Why are there so many rabbits on B.C.’s south coast?

A deep-dive into the world of feral rabbits and what makes B.C. a hotbed for bunny populations

On an ordinary Wednesday in May, Chris Beerling experienced nationwide fame for the first time in his life. A Vancouver Island carpenter by day, he admits his profession doesn’t receive much widespread attention. However, in the spring of 2019, a video of Beerling coaxing a family of bunnies out from under his Ladysmith, B.C., home made him a viral sensation.

Bunnies appear in Beerling’s yard frequently and he doesn’t mind their presence, but while accessing a crawl space to put away some belongings last spring, he noticed the family living under his house.

In the video, you can see Beerling drop down to his knees and start making a series of soft noises to call out the animals.

“Hi! Helllooooo,” Beerling said in a high-pitched voice when the family slowly emerged from under his home.

One by one, the bunnies, no bigger than tennis balls, crawled onto Beerling’s outstretched palm. After his family caught the video on tape and submitted it to the Weather Network, a nickname that occasionally follows him to this day was born: The Bunny Whisperer.

“[The video] just went crazy. It had 35 million views on Facebook, it went on Reddit a bunch of times, and now it keeps on surfacing on TikTok and people keep on sending it to me,” Beerling said in a phone interview with The Pigeon nearly two years later.

While Beerling gained momentary fame for his brush with a family of rabbits, high populations of rabbits on Vancouver Island and B.C.’s south coast are far from unusual. A 2016 MacLean’s article said rabbits have overrun many places in B.C., including the Victoria General Hospital and a Richmond auto mall, within the previous decade.

Famously, in 2011, about 1,300 wild rabbits were roaming the University of Victoria campus. The outbreak, caused by rabbit owners abandoning their pets, led to destroyed fields, tree damage, and the injury of a UVic rugby athlete.

The rabbits were eventually relocated to permit-holding sanctuaries in Coombs, B.C. and Texas, but their existence begs the question: Where did all these rabbits come from?

European invasion

British Columbia does have its own native rabbits, including White-tailed Jackrabbits and Nuttall’s cottontails, but many of the bunnies swarming the province today belong to invasive species.

The earliest introduction of invasive rabbits to B.C. dates back to the early 1900s, when Eastern cottontails were introduced to western Washington State in 1927 and to B.C.’s Fraser Valley shortly thereafter.

Cottontails—small brown rabbits with white tails—are native to central Canada, with a territory that covers large swathes of the continent and stretches from the Great Lakes region down to Central America. In 1964, however, they were introduced in Sooke, B.C. and are now common in Victoria and other regions of Eastern Vancouver Island.

European rabbits, brought to the province by settlers and kept as pets or used for their meat or fur, are non-native and can be invasive. Recently, in 2019 and 2020, feral non-native rabbits gained attention for flooding Jericho Beach in Vancouver.

Dr. Sara Dubois, the BC SPCA’s chief scientific officer, said in an interview with The Pigeon that the abandonment of pet rabbits from owners leads to the publicized herds that have been spotted on university campuses or beaches.

The process of safely relocating rabbits can be lengthy and allows for large groups of the animal to continue spawning in the wild.

Although abandoning animals like rabbits is illegal under the Criminal Code of Canada, Dubois believes rabbit owners who disregard their pet may not understand the problem or the environmental consequences of letting them run free in a public area, especially one that’s already overrun with the species.

“I think that people don’t see the problem with letting them go because they see other rabbits,” she said. “People say, ‘There’s this whole colony of rabbits living down at Jericho Beach, why not [put my rabbit there]?’”

Rabbits may look soft and cuddly, but their appearance can lead to misconceptions about what it’s really like to own one.

Growing up just outside of Victoria in the 1990s, Dubois owned a pet rabbit named Dawn. After high school, Dubois and her then-boyfriend (now husband) rescued Dawn from a local market.

“My husband and I were dating, and we decided to rescue this rabbit […] It was very impulsive,” she said with a laugh. “At the time [we] were dating long distance and it was an animal we shared a bond with.”

Dawn would live for almost 10 years, and Dubois learned a lot in that time about how to care for rabbits. Specifically, how they like to chew almost anything, from wires to furniture.

“It chewed a lot of electrical cords that it shouldn’t have,” she said. “They like to chew, and you have to be really careful about what they have access to.”

While rabbits do spend time in cages, Dubois adds, it’s an animal that prefers to roam free, unlike a hamster or lizard.

“These are animals that naturally want to bounce, jump, and run around,” Dubois said.

This picture from 2009 shows UVic’s campus overrun with bouncy bunnies. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

B.C.’s uniquely mild year-round climate also plays a significant role in allowing rabbits to thrive in the wild. On Vancouver Island, specifically, a lack of predators gives rabbits an even higher likelihood of survival.

“On Vancouver Island, there are no coyotes [and] there are no foxes, so there are fewer potential predators,” Dubois said.

Once non-native European rabbits and their offspring are living in the wild as abandoned pets, they are classified as “feral” under the BC Wildlife Act. 

“It is unique in that they are a pet animal, a domestic animal, that is included in the Wildlife Act,” Dubois said.

“The Wildlife Act otherwise lists native and some non-native species, so it considers a rabbit […] as wildlife and therefore it can actually be killed, hunted, or trapped without a permit.”

While B.C residents can attempt to rescue and rehouse some other animals, such as wild cats, Dubois said rescuing feral rabbits requires a permit from the government through a regional office and approval from a local wildlife biologist. The process could prolong the time before rescue and allow for large populations of rabbits to populate in the wild.

The BC SPCA designates non-native European rabbits living as abandoned pets as domesticated pets and does not support lethal control of their population through practices such as culls. Instead, the BC SPCA writes on their website, it advocates for municipalities to establish bylaws that prevent both the sale and adoption of unsterilized rabbits.

“It doesn’t make sense for these animals to be treated under the Wildlife Act when you could have them under animal control bylaws,” Dubois said.

She suggested that for rabbits out in the wild, a mandatory identification system could be implemented to provide consequences to owners who potentially breed, sell, and intentionally release rabbits into the wild.

At the BC SPCA, Dubois was involved in the relocation of rabbits from UVic’s campus in 2011. However, as many of the animals were healthy, the SPCA couldn’t obtain permits to collect and adopt the animals. Only if the animals were in distress or injured could the organization’s legislation supersede the permit process under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. 

So, a sanctuary—shelters built to house and feed wild rabbits before potential adoption—was built about two hours away in Coombs. The majority of UVic’s rabbits were shipped to the Coombs sanctuary, and the remainder were famously sent to a separate sanctuary in Texas.

Unfortunately, Dubois added, sanctuaries aren’t always the best long-term solution to host large groups of wild rabbits.

“These animals can live a decade, and when you have a couple hundred or a thousand of them, that’s a lot of mouths to feed if you’re not a large charity.”

Boarding bunnies

Rabbitats Rescue Society, a volunteer-run rabbit rescue group based in Richmond, B.C., was founded following the outbreak of feral rabbits on UVic’s campus. The organization focuses on long-term issues regarding feral rabbit rescues, and targets specific areas overrun by feral rabbits to rescue the animals. They also host “micro sanctuaries,” escape- and predator-proof structures to house rabbits, across the Lower Mainland.

For the past three years, Rabbitats has been advocating with the B.C. provincial government to change the permit policy on domestic rabbits and remove them from wildlife classification entirely.

“Basically, they’re falling through the cracks. They’re classified as farm animals, pets, and wildlife. None of those [classifications] were addressing the issue, and instead just putting it off to the other department,” Sorelle Saidman, founder and president of Rabbitats, told The Pigeon.

 While Rabbitats can host rabbits in their sanctuary and micro-sanctuaries, they require a permit to adopt them out to members of the public. The arduous process, Saidman said, creates unnecessary roadblocks and outs for municipalities to not pick up feral rabbits. However, she is motivated to find homes for these animals no matter the cost.

“I just kept thinking there’s got to be a solution. I’m driven by solutions,” she said.

While they might appear cute in the wild or in viral videos, the proliferation of invasive rabbit species is not only a headache for B.C residents, but can pose a genuine threat to local vegetation and wildlife.

Dubois suggests people do their research when looking to purchase a pet rabbit. B.C. is the perfect breeding ground for feral rabbits, and a prospective rabbit owner, like any pet owner, must think of their reasons for purchasing one and how they can support it through the entirety of its life.

“Rabbits can be amazing for the right person at the right time in their life,” Dubois said. “But those baby rabbits grow up to be big and require lots of care.”

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