Editorial: Rabbit problem won’t go away

If someone turned a couple of rats loose on Vancouver Island, no one would object if the rats and their inevitable offspring were trapped and killed. Yet when authorities set out to deal with feral-rabbit populations, they must tread delicately lest they spark an uproar of protest and criticism, as the University of Victoria experienced in trying to rid its campus of rabbits.

The difference between rats and feral rabbits is a large one, but it’s still only a difference of degree. Both are animals harmful to the Island environment and both spread diseases. Neither species should be allowed to live and breed freely in the wild here.

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Certainly, rats are more destructive. They have voracious, eclectic appetites. As an invasive species, they cause terrible damage to crops, food supplies, homes, infrastructure and the environment. Parks Canada plans to drop poison from helicopters on two islands in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in an attempt to eradicate the rats that have ravaged nesting birds.

But rabbits, too, are destructive. There are few plants they won’t eat. They can denude a landscape of its natural and planted vegetation. They dig damaging holes and leave their droppings to be walked on. They can carry a number of diseases, particularly when their numbers increase in a confined area.

And don’t try to blame the problem on indigenous rabbits — Vancouver Island has none. The eastern cottontail, which is common in the Greater Victoria region, was introduced at Sooke in 1964 and it also poses problems for the Island environment.

Suitable solutions are hard to find. An animal-rescue organization that trapped 50 rabbits around the Richmond Auto Mall last winter is trying to find homes for the animals. The group had obtained a permit to send the rabbits to a sanctuary in Washington state, but some of the rabbits weren’t healthy enough to travel. Volunteers have offered to accept the rabbits on their hobby farms and acreages, but the government, concerned that adoptive homes might be against its policies, is mulling over that solution.

The government won’t allow rabbits to be kept in sanctuaries in the province after problems arose when 500 rabbits rescued from the University of Victoria ended up in a sanctuary at Coombs.

Meanwhile, 15 rabbits that weren’t trapped at the Richmond Auto Mall have grown to a colony of 50. It’s a warning of what is happening closer to home. A colony of feral rabbits that lives on the grassy strip between the Helmcken Road exit and the Trans-Canada Highway grows almost daily, eating away at what vegetation is left there.

If they migrate, they risk being hit by cars. Those that succeed in crossing the highway could end up repopulating the nearby Victoria General Hospital grounds, an area where hundreds of rabbits were shot in 1999 to protect the landscaped vegetation and natural fauna and to limit the tracking of feces into the hospital.

Rabbits are neither evil nor benevolent; they are simply rabbits. The evil stems from humans who dump unwanted pets, or whose misplaced compassion persuades them to feed feral rabbits, as was witnessed last weekend at the Helmcken colony.

Thoughtless human activity has caused the problem; thoughtful human action is needed to solve it. It helps that several B.C. municipalities, including Victoria and Saanich, had mandated spaying and neutering of rabbits sold in pet stores, while Richmond and New Westminster ban pet-store rabbit sales altogether.

But as long as rabbits cavort in the wild on the Island, they will be a problem.

Perhaps the solutions would be easier if bunnies had scaly tails, beady eyes and a bad reputation.

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