Until very recently, dozens of bunnies were hopping around the Jenada Isles neighborhood of Wilton Manors, digging holes, chewing on grass and eating carrots out of people’s hands. But for the rescue workers trying to capture them, the situation was far from something out of a children’s book.
They say people threatened to shoot them, followed them on foot and in slow-moving cars, honked horns and cursed at them, filmed and took pictures of them and even chased the rabbits away from rescue workers in order to prevent their capture. Meanwhile, the bunnies are in desperate need of medical attention, suffering from parasites and infections and struggling to survive in the extreme heat.
Monica Mitchell, the president of East Coast Rabbit Rescue, the group spearheading the effort, was out in the neighborhood at 6:30 a.m. Friday morning with a police escort, trying to capture the domesticated lionhead rabbits. Reached by phone that afternoon, she seemed fed up.
“People think just because they’re hopping around they’re O.K, but most of them, they have lots of fleas, they do have some parasites, you can see by their eyes they don’t look happy at all,” she said. “…We tried to educate the neighbors, but most of them said ‘well, we like the bunnies here, my kids come to play with the bunnies, my grandkids come to play with the bunnies.’ They basically want the bunnies there to entertain their kids or grandkids, but are not concerned about the welfare of the bunnies.”
It all began when a backyard breeder illegally released the rabbits before she moved out of the neighborhood two years ago. Since then, “the problem has become monstrous,” said Kim Renk Dryer, a Palm Beach resident who operates a rabbit sanctuary in Rhode Island and has advocated for something to be done over the last three months.
The passage of time “exacerbated high level of emotion,” she said. Neighbors grew attached to the bunnies, which continued to “just breed and be subject to all the maladies of living outside, because they should not be outside. They’re like little poodles that someone just let out.”
When The Associated Press reported last week that the city commission had voted to exterminate the rabbits, rescue groups and volunteers from across the region and out of state flocked to the tiny neighborhood to try to capture the estimated 60 to 100 rabbits before they breed — or die.
“It’s an uphill battle,” said Marc Cohen, a volunteer with East Coast Rabbit Rescue who joined in the effort Friday. Still, the bunny numbers have decreased since rescue efforts this past week.
The Wilton Manors situation has been particularly difficult for rescue workers because the rabbits are in a neighborhood rather than out in the open, often hiding on private property, the residents unhappy with the groups’ presence there. Several different rescue groups have also descended on the neighborhood at once, not always collaborating.
Dylan Warfel runs Penny and Wild Smalls of South Florida, another local rabbit rescue that has spent the past week trying to rescue the rabbits. Trying to catch the rabbits amid the pushback became so difficult Thursday night, she said, her team gave up.
“We did eventually decide to call it and leave,” she said. “We went expecting to catch more than we actually caught.”
The group had hoped to catch five or six rabbits Thursday night, but ended up with three. Over the past week, they’ve caught a total of 16, though they will soon have 19 when one of the rabbits gives birth, Warfel said. The rescue has reached capacity for now, she said, though they may return at some point in the future.
Meanwhile, East Coast Rabbit Rescue caught 19 rabbits during its own mission Friday, Mitchell said, adding that another out-of-state group caught 18 Thursday morning.
“Our goal was to capture probably around 40, 45 today,” Mitchell said. “But we were able to get only 19 because the residents didn’t collaborate with us.”
She said that one person threatened to shoot them. Another ran around chasing a rabbit and hitting it with a stick. Others hid the rabbits, Cohen said.
Some of the backlash also stemmed from residents not knowing why the volunteers were there in the first place, some thinking they were there to kill the rabbits rather than save them.
Dan Trebowski was one of them. He grew angry when he saw people in front of his Wilton Manors home trying to capture the rabbits Thursday night, fearing they were being taken away to be killed.
“It is important that they are not euthanized. It is understandable that this is not the right environment for them,” Trebowski told the Associated Press. Still, he was disappointed that the rabbits couldn’t stay. “They bring a lot of joy to the neighborhood.”
Mitchell also said that residents were confusing the different rescue groups, and that she didn’t want her organization “blamed” for actions other groups took.
Still, she added, “one single rescue cannot take a big load of 100 bunnies at once, there’s no way. So the more rescues the better. But we need to have some standards.”
As the news spread across the country, out-of-state rescues began offering to take in some of the rabbits.
Missouri-based Dolly’s Dream Home Rabbit Rescue said in a statement that the group offered to help but “we have not been engaged.”
“The situation in Florida is devastating to the house rabbit community,” the statement said, “and while we have publicly offered our services to intake as many rabbits as possible into our system and provide veterinary care and a loving foster home, we have not been engaged and have not taken in any rabbits from this particular situation. We stand by ready to assist as requested.”
Mitchell said that one group offered to take some of the rabbits they rescued in a van back to their state of origin, but she declined the offer because she was worried about the rabbits’ health on the road.
“If something happens on the trip, they die because of stress, I don’t want to be part of that,” she said.
Warfel said that the Florida rabbit rescues “do the best we can to work together we don’t like to step on each other’s toes.”
“We come together for the rabbits, that is what we do,” she said. “The entire purpose we have, these rescues, is to help the rabbits.”
Funding is another issue for the rescue groups. All of the rabbits need to be spayed and neutered. Most are sick. They’re not supposed to live in temperatures above 85 degrees, let alone Florida’s extreme heat. Warfel said all of the rabbits have ear mites and coccidia, a type of parasite. Several have additional medical problems on top of that, including skin and uterine infections, dental problems, and a mange that can be infectious to people, Mitchell said.
“You’re looking at about five to six hundred per rabbit in vetting expenses,” Warfel said, “not counting anything additional.”
Mitchell’s organization raised the money to capture the rabbits through a GoFundMe, but she’s hoping to reach an agreement with the city to receive funding for some of their work.
“We can’t bear all the costs,” she said.
Penny and Wild launched a similar fundraiser on Friday, though so far they have only raised about $30, Warfel said. Keeping the rabbits is another expense, she said. The group also needs people to take the rabbits home.
It remains unclear when or if another rescue operation will be needed.
“The city will continue to communicate with East Coast Rabbit Rescue to identify additional efforts in the future to humanely rescue more rabbits,” Aimee Adler Cooke, a spokesperson for the city of Wilton Manors, told the Sun Sentinel on Friday, but there are currently “no official plans.”
So far, efforts appear to be working. In addition to the bunnies captured, resident Alicia Griggs told the Sun Sentinel she had taken in six bunnies herself, while another neighbor took in 10, a different one nine. Renk Dryer said she took in some as well, one of which gave birth in her bed last night.
When the rescued bunnies are ready for adoption, she said that she would be willing to house some at her sanctuary.
But all the bunnies need to be captured, spayed and neutered to prevent the situation from reoccurring.
“We can go there and rescue 70 bunnies,” Mitchell said. If only two remain, “in 6 months it will probably start all over again.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.