Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters
North End parks hopping with too many bunnies
Next to an outcropping of rocks within Woodland Park that has evolved into a rabbit warren, Anne Van Loen is trying to keep three little kids quiet so as to not spook the bunnies they are enticing with Romaine lettuce and baby carrots.
Alex, her 5-year-old-son, extends a leaf. A black rabbit hops within arm's length and starts to nibble, soon to be surrounded by eight friends, including babies tiny enough to fit in the palm of a hand. It's so still that Van Loen and the children can hear the munching. "It's just amazing we can do this in the middle of Seattle," Van Loen says. "It's quite surreal, really."
Surreal, perhaps, because it's not right with nature. The bunnies, descendants of domestic species, are living a life in the wild where they don't belong and harming the environment.
In an attempt to restore the natural order, the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, assisted by animal-welfare groups, is making plans to relocate the Woodland Park and Green Lake Park bunnies to Rabbit Meadows Sanctuary in rural Redmond, which has rescued rabbits from previous roundups around Puget Sound. Seattle's roundup likely won't happen until winter when the population is lowest, allowing time to raise money to sterilize, deworm and delouse each captured animal.
By taking what parks officials consider the humane approach, they hope to avoid a repeat of the outrage from a few summers ago when they captured Canada geese from Green Lake with the intent to gas them. Still, they are eliminating what has become a popular family attraction, and parks officials are sensitive to how the public will react.
"How can we convince people that the cute bunny is something that they shouldn't be feeding — and something that shouldn't even be here?" said Sandra DeMeritt, a Woodland Park maintenance worker.
The nonnative rabbits have been hopping around the two North End parks for probably 20 years, a phenomenon that likely began when misguided owners abandoned their pets in the wild. Mark Gross, project manager with the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, said the group is thrilled to be part of the solution this time. "It's such a change from when we were adversaries in the goose killings," he said.
The bunny population at Woodland and Green Lake parks has exploded in the past year or so, with the most recent estimate at 500. By September, at the end of their notoriously efficient breeding season, that number easily could double.
Though placid with people, the critters are damaging trees and destroying native wildlife habitat. They have migrated to the elk, elephant and macaque-monkey exhibits at Woodland Park Zoo and also the Lower Woodland ballfields, creating potentially hazardous situations should the ground get pockmarked with holes or the turf become unstable from the burrowing.
The two areas with the highest bunny concentrations are at the north end of a picnic-shelter loop at Woodland Park, accessible from North 50th Street, and a small triangle-shaped meadow on the west side of Green Lake that backs onto Aurora Avenue North.
On the small but steep hillside, large holes in the earth are impossible to miss. Tree roots are exposed and the surface has eroded into an unsteady layer of sand.
"I can see where they've been undermining the trees," said Pat Clark of North Seattle, who was at the meadow taking pictures of bunnies feasting on sunflower seeds left by a previous visitor. "I certainly can understand why the city would want to round up the rabbits and I'm glad they will be dealt with humanely — but a lot of people are going to miss them."
But the Woodland Park Zoo won't. It hasn't taken long for the rabbits to figure out that the zoo offers a nifty habitat with plenty of food and water, said E.J. Hook, facility-operations supervisor. The zoo tries to keep the rabbit population down by buttressing fencing and removing brush, but when numbers become unmanageable, rabbits are trapped and euthanized at a rate of about 10 or 20 a week, Hook said.
"Say a rabbit burrows and an elk gets one of its appendages caught in that hole," Hook said. "When they start threatening our collection, we have to take action." The bunnies also carry diseases and parasites that can spread to zoo animals. They are feasting upon public gardens, as well. Rose Brittenham, senior gardener for the parks department, said bunnies nibble flowering kale and pansies to the nub, so her crew now grows only rabbit-tolerant species.
In spite of signs imploring people not to feed the rabbits, the practice has become as common as tossing stale bread to ducks. The problem is that bunny food also attracts squirrels and crows, and at night, rats scrounge on the leftovers, parks officials say.
Rounding up rabbits
Seven years ago, Rabbit Meadows Sanctuary took in 652 bunnies from a Redmond business park near Highway 520. Other rabbits there have been rescued from the wilds around Renton and Wenatchee, said Sandi Ackerman, sanctuary founder. She is advising Seattle to hold off on its roundup until late winter, when the bunny population can dip as low as 100. "We will be taking care of these rabbits for several years and, unfortunately, we can't afford to take care of every bunny that's out there right now."
Although the task of corralling all those bunnies seems daunting, Ackerman said the rescues in Redmond and Renton were successful. Bunnies are lured into traps with food, and any that elude the first intensive capture are targeted soon after. If too many rabbits avoid the traps, it won't take long for them to multiply like, well, rabbits.
In a year, females can have two or three litters of up to 10 babies. After becoming pregnant, they give birth in about a month and nurse the babies for three months. Then they are ready to do it all over again.
Woodland Park plan bids farewell to bunnies
Probably best not to tell the kiddos, but a rabbit round-up at Woodland Park is to begin in mid-January, and with it, the popular attraction of watching and feeding the bunnies will go bye-bye. The bunnies, however, are not — repeat, not — doomed. They're just headed to a sanctuary in Redmond.
At a parks-board meeting Thursday night, a city official laid out a plan to trap, sterilize and relocate an estimated 300 to 500 rabbits that live in and around Woodland Park — a population that has migrated as far as the north end of Green Lake Park and infiltrated Woodland Park Zoo. The parks board is expected to approve the plan next month. Several animal-advocate groups, including Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and Seattle Animal Shelter, support the plan.
Though the bunnies live in the wild, they are domesticated. The park population likely began with family pets that were abandoned at the park. Many end up being attacked by other animals — or abused by people.
"They are pet rabbits, and they have a horrible, horrible life there, and it's a short one," said Mark Pilger, a Green Lake resident who has rescued two of the feral rabbits, including one that had been abused. Pilger said he has seen so many dead rabbits while jogging at the lake that he no longer runs there because it is too upsetting.
The parks department wants to remove the rabbits because they have damaged trees and dug holes and tunnels that can be hazardous for park users. Some rabbits carry parasites and diseases, and there also is anecdotal evidence that they have begun moving into surrounding neighborhoods, said Barb DeCaro, resource-conservation coordinator for the parks department.
At the same time, though, the rabbits have drawn quite an audience of humans, primarily at an outcropping of rocks in Woodland Park and a triangular-shaped meadow west of Green Lake.
At the start of the year, box traps would be placed in areas of the park where the rabbits gather, with carrots and apples used as lures. Captured rabbits would be kept for as long as three days at a Magnuson Park building before visiting the vet.
After sterilization, they would return to Magnuson briefly and then head to Rabbit Meadows Sanctuary in Redmond, an enclosed outdoor space operated by the nonprofit House Rabbit Society, which is overseeing the relocation plan.
Sandi Ackerman, who runs the sanctuary, estimated that it would take three to four months to complete the relocation. Since all it takes is one male and one female rabbit to make more rabbits, the city and the House Rabbit Society would continue to trap rabbits after the initial round-up, DeCaro said. She said she hopes that by removing the rabbits from the park, people will be less inclined to abandon their pet bunnies there.
The cost for relocating each rabbit is estimated at $100, or $50,000 for 500. Parks and animal-welfare groups hope to fund the program through donations. Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 2006 The Seattle Times Company
Rabbit rescuers need you to hop to it
As many as 80 of the hundreds of cast-off bunnies at Green Lake and Lower Woodland Park may already have buns in the oven -- probably about a half-dozen per doe. So it's past time to get hoppin'. If the Seattle Parks Department's partnership with the House Rabbit Society is going to work to rescue and move hundreds of endangered and destructive bunnies, it will have to be done today or wait until next November.
And, by then, bunnies being bunnies, there will be a lot more of them out there ravaging tree roots and being ravaged in return by raptors, speeding radials and off-leash retrievers. The clock -- biological and actual -- is ticking so loudly it's giving Sandi Ackerman a headache.
Ackerman is the beleaguered, animal-loving point woman on the civilian side of this rabbit-removal project. Days and evenings, she labors at The Best Little Rabbit, Rodent and Ferret House. By selling supplies, it pays for the rescue of bunnies and other small animals from "kill shelters" including Seattle Animal Control.
It's her vet friends who spay and neuter relocated rabbits at the House Rabbit Society's sanctuary in Redmond. And it's her hardy band of volunteers who will hit the frosty ground with large box traps. They'll fill them with enticing veggies, then sit back in the weeds holding a string until Thumper and his pals come out to eat.
It's a back-to-Tom Sawyer-style operation, Ackerman explains. Nothing high-tech. Certainly nothing lethal. But it isn't exactly cheap, either.
Last week the P-I's news pages ran an appeal from the Parks Department and the rabbit rescuers asking folks to donate some of the $20,000 needed to catch, transport and neuter the critters. And you still can, by making a tax-deductible donation at: woodlandparkrabbits.org or by sending a check to Rabbit Meadows Sanctuary, P.O. Box 27308, Seattle, WA 98165-1808.
Nearly $4,000 is already in the coffee can, but timing is everything. Ackerman says she was initially told that the Parks Department had money budgeted for the operation. Then, last week when time was almost out, she says she was told no, there was no money after all. She says that the original plan was to pick up the rabbits on Jan. 16, but a delay ensued. "Feb. 15 is the latest we can do it," she told me earlier this week.
Actually, says the Parks Department's Dewey Potter, the Parks Department never budgeted any money for the operation. But it has a discretionary fund that "allows for things like this that need attention." And the department is committed to make the removal happen one way or another. "We just hope that people who feel for these little critters will want to help out," she said.
It's the people whose feeling for the bunnies was fleeting that caused this problem in the first place. And, with Easter almost on our tails, the problem will only get worse if people don't wise up and stifle the urge to give bunnies, duckies and baby chicks to their kids at Easter time.
After a few months, they grow tired of the care and feeding. The kids get bored and move on. The adults dislike it when the rabbits are sexually mature and start spraying and mounting and popping out progeny. So they set the rabbits "free," which actually means exposing them to dipping temperatures, a dicey food supply and a whole array of predators. Not to mention the fact that the feral rabbits ruin ground cover, cut a swath of destruction and endanger the roots of trees and plants.
I saw the evidence but spied no actual bunnies this week when I tramped around the Green Lake triangle just east of Aurora. Smarts, not swooping eagles, was the reason, Ackerman explained. Although rabbits usually feed after dawn, these are no dumb bunnies. The survivors have figured out that they'd best dine between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. because, as soon as joggers and their off-leash animals appear, they're dead meat.
As for the "now or never" timing of the relocation operation, Ackerman explains why, to her volunteers, it's now or November. It's OK by them if some bunnies are pregnant. Vets do perform bunny abortions. But volunteers oppose snatching does that already may have young ones in the nest.
Either way, now or November, both donations and common sense are called for. And, frankly, I like living in a city that cares about even its smallest cast-off creatures. It's good to know that the Parks Department and the folks at the House Rabbit Society are trying to find a humane solution.
But, (tick, tick) with more buns in the oven every day, let's hope they find it fast.
Rabbit roundup nets lots of pregnant bunnies
Rabbit rescuers at Woodland Park in Seattle are getting more than they expected as they trap bothersome bunnies who have been digging a labyrinth of tunnels under the park, damaging trees and plants. Many of the female rabbits caught so far are pregnant.
That means bouncing baby bunnies could be born all over Woodland Park before the end of the month if they aren't trapped, sterilized and transported to Rabbit Meadows Sanctuary in Redmond, where they can start safe new lives.
The rabbit roundup just began, and some say it's almost too late. Volunteers are desperately seeking veterinarians to spay and neuter the bunnies, many of which likely were abandoned Easter gifts. Just as critically, they need people to adopt the furry pets and promise not to release them into the wild later.
Showing its soft side, the city of Seattle has set aside $20,000 to cover bunny medical costs. Nearly $8,000 in private contributions also have been donated. But at $100 per animal, it might not be enough if the rabbits continue to do what they do best. "That's why we want to catch them now," Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Dewey Potter said.
After a flap a few years ago over the park department's practice of gassing geese that left droppings all over city parks, the rabbit roundup was conceived as a more humane way of reducing the growing rabbit population.
If spending $20,000 seems like yet another sign of excessive Seattle niceness, it pales by the $60,000 Redmond businesses -- including Eddie Bauer, Nintendo and Microsoft -- pooled together with King County for a 1999 roundup there that by all accounts left the area bunny-free. "Euthanizing the critters wasn't considered," Potter said of the Seattle effort. "There is a close attachment between humans and small furry woodland creatures."
Rabbits multiply fast. A bunny is pregnant just 32 days and can have up to six offspring at a time.
State Fish and Wildlife officials say they would have been concerned if the Seattle rabbits in question were wild Eastern cottontails. They would recommend killing such wild animals rather than keeping them captive. The state has no jurisdiction over the feral domestic bunnies being captured here.
Steve Pozzanghera, deputy assistant director for the state's wildlife program, said sterilizing the domestic population seems like a good way to keep them from breeding with wild rabbits if they get loose again. "It may or may not be a kinder and gentler approach," Pozzanghera said. "All in all, it seems to be a program that works for the city of Seattle."
The city has enlisted the help of Sandi Ackerman, who runs a Seattle non-profit called the Best Little Rabbit, Rodent & Ferret House, to organize the effort. Ackerman also owns the rabbit sanctuary in Redmond where the bunnies can live until they find new homes.
The trapping started last week in Woodland Park Zoo and is continuing this week. About 40 bunnies have been caught and are being sheltered temporarily in cages at Magnuson Park in Seattle. "There are 200 to 300 rabbits out there, and every female we are picking up is pregnant," Ackerman said. But the roundup has been slow going.
Nice weather over the past few days increased human activity in the park. Over the weekend, people on outings brought food for the rabbits. Now the bunnies are turning up their noses at the tidbits in the trap. The captured rabbits will be cleaned, given physicals and sterilized -- but the timing is all off, Ackerman worries.
The rabbits are pregnant, and Easter is right around the corner. She's envisioning the fluffy fur balls getting adopted and becoming gifts that are once again dumped in a city park when they become too big or troublesome for their owners. "Baby bunnies only stay small for about three months," Ackerman said. Then they become a responsibility. Rabbit lovers say the cuddly critters like to share a human home. They are intelligent and develop attachments to their owners. They also like to chew on electrical cords and cause other household mayhem. Rabbit fur can aggravate allergies.
Once released into the wild, large numbers of rabbits ravage public parks, tunneling under the trees and gnawing on roots and plants. Seattle's population has been spreading across Woodland Park and heading north. It's a rough life for the rabbits, too. They are chased by dogs and squashed by cars. They die of starvation or disease.
Ackerman said she's had plenty of calls from people who don't support the roundup. When she talks with people in the park, they try to persuade her to leave the critters there. "The rabbits look like they are eating and doing well, but they aren't," she said. "The parks department picks up the bodies of the dead rabbits every day."
Mark Pilger, one of the volunteers leading the rescue effort, said he found a baby rabbit last year when he was walking around Green Lake. He said it was clearly someone's abandoned Easter present. He took it home. Not long after, Pilger and his girlfriend adopted a second rabbit they found living under cars on Ravenna Avenue. He's convinced feral rabbits don't belong in city parks. "I see dogs chasing the rabbits; I see people feeding them. I see some dead rabbits," he said. "It's not fun for me to go to the park anymore."
Pilger and other volunteers use food to lure bunnies into a trap about 6 feet square that gently encloses them when it is sprung. Many of the animals have injuries, proof of how hard life is for a park bunny, Pilger said. One rabbit they've caught is missing an eye, and another has a half-healed broken leg. Others have scratches and cuts.
Pilger said the trapping should have started weeks ago, but was held up because of funding delays. "The faster we get the rabbits out of there the better, because they are breeding," he said. "Any rabbits in the park that aren't pregnant right now, will be."
Rabbit roundup halted until later this year
The rabbit roundup at Woodland Park has been postponed until later in the year. Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Dewey Potter said Wednesday that the effort to trap, sterilize and relocate feral bunnies has been halted because it’s too late in the season and too many of the rabbits are pregnant.
Sandi Ackerman, the coordinator of the volunteer effort, added that part of the building where rabbits have been held for medical care has been rented to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Gun noise from the agency's training practices is scaring the rabbits and unnerving volunteers.
The trapping started last week and had been continuing this week. About 40 bunnies had been caught and sheltered temporarily in cages at Magnuson Park in Seattle. The plan was to ultimately relocate the animals to Rabbit Meadows Sanctuary in Redmond. Many of the bunnies likely were abandoned Easter gifts.
Captured Green Lake Rabbits Dying Under the City's Care
Seattle - The controversial bunny round-up at Green Lake has turned deadly for more than a dozen of the little critters. KIRO Team 7 Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne uncovers how disease, stress and poor living conditions might be to blame.
The City of Seattle recently helped capture about 100 rabbits from the burrows around Green Lake. The plan was to sterilize them, then let the bunnies go into some sort of wild sanctuary. However, an exclusive KIRO Team 7 Investigation discovers a good percentage of the animals didn't survive under the city's care.
Happy rabbits, paling around, with lots of fresh food and clean sawdust: This is the image Seattle Parks and the non-profit group Friends of Park Rabbits want you to see. Dead rabbits and tax bills for "group cremation" of rabbits are things they would rather be kept quiet.
Herb Camet, who volunteered at the Discovery Park rabbit shelter in February, tells us he’s disappointed that after six months of animals in captivity, the city has still not released a single rabbit. "It's not ethical. Not an ethical way to operate."
Camet filed a complaint about an infestation of rats, and a lack of bedding, heat, and medical attention for the rabbits he witnessed. "Rabbits have definitely been killed. The only question is how many can we actually trace and find in the record, but rabbits have died there. They died from viruses. They died from the stress. They died from the conditions."
Despite documenting a "DOA rabbit in a box" and some broken heaters during extremely cold weather, city inspectors found no animal violations. Camet's complaint case was closed. That's when the real trouble began. KIRO Team 7 Investigators have confirmed that a "hepatitis-like pathogen" spread rapidly through a building in March, sickening at least 19 rabbits, killing 11.
Seattle City Parks employee Barb DeCaro, who is in charge of rabbit relocation says it's a sad situation. "It's not uncommon for rabbits to become very stressed out and succumb to all sorts of things, including sudden heart failure. This seems that it was some kind of pathogen. I don't know," DeCaro said.
A vet bill, turned in for one month’s rabbit services, lists necropsies performed on dead park rabbits and charges to taxpayers for several bulk cremations of bunnies. Still, the city plans to expand the rabbit round-ups to other city parks in the future. DeCaro told KIRO Team 7 Investigators, "I think the program overall has gone very well. It is a good model of humane relocation."
Records, obtained by Camet (and shared with us) show the rabbit death toll may go beyond the mysterious virus kill. Seattle police noted "two newborn rabbits are now dead" following a scuffle at the shelter between a volunteer and a citizen trying to take pictures. We also uncovered a "dead rabbit" photo linked to an official investigation into conditions at the Discovery Park rabbit shelter. All of it is sickening to Camet.
"In the process of doing this mismanaged and ill-planned project, it has killed rabbits or injured rabbits or abused rabbits. What kind of city project funds this?"
Defaced flier asking for volunteers for the Woodland Park Rabbit Rescue (not shown)
Seattle parks officials tell KIRO Team 7 Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne that within weeks, they will be moving the rabbits. In the meantime, city e-mails indicate security has been stepped up. "Baby killer" markings have been written on a number of Rabbit Relocation flyers around Green Lake. The city has also noticed bloggers on the Animal Liberation Front Web site have been talking about this program, raising additional fears.
We have also uncovered e-mails between City Parks and public relations employees that show a plan to mislead the public via the media regarding the success of the Friends of the Park Rabbits.
Note: In 2007 we were informed that several college students were relocating some rabbits. This whole relocation effort was mired in the usual politics, personality conflicts, and bungling bureaucracy well before it made headlines. Once again human meddling results in a fiasco with the rabbits ending up on the losing end. Carmina Gooch