A feral rabbit darts between yards on Long Run Drive on Thursday.

A feral rabbit darts between yards on Long Run Drive on Thursday.

Rampant Rabbits: Invasive, feral rabbits overrun Valley Neighborhood

Shortly before midnight three years ago, the Department of Fish and Game received word that somebody had spotted a bear between Gee Street and Long Run Drive in the valley. The department’s Regional Supervisor, Ryan Scott, and a coworker responded to the call. They weren’t able to find the bear, but what they found instead was far stranger: feral domestic rabbits — a lot of them.

“We didn’t see the bear we were looking for, but we saw a ton of rabbits all over the place,” Scott said. “We were taken back by how many we saw.”

At the time, Scott didn’t view the rabbits, which are not native to the region, as cause for concern. It was late summer, and with winter only a few months away he figured that the problem would “self correct.”

Two years later, the Department of Fish and Game received another report of a bear in the same area. Stephanie Sell, a biologist with the department, responded this time. Like Scott, she was unable to find the reported bear but did find rabbits. Only this time there were even more. Sell recalled seeing at least 30 rabbits that night.

“It was creepy how many there were,” she said. “I kind of had a flashback to ‘The Shining.’”

The rabbit problem had not self corrected; it had escalated.


Growing in leaps and bounds

Nobody seems to know exactly where the rabbits came from, but most people who are familiar with the problem suspect that they originated near Glacier View Trailer Park. Valley residents and officials from Animal Control, Fish and Game and the Gastineau Humane Society all tell some variation of the same story. Apparently, somebody brought the animals to Juneau to keep as pets and — either intentionally or accidently — released them into the wild.

“It’s kind of immaterial at this point; they’re everywhere now,” Scott said.

In the months following Sell’s discovery the rabbit population exploded. Though the full extent of the problem remains unknown, Sell estimates that “upwards of a couple hundred” rabbits now live in the area between Gee Street and Long Run Drive, which she calls “ground zero.”

“A female rabbit can breed every 30 days, so when they say ‘breed like rabbits’ it’s for a reason,” Sell said, explaining how the number of rabbits is growing so quickly. Rabbits can have as many as 14 babies per litter, and they become pregnant again within a day of giving birth.

So far, the rabbits haven’t strayed far beyond “ground zero,” but Sell worries that human interference has already begun to change this and will further exacerbate the problem.


The bunny trail

This summer, Forest Service staff began reporting rabbit sightings at the glacier for the first time, which Sell says is quite troubling. John Neary, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, saw rabbits several different times, and his staff reported seeing them, too.

“You always wonder how many more there might be that you’re not seeing,” Neary said.

Neary and his staff only saw rabbits in the bus parking area near the visitor center, and it doesn’t appear that they ventured much further before Fish and Game removed them. Neary suspects that somebody likely dumped the rabbits at the glacier thinking it would be a better home for them than in the Valley. This is certainly not the case, according to Neary and Sell.

“They’re an invasive species,” Neary said. “People may not think of rabbits that way, but they will quickly become a problem.”

Due to high population density (relative to other areas in Juneau), the Valley isn’t home to many wild animals, Sell said. This means that the rabbits, which she too identifies as an invasive species, are not a serious threat to most other species so long as they stay where they are. The glacier, on the other hand, is home to several native species of animal, including the Snowshoe Hare. If allowed to spread, the feral valley rabbits could end up competing for resources with the native hare population, which could have devastating consequences for it.

“We don’t want people moving them out of ground zero down there in the Valley,” Sell said. “That’s my main exclamation point. Don’t spread the problem because we’re eyes deep in this already.”


Shelter skelter

The number of rabbits forfeited to the Gastineau Humane Society has been steadily increasing during the past few years, but this year the shelter was inundated with rabbits like never before, according to Animal Control officer Ben Peyerk. Between April and July of this year, the Humane Society took in more than 20 rabbits, and it spent more than $16,000 caring for them.

Matthew Musslewhite, the Gastineau Humane Society’s executive director, said that the high cost of care for rabbits — which Peyerk described as “astronomical” — is the result of two main factors: expensive vet bills and lengthy shelter stays. Because they are small and fragile, rabbits cost more to spay or neuter than dogs or cats, Musslewhite said. They aren’t as popular, though, which means they stay in the shelter longer and cost more to care for. On average rabbits stay in the shelter for about 60 days before being adopted. One rabbit spent more than a year in the shelter, however.

“It would be one thing if people were interesting in adopting them, but that’s where a lot of the cost is,” Musslewhite said. “Our mission is not to be a holding spot; we want to be a temporary stay on the way to a new forever home.”

In the meantime, though, the number of rabbits is rapidly growing, and the Gastineau Humane Society, which is a no-kill shelter, has to spend “significantly more” money per animal on rabbits than dogs or cats.

The shelter receives all of its funding through public support and shelter services, which include pet grooming and boarding. Musslewhite said he didn’t know what percentage of the shelter’s overall budget was being spent on rabbits. Regardless of how the numbers pencil out, though, he said the situation is frustrating

“We’re being burdened with the costs associated with someone abandoning domestic animals with exceptional reproductive capabilities, and it’s only getting worse at this point,” he said.


Bad neighbors

In August, Sandi Hicks, a resident of Portage Boulevard, contacted Animal Control to find out if the city had any plans for the rabbit problem. Though some of her neighbors like the rabbits — some people even provide them with food and shelter — the majority of her neighbors have been impacted in some way by the animals and would rather see them go, Hicks said.

The rabbits have eaten through her garden and her neighbors’ gardens, a fact corroborated by the presence of rabbit fencing in the yards of residents in the area. What started years before as a couple dozen rabbits has grown into an infestation that she said is now more than just an inconvenience.

“At any time there would be six rabbits in my yard,” she said. “They would be repopulating themselves in my driveway.”

On Aug. 3 she wrote an email to Animal Control saying that the population doubled in the previous month and that the rabbits had become a “hazard.” Hicks wrote that her 10-year-old Karelian Bear Dog named Rikku was agitated by the rabbits to the point that she had to take Rikku to other parts of the city to walk her. Not a month later, Hicks had Rikku outside on a leash while she was mowing the law. Rikku saw a couple of rabbits in the neighbor’s lawn and broke her tether to chase them. While in pursuit, Rikku tore her ACL and meniscus, which cost more than $3,000 to repair. She still walks with a limp.

“The vets told me they’d never seen a dog with this dramatic of an ACL tear, and I told them it’s these bloody rabbits,” Hicks said.

Hicks spoke about the rabbit problem during the public-comment portion of the Sept. 21 Assembly meeting. She said that the city was partially at fault for her dog’s injury because it had not taken action to quell the growing rabbit population despite her warnings. She asked for the city to foot the bill, but later she said that was just to prove a point.

“I didn’t really want the money,” she said. “I just wanted them to know that this problem is not only costing people their gardens anymore.”


The fellowship of the rabbits

One day after Hicks sent her email to Animal Control, Sell contacted Musslewhite and Peyerk in an effort to put together what they later called the “Bunny Task Force.” Sell formed this group after hearing Neary’s reports of rabbits at the glacier. It was also formed in response to the growing number of complaints Fish and Game was getting about the rabbits from valley residents.

The Bunny Task Force includes members from Animal Control, the Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Forest Service, the Gastineau Humane Society and the Juneau Police Department. Hicks is also on the group mailing list.

“It took several years for this partnership to blossom and become what it is today,” Peyerk said.

What it is today, however, is still more of a community outreach effort than it is an enforcement body. Both Animal Control and Fish and Game don’t have the staff or the resources to launch a major rabbit-catching initiative. Sell is part of a three-person wildlife management staff that is responsible for a region spanning from Cape Fanshaw to Icy Bay. Peyerk said that Animal Control is similarly short staffed.

“Animal Control doesn’t have the resources to catch a bunch of rabbits,” Peyerk said. “Obviously, you can’t shake a box of treats and get them to come to you like a dog.”

Animal Control also lacks the legal authority to capture the rabbits. There is no city ordinance that forbids “rabbits at large,” and so long as the rabbits are not in violation of city code, Peyerk is not supposed to capture them. He said that Animal Control receives one to two calls per week about the rabbits, but all he can do is advise people how to capture the rabbits themselves.

Fish and Game is currently loaning out traps to community members who are interested in capturing rabbits. It has loaned out 13 traps so far. People can call the Gastineau Humane Society or Fish and Game once they trap a rabbit to have it picked up.

The Humane Society will spay and neuter any rabbits caught and put them up for adoption. Fish and Game will euthanize the rabbits and donate them to the Juneau Raptor Center and the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines, where they’ll be used to feed raptors.

“We just need people’s help at this point,” Sell said. “We need the community’s help if we are going to put a dent in this.”

Hicks and Sell recommend that rabbits be donated to Fish and Game rather than the Humane Society to avoid further overwhelming it with rabbits. Musslewhite said that the shelter will continue to accept rabbits “until we run out of money.” But when the average cost of care per rabbit (based on this year’s numbers) is about $750 per rabbit, that may be sooner than later — especially with the rabbit population still growing.

“Honestly, if we end up with 250 rabbits next year, and we’ve only been able to adopt 20 this year, whose going to take them?” Musslewhite said. “We’ll end up as a rabbit shelter.”

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or at sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

Sandi Hicks, 71, takes her dog, Rikku, out for a walk Friday. Hicks brought public attention to the feral rabbit outbreak in the Mendenhall Valley after her dog torn its ACL chasing one and she presented the city with the $3,000 veterinarian bill.

Sandi Hicks, 71, takes her dog, Rikku, out for a walk Friday. Hicks brought public attention to the feral rabbit outbreak in the Mendenhall Valley after her dog torn its ACL chasing one and she presented the city with the $3,000 veterinarian bill.

A feral rabbit sits under a vehicle in front of a home on Long Run Drive on Thursday.

A feral rabbit sits under a vehicle in front of a home on Long Run Drive on Thursday.

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