The late July sun sets, and hundreds of feral rabbits flood the pastures outside a state-run mental health facility near Summerlin, readily devouring carrots, parsley and greens that have been strewn about. They are not wild. These bunnies once filled up pet stores during the Easter frenzy, and then crowded animal shelters or public spaces like this a few months later. And their survival depends on human compassion.
Americans abandon rabbits more than any other domesticated animal, and the problem compounds because the bunnies reproduce rapidly. It takes just 30 days for a mother to give birth to as many as 14 babies, and she can become pregnant again almost immediately. According to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell Animal Medical Center, one female can produce 800 babies, grandbabies and great-grandbabies in a year. It’s an equation for chaos, leading to bunny-on-bunny violence, degradation of utility pipes, road kill, animal cruelty, coyote infestations and more.
Standing under the pines at this popular dumpsite for unwanted rabbits that falls within the city of Las Vegas, Stacey Taylor from Bunnies Matter Las Vegas estimates there are 800 to 1,200 here. Most reside underground in burrows during the heat of the day, coming out at dawn and dusk. “I don’t believe people are dropping their bunnies off with intent to harm them. I think they get flustered and say, ‘At least they’re free, and people are feeding them.’ ”
Las Vegas’ feral bunny problem is at least 5 years old, Taylor says. It garnered so much attention in 2015 that the state awarded V Animal Sanctuary a $17,000 contract to address it. Handlers captured more than 200 rabbits, but the population rebounded in six months.
Taylor knows of at least two other large dumpsites in parks (one in the city of Las Vegas and the other in unincorporated Clark County) and many smaller neighborhood enclaves. She said that Bunnies Matter has reached out to police, the mayor, the Las Vegas City Council and Clark County Animal Control.
Did you know?
After dogs and cats, rabbits are the most popular pet in the United States. And they are the most frequently abandoned.
“I checked with our Animal Control folks, and they aren’t aware of any areas in the county where this is an ongoing issue,” Clark County Senior Public Information Officer Stacey Welling said. A city spokesman said that because no residents have filed complaints in the past three years, the issue isn’t formally recognized.
Through its Las Vegas office, a representative of the Nevada Department of Wildlife said that although responsibility for these animals falls to local Animal Control, he wished pet owners wouldn’t abandon them.
How you can help
• Volunteer: There’s a need for people to feed, water and check on animals at various dump sites. Sign up at bunniesmatter.org/volunteers.
• Donate: Give directly to the vet at Southern Hills Hospital or to Bunnies Matter to help cover medical expenses (spaying, neutering, treating infections or broken bones), or donate exercise pens, cages, litter boxes, paper litter, bunny pellets, fresh veggies or Timothy hay.
• Foster/adopt: Experienced rabbit owners are encouraged to house rescues until they find homes. Bunnies Matter will help educate new owners.
• Share: “Even if they can’t volunteer or donate or foster, if all they do is share a Facebook post, that’s great because you never know who’s going to see that post,” Taylor said.
Volunteers can make only small dents in the situation. While they help as many bunnies as they can, the scarcity of resources can lead to territorial behavior and injuries. Vet bills are piling up, and the population is not decreasing despite adoption efforts. Taylor adds that there is not enough awareness of the problem or experienced rabbit owners to foster rescues.
Hunting, poisoning, trapping or otherwise harming the rabbits is illegal, according to city regulations. If caught, individuals will face misdemeanor charges for their actions.
The most effective option available to Bunnies Matter — “trap, neuter, return,” in which bunnies are sterilized and then brought back to the wild — is illegal, because it’s considered abandonment. So the organization focuses on keeping the animals healthy until a more permanent solution is found.
An administrator at the mental health facility is helping Bunnies Matter craft proposals for the state, one asking for a donated building where adoptions could be facilitated and vets could provide onsite neutering and spaying. Taylor’s partner in the rescue operation, Dave Schweiger, said those services average about $200 per animal.
The feral bunny problem literally found its way onto Schweiger’s doorstep — rabbits released by a careless pet owner made a home in his shed, and he says his northwest valley neighborhood has an ongoing problem. The main driver of so many people abandoning pets? Lack of education, he says. Many people think rabbits are “starter” pets, but if they knew the work that goes into taking care of these $25 balls of fur, they might be deterred.
Both Schwieger and Taylor say they spend hundreds of their own money to help the feral bunnies of Las Vegas, but space in their homes is tapped out.
“I can’t give up,” Taylor says. “Something good is going to happen. It has to. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Before you get a rabbit, get informed
• Behavior: Rabbits are crepuscular, meaning they’re most active at dawn and dusk and relax during the day. They are social and smart, but prey animals have nervous tendencies, so it will take time to bond. Once you build trust, they can be extremely affectionate.
• Diet: Contrary to what Bugs Bunny would have you believe, carrots are not the dietary staple. About 80 percent of a bunny’s diet should be hay, followed by leafy greens such as kale. Carrots, bananas and apples work great as treats. Like most house pets, rabbits beg for food, but human food can be fatal to their sensitive digestive systems.
• Health: Rabbits need annual wellness checkups. They should be microchipped in case they are lost, and spayed or neutered to curb the feral bunny population. In addition, unspayed female rabbits have a 90 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer, and unneutered males are more aggressive and will spray urine to mark their territory.
• Habitat: Unlike wild rabbits, pet rabbits need a regulated environment to protect them from heat exhaustion and hypothermia. Like cats, they can be litter-trained. They gravitate toward one corner of a room, so observe and place a plastic box accordingly, lining it with bunny-safe litter (ideally made from recycled paper). If your rabbit is left free to roam, place litter boxes in several places. Even if he or she doesn’t make it to the bathroom every time, the excrement is in pellet form and is easy to vacuum.
• Bunny-proofing: If you don’t give them something to chew on, they’ll find something — usually cords, baseboards or furniture. Protect the rabbit, and your property, with cord protectors. And buy or make toys: cardboard box castles and wooden puzzles keep them busy physically and mentally.