Groups working to round up domesticated rabbits that have been running loose in Florida neighborhood

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Lionhead rabbits eat food put out by residents, Thursday, July 20, 2023, in Wilton Manors, Fla. Efforts are underway to rescue the domesticated rabbits that have populated a Florida neighborhood. Rescue groups are using traps, hands and sometimes nets to capture the 60 to 100 lionhead rabbits living in a community near Fort Lauderdale. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

WILTON MANORS, Fla. – Dan Trebowski was angry when he saw people in front of his Wilton Manors home trying to capture the lionhead rabbits that have populated his neighborhood. He feared the domesticated bunnies, who are not meant to live outdoors, were being taken away to be killed.

He calmed down once he was assured that Dylan Warfel, Tina Crossgrove and Kristina Gertser were from Penny & Wild Smalls of South Florida. Theirs is one of the groups that has begun capturing the estimated 60 to 100 rabbits that have populated the suburban Fort Lauderdale neighborhood so they can be put up for adoption.

They are captured using traps, hands and, sometimes, nets. They are not harmed in the process.

“It is important that they are not euthanized. It is understandable that this is not the right environment for them,” Trebowski said Thursday night. Still, he is a bit disappointed that the rabbits can't stay — his two schnauzers love playing with them. Most of them just hop right up to people, seeking food. “They bring a lot of joy to the neighborhood.”

Other neighbors were not so understanding of the rescue effort, however. Some followed the rescuers during Thursday's efforts. Some made threats. Police came out and spoke to people. None of those neighbors wanted to be interviewed.

Lionhead rabbits are bred to live in homes. They are not wild animals any more than a pack of cocker spaniels would be just because they descend from wolves. Florida’s environment in particular is not friendly to lionheads. Their thick, bushy mane and heavy coat makes them overheat in the summer. Their lack of fear makes them susceptible to predators like cats and hawks. And they get hit by cars. They also dig holes in yards and damage outdoor wiring. One neighbor let her dog kill one.

Instead of living seven to nine years as they do as pets, many of the Wilton Manors rabbits have died in less than two. The colony only grows and survives because the females have several litters a year, usually between two and six kits.

The rabbits are the descendants of a group that a backyard breeder illegally released when she moved out of the neighborhood two years ago. After The Associated Press reported earlier this week about plans to rescue the rabbits, making them national celebrities, threats were made online to shoot, poison or otherwise harm the animals. That caused the rescue groups to speed up their efforts to round up the animals.

“Those threats are more than hot air,” said Warfel, whose group is working with East Coast Rabbit Rescue.

The groups' biggest needs are money and homes and facilities to house the rabbits while they are being treated before adoption. To neuter, vaccinate and treat any illnesses usually costs rescue groups between $200 and $400 per rabbit. Food and other supplies can add another $150 to $200 a month until they are healthy enough to be placed — that usually takes between one and six months, sometimes more. The rescue operation is expected to cost the groups $20,000 to $40,000.

“Finding housing is very difficult. Most of the private rescues in Florida do not have shelter facilities," Warfel said. And this is likely going to be an ongoing project — the rescuers can't go on private property without permission, so it will likely take some time to catch them all.

Kim Renk Dryer, who runs a private rabbit sanctuary in Rhode Island, flew to South Florida on Thursday to help with the rescue effort. She has arranged for some of the rabbits to be taken to a Palm Beach County home she owns and others to be housed at a barn.

“I could not in my wildest dreams believe what I saw,” Dryer said. She said it is clear that many of the rabbits are in bad shape and need medical attention. Many of them have ear mites and parasites living in their guts, making their already tough lives tougher.

“One person caused this,” she said, referring to the breeder who let the first ones loose. She doesn't understand why she has not been prosecuted, something the city has chosen not to pursue.

Because of the interference from neighbors, Penny & Wild only caught three rabbits Thursday night after catching 13 earlier, one of whom gave birth to three kits overnight. Other groups have also caught some.

Meanwhile, after Trebowski spoke with Penny & Wild and understood their aims, he asked how he could adopt a couple rabbits after they are neutered and treated.

He thinks his schnauzers would like to have their playmates back.