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Trouble on the Bunny Trail
by Bob Kelleher
May 8, 2000
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Some residents of Duluth, are hopping mad about rabbits. A pair of domesticated rabbits was released into an isolated neighborhood about three years ago. As rabbits do, they've multiplied. Scores of big, black and white bunnies and their bouncy offspring are running around Park Point. The rabbits are a novelty but a nuisance to homeowners who find themselves in a turf war over gardens and shrubbery.
There's no official count, but many think the two original bunnies now number in the hundreds.

KAREN ELLIAN is hand feeding graham crackers to a pair of floppy-eared rabbits shes managed to pen in her backyard. Although born in the wild, these rabbits are clearly far from feral. They're gentle and friendly, slow and docile.

Duluth's Park Point is a five-mile-long spit of sand - actually a barrier island - at the far western end of Lake Superior. It's essentially a single street flanked by a row of houses on each side. Like little stuffed lawn ornaments, motionless white-and-black rabbits can be spotted in the shade of a tree, or peeking out from under a deck. Cute as they are, the rabbits have set neighbor against neighbor. Many, like Ellian, feed the rabbits. She doesn't want to see the animals starve, and hopes food might draw the rabbits away from gardens and shrubs. But some have gone to the other extreme.

"We had a neighbor who took a gun out, in the middle of the day, from his car and shot one," she says. But she understands her neighbor's rabbit rage. The army of adorable bunnies is defoliating the area.

Veterinarian Mary Wictor has fielded dozens of rabbit complaints that have come into the city's animal shelter. "I've seen people's flowering plants eaten; they've had shrubbery that's going around the base of their decks that's been eaten," she says. "There was at least one person down there who had some of the wood on her deck chewed away so the rabbit could get under there in order to have its babies."

There's no official count, but many think the two original bunnies now number in the hundreds. "I know we went to one house, and sitting there for maybe a half an hour, is very easy to see thirty rabbits, at one house," says Wictor. "There's probably half-a-dozen houses down there who do that. And that's just the ones we could see at one time."

Clearly, the rabbits are out of control, but no one's come up with a politically-correct way to get rid of them. A volunteer trapping plan snared just three. You can't hunt the rabbits in a residential neighborhood. Poisons would be dangerous for kids and pets. For decades, Australia has thinned its feral rabbits with introduced diseases like myxomatosis and calcivirus. Dr. Wictor cautions, if you do nothing, the densely populated Park Point rabbits may get struck by disease anyway.

"That's not only a problem for the rabbit, but it's kind of a public health problem to have dying rabbits down there. It's not going to be a very pleasant site to see a bunch of dying rabbits down on canal park."
"They're nature, but they're not. It's like putting tropical fish in Lake Superior."

- Karen Ellian

It's illegal to turn domestic rabbits loose, according to Rich Staffon, the regional wildlife officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. But it's not uncommon. Any humane society can tell you about tame rabbits turning up loose, especially in the months after Easter. But they almost never survive to reproduce.

"Normally with these domestic rabbits, they've pretty well lost their ability to cope with predators and so forth, so they're usually pretty vulnerable," Staffon says. "But I think the situation there on Park Point has developed enough that there aren't very many predators around, so they've escaped so far. And of course they reproduce at a rapid rate."

Outside the city the rabbits would be doomed. Northeast Minnesota is home to fox, bobcats, coyotes, wolves and Great Horned Owls. Even in Park Point, rabbit numbers are limited by cars, and feral cats, - even opportunistic seagulls which drift over head seeking a bunny snack.

Without effective control, only nature can keep the rabbits in check. But rabbit lovers, like Karen Ellian, worry, that nature can be cruel. "They're nature, but they're not," she says. "It's like putting tropical fish in Lake Superior. I mean, let nature take its course, and they're going to die. This is not their environment, and this is not their environment either."

A few rabbits have escaped Park Point. This spring, half a dozen bunnies appeared in the lawn of a city steam plant, about a quarter-mile inland from the point. But few believe the bunnies got there by hopping across Duluth's landmark Liftbridge. More likely they were dumped again. The bulk of the bunnies are spread along maybe a two-mile stretch of Park Point. But the point is five-miles long, with plenty or room for rabbit migration.