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North America faces first outbreak of rabbit disease in B.C.

A local animal shelter that has worked for years to live up to its no-kill policy has had to euthanize more than 60 rabbits and members of a century-old breeding club on Vancouver Island have had to cancel this year’s show as part of efforts to stop the spread of a deadly virus.

Rabbit hemorrhagic disease attacks the organs and blood vessels of the creatures, prompting a lack of co-ordination and bleeding through the nose. It first showed up in Nanaimo in mid-February but has now spread to the Lower Mainland.

“It’s been referred to as bunny Ebola,” said Lois Fernyhough, vice-president of Vancouver Island Rabbit Breeders Association.

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It’s the first North American outbreak of the virus, which is used intentionally in New Zealand and Australia to cull populations of feral, European breeds of rabbits.

Species of rabbits native to North America are immune, but can spread the virus, as can predatory animals, insects and humans. It’s highly contagious and can linger in the environment for weeks.

This week, the Richmond Animal Protection Society put its rabbits under quarantine after finding two dead feral rabbits on their property. The bodies were sent for testing and the shelter’s chief executive Eyal Lichtmann immediately ordered vaccines from Europe, but they didn’t arrive in time.

Three days later, rabbits in the shelter started dying.

“It’s a horrible death for the rabbits. It’s excruciating pain,” Mr. Lichtmann said.

To spare the remaining 64 rabbits the same fate and to prevent the virus from spreading further, the rest of the population was euthanized on Friday.

“We are traumatized as an organization right now,” Mr. Lichtmann said, adding that some of the rabbits had been with the shelter for seven years.

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“We are all about no-kill [policy] and saving as many animal lives as possible. We’ve invested everything into doing that.”

The shelter is also having to completely dismantle, sanitize and destroy its rabbit infrastructure and is looking at having to spend tens of thousands of dollars to rebuild.

“It’s an infrastructure that was built over years and years. … Everything has to be incinerated,” Mr. Lichtmann said.

The vaccines they ordered will be donated to low-income rabbit owners in the area.

Because there has never been a large outbreak of the virus in North America before, the vaccine isn’t actually approved for use in Canada and required an emergency authorization from government.

Breeders are trying to cope by quarantining their stock and cancelling shows.

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“There’s so many unanswered questions. It’s just frustrating. I don’t know if my rabbits are just sitting ducks, if they’re all going to be dead two months from now,” Ms. Fernyhough said.

“People are quite panic stricken, because they are very aware of the contagious and lethal nature of the virus.”

Her breeders association – one of the oldest of its kind in North America – recently had to cancel its 100th anniversary show. Other shows on the Island and even across the border in Washington State have been cancelled or postponed.

The shows are sanctioned by the American Rabbit Breeders Association, of which the Vancouver Island association is an affiliate. Under their rules, clubs may refuse entry at their shows to anyone living within 240 kilometres of a recent outbreak.

A show scheduled in Yakima, Wash., was called off because too many of the would-be attendees live inside this radius.

It’s unclear how the virus got to North America.

Rabbit populations have been exploding in New Zealand and Australia where they are viewed as pests because of the damage they cause to farmland.

In New Zealand, where the rabbits have no natural predators, a planned release of the virus is scheduled to take place. Authorities are hoping that flies will help spread the virus before winter sets in and have reminded rabbit owners to ensure their animals have been vaccinated.

Eric Stewart, executive director of the American Rabbit Breeders Association​, thinks the B.C. population should be eliminated as well. Any efforts to cull the burgeoning population of feral rabbits on Vancouver Island have been met with public outrage.

“They need to eradicate those … domestic rabbits that are living in feral populations [in British Columbia]. It actually poses a public health hazard,” Mr. Stewart said.

The Ministry of Agriculture has been doing tests on infected rabbits and hopes to be able to trace its origin.

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