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Some of the hundreds of feral rabbits who make their home at the University of Victoria. (GEOFF HOWE/Geoff Howe for The Globe and Mail)
Some of the hundreds of feral rabbits who make their home at the University of Victoria. (GEOFF HOWE/Geoff Howe for The Globe and Mail)

Pest control

UVic's rabbit population facing cull Add to ...

It could be curtains for hundreds of rabbits plaguing the University of Victoria after a pilot project to capture, sterilize and relocate 150 bunnies was a flop.

The project ground to a halt just one-third of the way through after it was determined that just a handful of rabbits could be relocated.

Only 51 rabbits were caught by the company in charge, Common Ground, at a cost to UVic of $17,743 - or $348 per rabbit. But animal refuge societies could not accommodate any more rabbits. And efforts to find adoptive homes ran into the restrictions of the B.C. Wildlife Act, which requires special permits to take on any animal born in the wild. In the end, 40 of the 51 rabbits were returned to UVic.

With the pilot project's below-par results and upwards of 1,500 rabbits at UVic approaching breeding season, many of them injured or malnourished, a cull is being seriously considered, said Richard Piskor, the university's director of occupational health, safety and environment.

"Should there be a cull, we would not announce it in advance," Mr. Piskor said recently. "This is a very emotional topic."

A cull would most likely be done by trapping the rabbits, followed by veterinarians administering lethal injections, said Sara Dubois, the B.C. SPCA's manager of wildlife services. While the B.C. SPCA doesn't endorse a cull, it may be the only option left, she said.

During the pilot project, rabbit-trapping was "remarkably easy," Mr. Piskor said. The 51 rabbits were trapped within eight hours, using five traps that contained bedding and food.

"They walked right in," he said.

UVic's bunnies, either dumped by irresponsible adults or descended from abandoned pets, have a short life and painful death, said Ms. Dubois, who recalls rabbits as a problem a decade ago when she was a UVic student.

As chief safety officer, Mr. Piskor is concerned about hazards created by the rabbits. At UVic's sports fields, they leave multiple calling cards in the form of feces and burrows. A high-performance athlete could suffer a career-ending injury by stepping in a rabbit hole, Mr. Piskor said.

Adding fuel to the cull is that, of the trapped rabbits, half of them were one year old or less, indicating high mortality rates. Many had injuries, including missing eyes, torn ears and infections. One had to be euthanized. And almost all were malnourished, Mr. Piskor said.

Then there's the cleanup. Each day about three rabbits are killed by vehicles on UVic's main road.

"I really feel for the grounds staff," Mr. Piskor said.

When Victoria General was overrun with roughly 600 rabbits about a decade ago, it hired a sharpshooter. Today, only about a dozen rabbits surround the hospital, achieved by selective culling. In late 2008, the City of Kelowna also used sharpshooters to cull rabbits in the resort centre.

"We don't approve of that," Ms. Dubois said.

Instead, the B.C. SPCA has been actively lobbying pet stores to sell only sterilized rabbits.

On March 27, Victoria's New Petcetera had four dwarf rabbits for sale, costing $50 to $65. None were sterilized.

Pets West, also in Victoria, had one rabbit, Razzle Dazzle, spayed and from the SPCA. She had been abandoned in Mount Doug Park, another popular rabbit repository. Once she's sold for $30, the money will be donated to the SPCA, said Pets West assistant manager Danielle Molyneaux.

But for five days before Easter and two days after the holiday, rabbits, which can live up to 12 years, won't be available at Pets West.

"Ninety per cent of people who buy rabbits at Easter get rid of them," said Ms. Molyneaux, who has worked nearly 11 years at the pet store, preceded by seven years at the SPCA.

Adults buy them for children but the novelty wears off, and, considered a disposable item, the animals end up in places like UVic.

"Don't get rabbits for Easter," Ms. Dubois advised.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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