IT’S LATE AFTERNOON in the Olympic Sculpture Park — 9 acres of art and landscaping overlooking Puget Sound — with a classic Seattle mixed-spring sky overhead. One ragged halo of blue hangs above a container ship, but most of the rest is clouds: “Simpsons”-puffy up top, flat and sooty below, like cotton balls that have been used to swab a wet ashtray.
Below is the domain of King Bunny, lord of the local herbivores, currently perched on a carpet of grass and clover, doing his part to mow the lawn. (Biologically speaking, we don’t know if this rabbit is male. But Seattle Art Museum runs the sculpture park, and its facilities and landscape staff has named the creature, so King Bunny it is.)
In coloring (brownish) and shape (fat oval), King Bunny appears to be a well-fed Sylvilagus floridanus, the same Eastern cottontail species as the other rabbits on the lawn — as well as the uncounted thousands, maybe millions, that seem to be in the middle of a population boom across Western Washington. You might have seen a few yourself.
But this rabbit is at least three times as big as the others, each ear sprouting straight up like the tip of a fleur-de-lis, and it seems remarkably self-possessed for a rabbit. People walk past, some with dogs, others stopping to take his picture. King Bunny doesn’t care.
A boy in overalls, maybe 9 years old, spots him. He peels away from his accompanying adults, making a slow beeline for the big rabbit, hands clenching and releasing, as if his amygdala — that almond-shaped corner of the brain scientists have associated with the perception of cuteness and, perhaps paradoxically, hunting — has taken over.
The rabbit slowly raises its head and, when the boy is just a few paces away, unhurriedly hop-lumbers through a gap in a nearby thicket.
The boy spins, apparently overwhelmed, and squeaks: “Little bunny hidy-hole!” Once he’s gone — back with the grown-ups among the rusty waves of Richard Serra’s “Wake” — the rabbit lopes back out and resumes grazing, the picture of dignified ease.
King Bunny is aptly named.
WHICH, I ADMIT, pains me a little — because is there a name more ridiculous, more contradictory, more absurd on its face than “King Bunny”? Kings are rare, regal, at the top. Cottontails are common, skittish, with bottom-of-the-food-chain skills: feeding, breeding and getting eaten.
“They’re called ‘forest snacks’ for a reason,” says Sue Brennan, founder of Rabbit Haven, a no-kill shelter in Gig Harbor. (Her passion is feral rabbits — domestic specimens that have been dumped — but she knows about wild rabbits, too.) “One that manages to be savvy might live two or three years. You don’t see a lot of old cottontails.”
Uncommon age might account for King Bunny’s size. So far, he’s evaded the coyotes, hawks, eagles and owls that snatch up his kin around town. Even crows get in on the bunny feast. “It can be hard if you don’t have the stomach for it,” says Bobby McCullough, facilities and landscape manager at the sculpture park. “A crow flying away with a baby bunny making a terrible noise 100 feet up.” (Other rabbit species burrow, but a cottontail nest isn’t exactly the Fort Knox of the animal kingdom. They’re shallow depressions and mostly unguarded: Mothers, not wanting to attract predators, don’t hang around unless it’s feeding time.)
The park’s S. floridanus population has spiked in the past three or so years, McCullough says, and bunny-noticers have divergent attitudes. Some feel protective, calling for a gardener to “Do something!” if they find a rabbit half-chewed by a raptor. Others regard the critters as a problem, suggesting McCullough set out traps and poison bait.
“As long as I’m working here, that won’t happen,” he says. “I get more joy from seeing them sunning themselves on the grass than frustration at chewed-down fern fronds.”
HUG THEM OR HUNT THEM: Like the little boy stalking King Bunny, many of us have our amygdalae tickled by rabbits. McCullough leans toward the hug-them camp. But some horticulturists root for the other team — the one with beaks and fangs.
“For us, it’s always been insects and disease,” says David Zuckerman, who got his start at the Washington Park Arboretum in the 1980s and worked his way to manager of horticulture for the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. “Now we’re adding mammals to our list of pests. That was not the case six years ago.”
Since cottontails found their way into the Arboretum, they’ve been chewing up leaves, stems, even tree bark — including precious young specimens, some grown from the wild seeds of species that have been red-listed as threatened. Preservation and conservation, Zuckerman explains, are key functions of the Arboretum.
“We’re maybe in the top five national collections for some oaks, magnolias and maples,” he says. “But the cottontails don’t discriminate.”
Just across Union Bay, UW Farm manager Perry Acworth has seen peas, beans, lettuce and other plants nibbled away — even at the half-acre Mercer Court Apartment gardens, which means rabbits have been climbing stairs to get to the chard.
That has cost UW Farm some revenue. Most of its income, Acworth says, comes from sales to UW food services, as well as households subscribing to weekly produce boxes. She’s deployed a variety of defenses: a solar-powered electric fence (though people keep stealing the batteries); marshmallowy row covers (rabbits chewed through them); thick, black plastic netting (ditto); and galvanized wire mesh (that’s been successful).
Zuckerman and Acworth have experimented with a fertilizer made from dehydrated blood, since rabbits fear the smell of carnage, and cultivate raptor-friendly habitats: keeping dead tree trunks and installing owl boxes. In 2019, Acworth worked with Indigenous students to install traditional rabbit snares. They snagged one and roasted it with Lakota squash and Makah Ozette potatoes.
“I’m just waiting for some chefs to say, ‘There’s cottontail on the menu,’ ” Acworth says. “That’s a whole underappreciated, underutilized, four-footed dinner hopping by!”
WHERE DID ALL these cottontails come from?
In boxes, from Kansas and Missouri.
It started in 1927, when a man named Charles D. White bought two dozen cottontail rabbits from a dealer in Kansas. At the time, Washington had a few native lagomorphs — pikas in the mountains, pygmy rabbits in the sagebrush — but no S. floridanus. (Important evolutionary note: Rabbits are lagomorphs and definitely not rodents. Those two trajectories likely split around 64.5 million years ago, shortly after the dinosaurs disappeared.)
White planned to raise them at the King County Game Farm in Auburn, where he was the manager, but 13 promptly died — a 1941 account said, “They became very sick from eating cabbage” — and White released the rest into the wild “to fare as best they might.”
They fared fine. By the next summer, cottontails had colonized a roughly 13-mile radius, and were spotted in Enumclaw, Sumner and Kent.
Those 11 rabbits weren’t the only pioneers from the Midwest. Over the next six years, at least three other people in Washington released a couple dozen S. floridanus each — including Dr. J.G. Beattie, who imported 24 rabbits (this time from Neosho, Missouri) to his farm on Clark County, near the Oregon border, to train a pack of beagles. The dogs got 12. The other 12 survived. Just seven years later, State Game Protector John Biggs wrote in a letter: “I would estimate their numbers in this county at this time at a minimum of 40,000, and this figure could easily be much larger.”
It probably was.
As “forest snacks,” S. floridanus has evolved to reproduce early and often. Estimates about their fecundity vary, but the conservative-to-midrange numbers say cottontails produce three or four litters a year with around six kits per litter. (Baby rabbits are called “kits.” Rabbit birth is called “kindling.”) They achieve sexual maturity in three to four months, and their gestation period is around 25 days. Kits become kindlers in a single breeding season — which, according to researchers in Western Oregon, can last from late January through summer.
How many cottontails are there now? And are we really in a population boom? Nobody seems to know. None of the experts you might expect (biologists from the University of Washington, state and county wildlife officials, mammalogists at the Burke Museum) are aware of any attempts to calculate their numbers, though most agree they’ve seen more in the past few years than they used to.
And it might be our fault.
“We’ve been making perfect habitat for cottontails in the Puget Trough, especially with the extreme housing boom we’ve been in for the past several years,” says Chris Anderson, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) who specializes in King County. “Brushy stuff, open lawns, thickets to hide in: You create more salad bowls, you create more population.”
Rabbits also love developed areas because predators are less inclined to hunt there than in forests and greenbelts — at least during the day. “Cottontails may have a daytime refuge because of human activity,” he says. “Not many predators are going to nab a rabbit 20 feet away from people on the sidewalk, or watching the ducks at Volunteer Park.”
Another factor is likely making the rabbits happy: our recent string of mild springs (this year’s dim, soggy season excepted). Mellow winters, a few early rains to get the greenery going, then warm and dry spring months — that’s good cottontail weather.
Which raises obvious questions about climate change. Does a warmer Washington (which is projected) mean more cottontails forever?
“With climate change and potentially warming winters, that could prolong the breeding season,” says Katherine Haman, a wildlife veterinarian with the state DFW. But she’s careful not to make predictions — the effects of climate change on any given species are complex and unknown.
Predators can keep S. floridanus in check, but only to a point. Coyotes, hawks, eagles and owls are territorial — only so many of them will work a given salad bowl, no matter how many rabbits are in there.
ONE PHENOMENON MIGHT sweep away local cottontails, but it’s ugly: a new strain of rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV), which is raging through wild rabbit populations in the Southwest. Previously, RHDV was thought to infect only domestic rabbits. Not anymore.
“Researchers in Nevada are seeing widespread losses,” Haman says. “It’s not like they find a bunch of carcasses, but they go into the field where they knew they had pygmy rabbits and are no longer seeing them.”
RHDV is as nasty as it sounds: a highly contagious virus with a roughly 95% mortality rate that causes intense hemorrhaging (bleeding from the mouth is a typical sign) and kills within 24 to 48 hours. RHDV is no danger to people, Haman says, but if it comes to Washington and establishes a reservoir in cottontails, it could completely wipe out the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit — the smallest rabbit species in North America. DFW biologists estimate there are only 100 left.
Rabbits carry a few zoonotic diseases, including tularemia (a bacteria the U.S. government once investigated, along with anthrax, for its bioweapons potential) and plague. But tularemia is rare — Washington has three or four cases each year — and rabbit-borne plague hasn’t been documented in the state for several years.
Some gardeners and horticulturists might secretly yearn for a cottontail-specific virus to wipe out our S. floridanus — while sparing the poor pygmy rabbits — but their sudden evaporation could trigger other problems.
A recent study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found impressive parallels between cottontail and golden eagle populations in western states. High concentrations of S. floridanus were linked with more adult eagles breeding, more chicks per nest, where eagles build nests and even rates of eagle electrocution. (The number of dead — mostly adolescent — golden eagles found along power lines “was positively correlated with the number of cottontails per length of power line.”)
“Even though cottontails are not native, native species have probably come to rely on them,” Haman says. “If RHDV came in and removed 95% of the population, it could have cascading impacts.”
It’s been 95 years since those first 24 cottontails showed up in boxes at a game farm in Auburn — now we’re not sure what our ecosystem would do without them.
CULTURALLY SPEAKING, RABBITS can be a startlingly multivalent species. Lions are brave, owls are wise, but rabbits are all over the place, symbolizing different things to different people. Old stories characterize the rabbit as arrogant (Greece), cowardly (Tibet), a great warrior (China), tricky (lots of places) and prototypical prey (lots of other places).
And they have a persistent relationship with the moon, in folk tales and fables from several continents, perhaps because of their breeding prowess, or because their gestation period is approximately one month. In early Christian Europe, their extraordinary fertility has made them symbols of the Virgin Mary (some “natural historians” thought rabbits reproduced asexually) and of carnality (others were not so confused).
For several centuries, in fact, the word “rabbit” referred only to baby bunnies; the adult was called a “coney,” which might have rhymed with “honey.” But that word, and variations on it, accumulated impolite connotations. The Oxford English Dictionary charts the usage, including one line from a popular 1622 play co-written by a contemporary of Shakespeare: “ … they cry like poulterers’ wives, ‘no money, no cony.’ ” By the 1800s, “rabbit” nudged out “coney” in most of the English-speaking world, but the racy connotations stuck around. In 1954, for example, Playboy art director Art Paul sketched a rabbit silhouette that became the magazine’s iconic logo.
Rabbits also mean many things to many people in North America: the mischievous Br’er Rabbit, the resolute Energizer Bunny (which originally was the Duracell Bunny, but Duracell let its trademark lapse), the incongruously creepy rabbits of David Lynch and “Donnie Darko,” etc. A particularly brutal New York-Irish gang in the late 1800s called itself “The Dead Rabbits.”
But in traditional Puget Sound stories — told in the Snoqualmie, Puyallup, Muckleshoot and other traditions — the rabbit takes on a highly recognizable personality.
“He’s a little devious, a little arrogant, a little ‘catch me if you can,’ ” says Warren KingGeorge, historian for the Muckleshoot Tribe. “Almost like a Bugs Bunny fella.”
In one popular story, Rabbit and Grizzly Bear are traveling over the mountains to Yakima in early spring. They stop for a night at what is now called Keechelus Lake, and play the guessing/gambling game slahal. The story has layers, but involves Grizzly threatening Rabbit, who then tricks the bear into walking over thin ice, which breaks, drowning him. Dukʷibeł, also known as The Changer, comes by and turns them to stone.
That lake, and its Rabbit-Grizzly rock formations, used to be a halfway point for people on either side of the mountains, where folks would gather and play slahal. Those landmark rocks, KingGeorge says, were exploded to make way for the Snoqualmie Tunnel and its railroad.
But one of the story’s lessons, he adds, is about resilience: “It’s not always the big and strong bullies that come out on top. Sometimes it’s the ones who think things through.”
KingGeorge is a jogger. On his runs, he — like many of us — also has noticed a lot more cottontails lately. “I couldn’t begin to explain why,” he says. “It’s probably a number of factors, but during this climate shift we’re all experiencing, it seems some animals are benefiting and some are really becoming victims. Rabbit has physical skills, an amazing ability to hear and smell, and is really capable of adapting to most habitats, making some adjustments to be comfortable. You can see rabbits everywhere!”
I might have gotten King Bunny and his kind all wrong — cottontails are fuzzy machines for eating, running and getting caught, but they’ve got one other, very important quality.
Rabbits are survivors.