Public voices support for non-lethal options at Langley bunny meeting

Dave Parent

If public sentiment were to hold sway, falconry might be out as an option to address Langley’s rabbit problem.

During a public meeting to discuss possible solutions Tuesday evening at the Island County Fairgrounds, few if any people voiced support for using birds of prey as a tool to dent the city’s rabbit population. Instead, most seemed to favor more passive and nonlethal approaches, such as using fencing and sprays to keep rabbits away from homes and gardens. Also popular were proposals to relocate rabbits to designated areas in town or sanctuaries, using muzzled ferrets to drive them out of burrows under buildings and into undeveloped areas where natural predators can do their work and, finally, rounding them up and having them spayed or neutered to reduce breeding.

But, it appears public sentiment isn’t enough to permanently scrub falconry as an option. Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy, the lead organizer of Tuesday’s meeting, agreed that there was little to no support voiced for the controversial method of population control, but that the city was still considering all its options.

“No, I wouldn’t say it’s off the table,” McCarthy said, in an interview Wednesday morning. “What if the population took off like a rocket and we needed something a little more aggressive?”

Falconry likely won’t be a method the city chooses to employ immediately, he said, but it’s simply way too soon to make any lasting decisions.

Overall, McCarthy characterized the meeting as a great success. More than 50 people were in attendance and they discussed a sensitive topic both congenially and respectfully, he said. The only fireworks came when Langley resident Eileen Jackson asked to break from the tightly regimented meeting format and announce the presence of a rabbit information sheet she prepared for attendees. It became something of a showdown, in which Jackson refused to sit down and openly argued with McCarthy, ultimately delivering her announcement despite his objections.

Jackson later apologized for the outburst, and credited McCarthy with fostering a cooperative and respectful environment.

Steve Layman, a South Whidbey falconer, and Mel Watson, a Langley woman who began an online petition to spare the rabbits from lethal means of population control, were the primary speakers at Tuesday’s meeting.

Along with being a state-licensed falconer, Layman is a “trained biologist” with a degree in zoology and occasionally acts as a wildlife consultant, most recently for Langley. He also owns a window washing business, which pays the bills, he said.

Layman talked about his past experience helping reduce rabbit populations with hawks in the San Juan Islands, but also made it clear that he’s not convinced it’s the best solution for Langley. The most economical and least painful lethal option is to simply have them shot at night with pellet guns, he said.

He addressed a number of non-lethal approaches, such as fencing, and introduced the ferret proposal. Muzzled and with their scent glands intact, they can drive rabbits from their holes under buildings. If accesses are immediately blocked, the rabbits would leave to forested areas.

A do-nothing option should be considered as well. Winter and disease alone could dramatically reduce rabbit numbers, he said.

As for the question of how many rabbits are running around town, he didn’t volunteer a number. He did, however, offer an explanation as to why the city isn’t knee-deep in bunnies, saying that adult rabbits often act as “bullies,” running off juveniles. They retreat to forested areas where they fall prey to predators.

“They’re gummy bears to coyotes,” he said.

Layman also challenged a statement by Ruth Milner, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who was recently quoted in The Record as saying that Langley’s bunnies may have once been domestic, but that they are now considered wildlife. The ramifications of that determination means rabbits can’t legally be given away as pets, as state law prohibits the public from possessing wildlife. Layman said Milner, who oversees the state agency’s District 13 office, which encompasses Island, Snohomish and San Juan counties, was wrong, that they aren’t classified as wildlife and thereby can, in fact, be given away as pets.

It turns out Layman was correct. In an interview Wednesday, Milner said she was contacted by Layman after the story ran and she decided to pose the question to her supervisor, Russell Link. He determined that the rabbits in question, a European breed domesticated for sale as pets, could not be considered wildlife due to a state definition, RCW 77.08.010, which says, “‘Wildlife’ means all species of the animal kingdom whose members exist in Washington in a wild state. This includes but is not limited to mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates. The term ‘wildlife’ does not include feral domestic mammals, old world rats and mice of the family… .”

Another factor in the determination, said Milner, is that it’s known how they were introduced into the wild, as opposed to other European rabbits in the state that were introduced a century ago. Langley’s rabbits are widely believed to have come from the Barnyard Scramble, an event where the bunnies were let go and chased by children. It was discontinued more than 10 years ago.

“What that means is the Department of Fish and Wildlife has no jurisdiction over these rabbits and what the city chooses to do,” said Milner, on Wednesday. “So, I was wrong.”

During Watson’s turn at the microphone, she said she began her petition after reading a Record story concerning the falconry proposal.

“I couldn’t possibly walk through Langley with my head held high knowing this was going to happen,” she said.

The petition garnered 1,046 signatures, which met her personal goal of gathering enough signatures to match the population of Langley. City officials, however, claim that only about 100 are Langley residents.

She advocated for the removal of all lethal options, saying rabbits experience suffering “like you and I do.” She argued that they are a tourist attraction, and that the city could even use them to its benefit by holding events such as a rabbit festival.

“People would come from far and wide,” Watson said.

Following Layman’s and Watson’s presentation, the crowd broke into small focus groups to discuss and propose solutions. At one table, Rindy Stewart, a Coles Road resident, said private property could be used as sanctuaries. She volunteered her land, which is in a forested area where they would be away from people who don’t want them around and close to forests and natural predators.

“It seems like a perfect rabbit haven,” Stewart said.

The groups’ conclusions were documented on large sheets of paper, which were then hung for all to see.

Aside from the many proposals offered, one common sentiment was that solutions shouldn’t be funded from city coffers but from fundraising. Also, it was suggested that Langley should make it illegal to release domestic rabbits in town, that the city should post on its website options and rabbit tips for residents, and that homeowners “should be able to take measures on their own property to deal with [sic] rabbit problem.”

A question and answer period followed, with Layman, his son Seth Layman (a licensed falconer who holds a degree in biology) and Freeland veterinarian Dave Parent fielding most questions. Parent made it clear that rabbit diseases, such as Tularemia and coccidia, posed little threat to humans or pets.

When asked Wednesday, McCarthy said the city will invite the major voices in the ongoing discussion to review the solutions proposed Tuesday at a future meeting. He didn’t know when a decision would be made, but said he believes it would likely be one that employs a variety of strategies.