Rabbits on the lam

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Peter Cottontail’s cousins are being spotted around East Hawaii.

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Peter Cottontail’s cousins are being spotted around East Hawaii.

In light of increased rabbit sightings during the past few months, the Big Island Invasive Species Committee stepped up outreach efforts to let people know about the dangers of the animals creating an established population.

“There have always been reports of rabbits, but it seems like the last months we’ve been getting a lot more,” said BIISC invasive vertebrate field coordinator Brett Gelinas.

“Within the last week, I think we’ve had four reports of rabbits in different places, so it’s not the same rabbit,” said Franny Kinslow Brewer, BIISC communications director.

Rabbits have been reported in locations as disparate as Waimea and Hilo. On Tuesday, Gelinas went in search of a Puna-based rabbit but was unsuccessful.

“The Hilo one — I found the rabbit, but haven’t been able to catch him yet,” Gelinas said about the Puna rabbit. “He’s a wily one.”

In May, after more than two weeks of trapping attempts, three rabbits were caught in Waimea. One was a pregnant female that later had eight babies (called kits). All of the rabbits were re-homed.

“We can’t let it get to the point where they’re exploding all over the island,” Brewer said.

Rabbits are not illegal to keep in Hawaii, but state law requires they be kept in hutches off the ground.

“They’re really good escape artists,” Brewer said.

Most people aren’t aware of the state law, said Trisha Broley, who owns Lava Rock Rabbits, an American Rabbit Breeders Association-registered rabbitry in Pahoa.

“Many rabbit owners think it cruel to confine a rabbit or too much trouble to give daily care,” she wrote in an email. The rabbits get let loose in a backyard, and can easily escape.

“Hawaii is not a natural habitat for a rabbit, and living ‘free’ does not make for a happy or healthy rabbit,” Broley said.

Broley also does rescue work, taking in rabbits that no longer are wanted. That population is mainly rabbits originally raised for meat.

“Too many people think they can do (that), but in fact very few can kill a living rabbit and even fewer know how to do this humanely,” Broley said. People don’t know what to do when “dinner is no longer an option.”

Unwanted pet rabbits often end up at the Hawaii Island Humane Society, where they are spayed or neutered. There are currently four rabbits available for adoption, according to the HIHS website.

Gelinas said other non-native populations, such as feral cats and mongoose, are for the time being keeping rabbit numbers in check. Kits can start reproducing when they are 3 months old, and once a female has a litter, she can breed again within a month. Females can have up to six litters of eight kits per year.

Domestic rabbits aren’t very good at surviving alongside the cats and mongoose, Gelinas said, but “it just takes a couple of those kits to survive, and then a generation or two down the road, they’ll be a lot smarter.”

In the 1800s, an initial population of 24 rabbits released for hunting purposes in Australia exploded to the point where the population now is considered an infestation.

Though they are small in size, rabbits could still do considerable damage to Hawaii ecosystems because they enjoy eating seedlings. Native plants developed without resistance to browsers and grazers.

The preference for young plants combined with a rabbit’s need to burrow makes the animals a potential threat to agriculture and an annoyance for home gardeners.

Gelinas posts fliers in neighborhoods where sightings are reported, hoping to spread the word.

“We’re just realizing there’s more and more, so now we’re going to start concentrating more on it,” he said.

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To report rabbit sightings to the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, call 443-4036.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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