CANADA: Invasion of the campus bunnies

The problems being caused by Thumper and his friends at the University of Victoria in British Columbia may soon abate if administrators can just cut through some red tape. In trying to deal with up to 1,500 rabbits on campus, they recently suffered a setback in attempts to lower the population. The problem has spawned a plethora of forms related to the ethical treatment of animals.

British Columbia's Ministry of Environment says the university and the wildlife control company they hired, Common Ground, require permits when holding the rabbits for longer than 24 hours.

Richard Piskor, Director of Victoria's office of occupational health, safety and environment told The Victoria Times Colonist he was confident they could meet all requirements. The company is setting its sights on 150 rabbits as part of a pilot project to test the most effective ways to capture, sterilise and relocate the animals.

"We have been in close contact with the SPCA throughout this process so the welfare of the rabbits has been front and centre," said Piskor, who needs to hear back from the ministry before proceeding.

While they wait, bunny-mating season is fast approaching, meaning students will soon be dealing with even more rabbits already living on campus.

For student Vanessa Vaartnou, a biology-psychology major at the university, the rabbits offer some scientific contributions: "My roommate had to do a research study on the bunnies. In one of her geography classes they went out and took down how many bunnies of each colour were in each section and did a whole statistical analysis on it," Vaartnou said.

For many students, there is a petting zoo aspect to the situation with the cute and cuddly quotient having risen on campus. "We could sit for hours watching the baby bunnies," Vaartnou said of her and her friends' newfound infatuation.

The rabbit-student relationship has not always been such a positive one, though. Last year, graduate student Abe Lloyd published an article in the student newsletter, Essence, on how to kill and cook the new campus residents.

The article warned those who might be looking to hunt the rabbits to be discreet because not everyone enjoys "the sight of a dead rabbit".

The article, according to Essence editor Heike Lettrari, was written not to promote rabbit violence but to get people thinking critically about these issues and get a discussion started - something that seems to be taking place.

"As a university, we have to be very careful about the ethical treatment of animals," said Deb Sexsmith, Victoria' manager of business services, echoing a common sentiment.

Last year, the BC SPCA spoke out against inhumane means of culling rabbits after the university had been advised to insert an explosive device into the rabbit holes.

"That's probably not a humane method of euthanasia," Sara Dubois, BC SPCA manager of wildlife services, told the Times Colonist.

But the ethical treatment of animals is not the only thing on the minds of university administrators: The rabbits "can carry any and all kinds of things, whether it be parasites, or viral or bacterial disease", Piskor said.

"We've got a fairly significant load of faeces on those fields and we've got athletes who may have cuts or abrasions. They're getting that material into those cuts. It's unnecessarily raising risks for them."

These risks may no longer be a concern for the university if they can get the needed permits to begin their pilot project. If all goes as planned, Victoria students and faculty will start seeing more varsity athletes on the field than bunnies.

For Vaartnou, that could mean the loss of key members of the Victoria community: "In the bleakest of wet, winter days, (the bunnies) make it a rather happy place," she said.

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah USA, performed a similar rescue four years ago in Reno, Nevada. A woman there had more than 1,500 rabbits in her yard. All were caught, spayed or neutered and placed in homes or other sanctuaries. Perhaps they can offer some advice.

Lisa Paquette,
Foster Hospital for Small Animals,
Tufts University