The bunnies are booming.
Love them for their small paws and big ears, or loathe them for their habit of wreaking havoc on gardens, the number of rabbits in the Seattle area has grown in the past few years. They’ve been spotted hopping around parks, backyards and the concrete sidewalks of Amazon’s headquarters campus.
Wildlife experts, animal-welfare managers and rescue advocates say they’ve seen an increase in both wild eastern cottontails and domestic bunnies.
“Rabbits seem to be the talk of the town this year,” said Aaron Wirsing, an associate professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington.
No specific population figures exist, but organizations offer anecdotal data. A wildlife center in Lynnwood predicts it will take in more injured wild rabbits this year – around 1,000 – than in past years. The Seattle Humane Society gets at least one call a day from someone asking about bringing in a rabbit.
A rescue nonprofit for domestic bunnies in Carnation is at capacity, but recently added two more after someone dropped them off in a cardboard box and drove away.
What’s the reason for the rapid rise in rabbits? For the cottontail, the small, light-brown bunny with white on the underside of its tail, the increasingly urban environment makes for a pretty nice life. There are the recent mild winters, manicured lawns ringed by shrubs where they can hide and the increased trapping of predators, like rats, by homeowners.
“What we do to the environment definitely encourages them,” said Emily Meredith, wildlife rehabilitation manager at PAWS, the wildlife center in Lynnwood.
The cottontail was introduced to Washington about a century ago to be hunted for food and sport. Wirsing called them a “boom-bust” species, and the current boom appears to have begun around 2015, during the first of a series of warmer winters.
Those seemingly small changes can lead to high reproduction rates. And rabbits reproduce like – well, you know. Females can have up to four litters during warm months with as many as seven rabbits each.
The young rabbits disperse soon after they’re born and wander to new areas where there’s plentiful food, which is likely how some end up in spots like downtown Seattle, said Jim Kenagy, UW professor emeritus of biology and emeritus curator of mammals at the Burke Museum.
“It’s increasingly an urban rabbit. There are some who would be too wary to be in places where lots of humans exist, but clearly they are doing well in Seattle,” he said. One video posted on Twitter shows a bunny scampering alone outside the entrance of a South Lake Union building.
The proliferation of the cottontails doesn’t pose significant problems (unless you’re a gardener, Meredith says), but it’s different for domestic rabbits. June was “dump month” for rabbits who were bred to be pets, said Angie Green, founder of Special Bunny in Carnation.
“Everybody is tired of the Easter bunnies they got for their kids,” Green said, so they abandon them at a park or other area where they think they’ll thrive. But most aren’t equipped for outdoor survival and get their ears torn off by raccoons or plucked by eagles.
The survivors do what rabbits do, and the population explodes, which is what happened around Green Lake and Woodland Park in 2005. Many of those rabbits were eventually relocated to a sanctuary near Sequim.
Green cares for dozens of rabbits that were surrendered or rescued, including 25 special-needs bunnies that live in her house. They live in well-maintained cages with music playing in the background, which “mellows them out,” she says.
Many are in pairs; domestic bunnies are social creatures who often bond for life. She can’t take in any more of the animals.
“I feel a little bit doomed, because there’s no place for them go to,” she said. The Seattle Humane Society can only take in four rabbits at a time at their Bellevue location, said Humane Society spokeswoman Bekah Sandy.
What can residents do to curb the population? For one, don’t feed the rabbits, no matter which species. Owners who can’t care for their rabbits should contact an organization like the Humane Society or Special Bunny, who can work with them to find a new home. And anyone interested in getting a rabbit should do research on the time and attention a rabbit requires, and consider re-homing one instead of adopting a baby from a store.
The Humane Society, for example, has a 6-year-old female who was surrendered by someone who couldn’t care for her because of the owner’s busy school schedule. She’s recovering from a bout of alopecia, but is healing well, and loves getting petted.
“Her name is Thumper,” Sandy said. “She’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.”