rabbits were driven across the border to Bellingham, Wash. There, they were loaded onto a plane operated by a U.S. animal rescue group and airlifted the rest of the way to San Antonio.
In Texas, meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks, a former U.S. marine who has operated the Retired Rabbits sanctuary with his wife and daughter since 1998, enlisted a local Boy Scout troop to design and build a new pen prototype for his Canadian guests. It involved burying wire fencing under the ground so the rabbits could dig to their heart’s content, but not escape. The rabbits are protected from local predators—namely coyotes—by three guard dogs and four rescued donkeys. “The dogs will chase the coyotes to the back [of the acreage] and the donkeys will stomp on them,” Hendricks says. “It’s a south Texas security team.”
Yet, despite the extensive planning, the project nevertheless became a case of one hop forward, two hops back. “We saw a series of [new] rabbits dropped off in June,” Erwin says. “The reason we know that is because the trapper was quite familiar with the rabbits. One night, literally overnight, there were 20 more rabbits.”
While abandoning rabbits at the side of the road sounds bizarre, it turns out to be a surprisingly common problem in Canada. About five years ago, the University of Victoria became home to an estimated 1,600 feral rabbits after pet owners decided the manicured grounds seemed a suitable ecosystem. A decade earlier, Victoria General Hospital faced a similar predicament. In Vancouver, meanwhile, abandoned rabbits are blamed for establishing a feral rabbit colony near an auto mall in Richmond, B.C. Calgary, Edmonton and Canmore, Alta., have also grappled with feral rabbit issues in recent years. Reichert, the activist and volunteer, says Victoria’s repeated rabbit run-ins are the result of the community’s more humane approach. “Most other communities are just going to kill them,” he says.
Experts say rabbits are abandoned more frequently than dogs or cats because people see large feral rabbit colonies and assume they’re doing okay. But the large numbers have more to do with rabbits’ reproductive prowess (a function of being a “prey animal”) than an innate ability to survive on their own. Domesticated European rabbits, for example, will only survive for a year or two in the wild, compared to a decade or more as pets. “They’re fatter and have fur colours that are no longer appropriate,” says Margo DeMello, the director of human-animal studies at the U.S. Animals and Society Institute. “Plus, they’re not native to this continent.”
Pet rabbits also suffer from cultural baggage that makes their plight easier for people to ignore. In North America, TV cartoons like Bugs Bunny often portray rabbits as tricky, conniving creatures, while some eastern European cultures have traditionally associated rabbits with magic and witchcraft—not exactly man’s-best-friend material. DeMello says rabbits are further hampered by their status as a symbol of fertility and rebirth (think Easter eggs and bunnies) and therefore a long association with women, who have similarly struggled for equal treatment in society.
Plus, rabbits aren’t nearly as cuddly as they look. “They don’t like to be petted and they certainly don’t like to be picked up,” says DeMello, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., with 10 rabbits, down from 65 previously. “They can bite, grunt and growl. They can also be surprisingly wilful and aggressive.” Hendricks, for his part, says rabbits are viewed as “disposable” in part because they are quiet. “A cat will meow and a dog will bark when they’re hungry,” he says. “But a rabbit? They won’t do anything.”
So, cuteness aside, why would anyone choose to own a rabbit? “When they’re in pairs or groups, you see the relationships they form with each other and they’re just so deep,” DeMello says. “They’re also affectionate, funny and busy.”
The B.C. rabbits appear to be settling into their new home amid the Texas brush. “They’re so grateful,” says Hendricks, adding that he’s swarmed every time he sets foot in their pen, which is draped with a Canadian flag. More importantly, his five-hectare property still has plenty of room for expansion. That’s a good thing, too. If history is any guide, Victoria’s feral rabbit problems—indeed, Canada’s—seem destined to multiply for the foreseeable future.