Next to an outcropping of rocks within Woodland Park that has evolved into a rabbit warren, Anne Van Loen is trying to keep three little...

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Next to an outcropping of rocks within Woodland Park that has evolved into a rabbit warren, Anne Van Loen is trying to keep three little kids quiet so as to not spook the bunnies they are enticing with Romaine lettuce and baby carrots.

Alex, her 5-year-old-son, extends a leaf. A black rabbit hops within arm’s length and starts to nibble, soon to be surrounded by eight friends, including babies tiny enough to fit in the palm of a hand. It’s so still that Van Loen and the children can hear the munching.

“It’s just amazing we can do this in the middle of Seattle,” Van Loen says. “It’s quite surreal, really.”

Surreal, perhaps, because it’s not right with nature. The bunnies, descendants of domestic species, are living a life in the wild where they don’t belong and harming the environment.

In an attempt to restore the natural order, the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, assisted by animal-welfare groups, is making plans to relocate the Woodland Park and Green Lake Park bunnies to Rabbit Meadows Sanctuary in rural Redmond, which has rescued rabbits from previous roundups around Puget Sound. Seattle’s roundup likely won’t happen until winter when the population is lowest, allowing time to raise money to sterilize, deworm and delouse each captured animal.

By taking what parks officials consider the humane approach, they hope to avoid a repeat of the outrage from a few summers ago when they captured Canada geese from Green Lake with the intent to gas them. Still, they are eliminating what has become a popular family attraction, and parks officials are sensitive to how the public will react.

“How can we convince people that the cute bunny is something that they shouldn’t be feeding — and something that shouldn’t even be here?” said Sandra DeMeritt, a Woodland Park maintenance worker.

A rabbit roundup

Rabbit Meadows Sanctuary: The nonprofit sanctuary on Union Hill in Redmond shelters some 400 rabbits within a secured half-acre of a four-acre expanse.

To donate to the rabbit roundup: Seattle Animal Shelter, 2061 15th Ave. West, Seattle, WA 98119. Specify “Woodland Park rabbits” on donation.

Exploding population

The nonnative rabbits have been hopping around the two North End parks for probably 20 years, a phenomenon that likely began when misguided owners abandoned their pets in the wild.

Mark Gross, project manager with the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, said the group is thrilled to be part of the solution this time. “It’s such a change from when we were adversaries in the goose killings,” he said.

The bunny population at Woodland and Green Lake parks has exploded in the past year or so, with the most recent estimate at 500. By September, at the end of their notoriously efficient breeding season, that number easily could double.

Though placid with people, the critters are damaging trees and destroying native wildlife habitat. They have migrated to the elk, elephant and macaque-monkey exhibits at Woodland Park Zoo and also the Lower Woodland ballfields, creating potentially hazardous situations should the ground get pockmarked with holes or the turf become unstable from the burrowing.

The two areas with the highest bunny concentrations are at the north end of a picnic-shelter loop at Woodland Park, accessible from North 50th Street, and a small triangle-shaped meadow on the west side of Green Lake that backs onto Aurora Avenue North.

On the small but steep hillside, large holes in the earth are impossible to miss. Tree roots are exposed and the surface has eroded into an unsteady layer of sand.

“I can see where they’ve been undermining the trees,” said Pat Clark of North Seattle, who was at the meadow taking pictures of bunnies feasting on sunflower seeds left by a previous visitor. “I certainly can understand why the city would want to round up the rabbits and I’m glad they will be dealt with humanely — but a lot of people are going to miss them.”

But the Woodland Park Zoo won’t. It hasn’t taken long for the rabbits to figure out that the zoo offers a nifty habitat with plenty of food and water, said E.J. Hook, facility-operations supervisor.

The zoo tries to keep the rabbit population down by buttressing fencing and removing brush, but when numbers become unmanageable, rabbits are trapped and euthanized at a rate of about 10 or 20 a week, Hook said.

“Say a rabbit burrows and an elk gets one of its appendages caught in that hole,” Hook said. “When they start threatening our collection, we have to take action.” The bunnies also carry diseases and parasites that can spread to zoo animals.

They are feasting upon public gardens, as well. Rose Brittenham, senior gardener for the parks department, said bunnies nibble flowering kale and pansies to the nub, so her crew now grows only rabbit-tolerant species.

In spite of signs imploring people not to feed the rabbits, the practice has become as common as tossing stale bread to ducks. The problem is that bunny food also attracts squirrels and crows, and at night, rats scrounge on the leftovers, parks officials say.

Rounding up rabbits

Seven years ago, Rabbit Meadows Sanctuary took in 652 bunnies from a Redmond business park near Highway 520. Other rabbits there have been rescued from the wilds around Renton and Wenatchee, said Sandi Ackerman, sanctuary founder.

She is advising Seattle to hold off on its roundup until late winter, when the bunny population can dip as low as 100. “We will be taking care of these rabbits for several years and, unfortunately, we can’t afford to take care of every bunny that’s out there right now.”

Although the task of corralling all those bunnies seems daunting, Ackerman said the rescues in Redmond and Renton were successful. Bunnies are lured into traps with food, and any that elude the first intensive capture are targeted soon after.

If too many rabbits avoid the traps, it won’t take long for them to multiply like, well, rabbits.

In a year, females can have two or three litters of up to 10 babies. After becoming pregnant, they give birth in about a month and nurse the babies for three months. Then they are ready to do it all over again.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or