PETA objects to Langley falconry proposal

A rabbit casts a watchful eye at the Island County Fairgrounds Thursday.

Langley’s long-standing rabbit headache and one of its most discussed solutions, falconry, became much more complicated this week.

International animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (or PETA) contacted Mayor Fred McCarthy and the city council on Monday urging them to abandon any plans that would employ raptors as a tool to cull rabbit numbers. Instead, the organization said the city should trap and then transfer them to shelters or sanctuaries.

“Respectfully, there is nothing natural about falconers setting habituated captive hawks upon domestic rabbits (a species lacking in wild instincts) in order that they be torn apart — an exceedingly inhumane and, as such, an arguably illegal approach,” wrote Kristin DeJournett, a cruelty casework associate manager with PETA’s Cruelty Investigations Department.

The request comes on the eve of a community meeting in which renowned South Whidbey falconer Steve Layman will be one of two primary speakers. The other is Mel Watson, a Langley woman who began an online petition to identify a more compassionate approach to the problem. As of Friday morning, the petition had 977 supporters worldwide.

The meeting is 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6 in the Coffman Building at the Island County Fairgrounds, 819 Camano Ave.

Visual reports

Residents have complained about Langley’s garden-wrecking coneys for years, but it’s only in recent months that public agencies have taken steps to address the problem. The school district led the charge when it voiced plans to spend up to $60,000 on fencing. City Hall has since followed suit, meeting with school officials and Layman, and organizing the meeting next week.

Though the gathering is designed to answer questions and identify publicly supported solutions, the extent of the problem is currently unclear. City Hall has yet to release an official estimate of population size, though McCarthy offered a guess of about 250 in an interview with The Record this week. That number was based on his personal count of about 125, which he doubled per an expert’s advice that what people see likely represents only half of the actual population.

Visually counting rabbits, however, can produce wildly varying results. For example, during a circuitous drive through town by a Record reporter on Thursday afternoon, only two were spotted in people’s yards. One was on Second Street and another on Sixth Street. Ground zero appeared to be the fairgrounds — a quick tally totaled about 20 near the administration building alone — and the middle school athletic field — less than 10. Similar discrepancies have been reported by residents on both sides of the city; people to the west report fewer predators and more rabbits while some to the east have said they’re seeing more coyotes and fewer bunnies.

While it may be tempting to draw comprehensive conclusions from what people see in their front yards, residents shouldn’t do so, according to Ruth Milner, the wildlife biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s District 13 office, which encompasses Island, Snohomish and San Juan counties. Variables such as preferred food sources, cover and predator access can make a big difference from one area to the next.

“What you see in one yard could be totally different a few blocks or even 100 yards down the road,” she said.

Without a dedicated study by professionals, population estimates are really nothing more than guesses, she said.

Today and tomorrow

Another fact that remains elusive is whether the problem will grow, or if the current population has reached a natural equilibrium. Opinions seem to vary among local experts, but they all agree that rabbit’s reproductive rates present challenges.

A quick search of the web brings up one page by Florida-based Houserabbit Adoption, Rescue & Education (or H.A.R.E., Inc.) that cites population figures on an astronomical scale. “Why Spay or Neuter my rabbit? Some Scary Numbers…,” penned by Dana Krempels who identified herself as holding an unspecified Ph.D, calculates that one breeding female and her offspring could produce more than 184 billion rabbits in just seven years. The estimate is based on a rabbit’s 28-day gestation period, a female’s ability to get pregnant just hours after giving birth and a 0 percent mortality rate, among other general assumptions.

Most of the wildlife experts or city officials interviewed for this story either chuckled or laughed outright at the figure, as clearly there are not 184 billion rabbits hopping around Langley. It’s commonly believed the genesis of the city’s rabbit population can be traced back to the Barnyard Scramble, an Island County Fair event where domestic or pet store rabbits were released and chased by children. Held annually for years, the event was discontinued more than a decade ago, which begs the question: Why isn’t Langley swimming in rabbits?

According to Milner, rabbit populations can be cyclical, rising and falling with the abundance of food sources and predators. When numbers increase, so do the number of wild predators, which can include a variety of birds of prey, coyotes, weasels, even rats. Norwegian rats won’t kill adult rabbits, but babies are open game. Some are around more often and at certain times of the year, just like milder climates of Western Washington can lead to more babies being born, she said.

Other factors include people and especially pets.

“If you’re a dog or cat, it’s open season all year,” Milner said. “People tend to underestimate their pets’ impact on rabbits.”

Cats, in particular, can kill smaller rabbits on a nearly daily basis. Rabbit-specific diseases can also have a big impact on numbers. Some or all of these factors are likely forces keeping the population at bay, Milner said.

“They’re not going to be knee-deep in rabbits if they’re not already, but the problem isn’t going to go away either,” she said.

Others aren’t as sure. Dave Parent, a Freeland veterinarian, said he isn’t expecting a population explosion overnight but said there’s a potential for numbers to increase. He believes the population has been rising for years and that it could continue to do so.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s anywhere near capacity — there could be a whole lot more rabbits,” he said.

Justin Burnett / The Record | A rabbit enjoys lunch at the Island County Fairgrounds.

Issues and solutions

But, while more bunnies might be on the way, the current situation may not be as alarming as some think, particularly when it comes to concerns of rabbit diseases, Parent said.

Tularemia, a severe infectious bacterial disease in animals that’s transmissible to humans, for example, is exceedingly rare, he said. More common east of the Cascades, in Idaho and Montana, the average is about four cases a year in Washington, according to the Center for Disease Control. The statistics make it clear it’s hardly an epidemic, Parent said.

There’s also a misconception concerning coccidia. Existing in all animals, strains are specific to species — that means rabbit coccidia can’t be contracted by a dog or cat simply by consuming the animal. Similarly, pet owners shouldn’t be overly worried about their animals eating rabbit feces.

“They don’t get parasites from that,” Parent said.

John Huckabee, a wildlife veterinarian with PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, agreed rabbit diseases pose little threat but said city decision makers shouldn’t discount the possibility of people or animals getting sick entirely.

“The likelihood may not be high, but lightening does strike,” he said.

He reiterated that there is no reason for panic, but that it’s something that should be considered when weighing potential risks or large rabbit populations.

Currently, a handful of solutions have been proposed, both at City Hall and by members of the public. The bunny-compassionate, including PETA, have suggested that rabbits be rounded up and given away as pets. But, according to Milner, that may not be a legal alternative as state law prohibits people from keeping or possessing wildlife. The rabbits may have been domestic once, but they are wild animals now and protected by state rules. It may not be impossible, but it would require extensive research, she said.

Hunting is also rife with problems. The rabbits in question are a European breed and require only a small game license to hunt — unlike Eastern cottontails, there’s no limit — but  people still have to comply with city ordinances. The discharge of firearms is prohibited in Langley, which includes pellet and BB guns, and a bow and arrow is almost certainly not allowed, according to Mayor Fred McCarthy.

People can trap, dispatch and eat rabbits on private property, said Milner, but she warned that only certain kinds of traps are allowed; squeeze traps are largely illegal in the state, leaving live traps as the only legal alternative.

As a popular plan to neuter males, Milner and Parent said the practice would be expensive and produce only mixed results. Even if a large percentage of males were captured, those remaining would continue to breed.

“Rabbits aren’t monogamous,” Milner said.

Such a problem would likely need to continue indefinitely, as stopping for even a short time would allow the population to recover.

And despite PETA’s claim, falconry by licensed falconers, such as Layman, is legal in Washington, Milner said. He was employed to help with a rabbit population problem on San Juan Island, she said. Milner added that the issue there became so contentious that it saw the formation of the citizen group Save our Bunnies, or SOB.

The road ahead

Langley’s rabbit problem is a complex problem with no easy answers, Milner said. It will likely come down to what residents want and are willing to live with, she said. If they can’t stomach more aggressive methods of population control, the cost will likely be continued property damage and greater numbers of predators in town, from coyotes to rats, she said.

“The question really is, ‘What is the will and tolerance of the people?’ ” Milner said.

McCarthy agreed, saying the primary goal of next week’s meeting is to establish just what Langley’s citizens want to do, what steps they’re willing to take and the price tag that might come with it.

“We’re going to attempt to facilitate a courageous conversation,” he said.

It will also be a barometer of the public’s true feelings on the issue, noting that of the nearly 1,000 signatures on the online petition only about 100 are local residents. As for PETA, he characterized their request as “pretty direct” and said they have an open invitation to attend.