Pardon Me for Rabbiting On

By Gayle O’Leary*

Shipees, we have an adorable fluffy plague on our hands.

As we speak, there are an estimated 200 million rabbits roaming across Australia, including around Freo, north, south, east and I’m sure central too!

Not a single one of them belongs out there. All the rabbits we see out there originated from a fluffle (yes, you read that right!) of 13 imported rabbits brought to an estate in Victoria in 1859. (Varying sources debate that number but nevertheless, humble origins.)

They escaped after their enclosure burnt down and have been running amok ever since. Breeding like rabbits. Females gestate for just three-four weeks then they’re ready to go again, having up to 14 kits per litter! No wonder they’re outlawed in Queensland – but nowhere else.

In Fremantle and surrounds alone, dozens and dozens of rabbits have been spotted running wild recently. A proper bunanza. Or an abundment?

Many of these are abandoned or escaped pets, sadly not registered and certainly not microchipped. It isn’t mandatory.

Things have been worse. During the 1950s, rabbit populations reached a peak of 600 million, leading to the watershed decision to try releasing the highly virulent biological agent myxoma into the wild to curtail their numbers. This was a world first attempt to use a virus to control a highly invasive mammalian species. But it worked!

Feral rabbit populations peaked and have since been combated using engineered viruses such as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus, or RHDV and RHDV2, after wild rabbits gradually built up a resistance to myxomatosis.

Vaccinations are finally available for domestic rabbit-owners to protect their pets against RHDV2 after years of lobbying, but many threats remain to rabbits domestic and wild. Mosquito-borne diseases such as Calicivirus, poison baiting, cars, cats, dogs, hawks, and even spotted-tail quolls, to name a few.

Not to mention the suite of 40+ degree days we recently sweltered through in February. Imagine trying to endure that while wearing a fur coat! Hare-raising thought.

Rabbits make great pets. With love. With effort. With plenty of cable-proofing, vacuuming, brushing, patience, supervision, cuddling if they’re amenable, hay, vegetables, snacks, and side eye-stares or even stomping feet when you don’t feed them exactly according to their expectations.

They need just as much room to zoom as cats and dogs, if not more; good luck trying to walk them. Knackering. But they are loyal, affectionate with trust and care, quirky, and endlessly entertaining when they’re happy.

And yet again the sad fact is that many of the rabbits out there are former pets. Volunteer-run Romeo’s Rabbit Rescue based right here in Perth recovered 250 rabbits from maltreatment, dumping, or unexpected litters during 2023 alone.

At the time of writing, since 1 January, over 40 roaming domestic rabbit sightings have been reported on the Lost & Found Rabbits WA Facebook rescue page. That’s just one community page, and doesn’t account for all the suburb-based groups.

During 2022-23, RSPCA received up to 30 surrender requests a week and cared for up to 2385 pets rescued from inhumane conditions, surrendered, or dumped after many of us left lockdown during the pandemic and realised (a) we don’t have time to properly look after pets, or (b) we can’t afford the vet bills, which really can rack up for rabbits.

There’s plenty of other factors that have recently contributed to owners’ needs to surrender their beloved rabbits, whether it’s a conflict between landlord lease restrictions and pet ownership or health concerns restricting them from being able to take care of them.

Domestic violence, horrifically, has also sparked an increase in pet surrenders as shelters and emergency accommodation cannot always take pets as well. An alarming lack of capacity in local rescues to take on fosters and surplus of cheap or even free bunnies on platforms including Gumtree, means that rehoming them the proper way can take years depending on the circumstances, hence the increased risk of dumping we see across Perth.

It’s not hard to imagine the toll rabbits take on our agricultural industry. They cause up to $200 million of economic damage a year. A single rabbit can clear up to a hectare of shrub vegetation beyond repair! Not the news we want to hear when we’re already struggling to green our streetscapes and cool the city down. Our poor parks and streetscape shrubberies have to try and keep pace with them, no easy feat. Or should I say no EC feat? Which is another parasitic peril facing our furry friends, requiring lifelong medication, which is rampant throughout feral rabbit populations.

In the right conditions, rabbits can make a wonderful addition to your household. But it is vital to do your research first to understand if they are right for you. They require plenty of attention, space, and stimuli, in order to keep them healthy and happy. Not all of them like to be handled.

Many will not get along with other pets. So if you’re thinking of acquiring a rabbit for your kids this Easter, may I suggest you consider the implications of an expensive 10+ year commitment very very carefully.

Or get them a stuffed toy instead.

* By Gayle O’Leary, Fremantle resident and the proud carer of Freddie and Soot

Sooty and Freddie

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