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Neighborhood gardens in Anchorage bugged by bunnies

Posted: Monday, June 14, 2010

ANCHORAGE - You'd never think a peaceful-seeming, old East Anchorage neighborhood with well-kept houses and mature trees would become a war zone.

But it has. Some of the residents near Cheney Lake are at war with rabbits. Rabbits that shear off broccoli plants in their gardens. Rabbits that devour lilies in the flower beds. Rabbits that destroy perennials bought for $7 apiece.

Retired schoolteacher Collin Smith has posted a lime green sign in her driveway on Sherwood Avenue: "Rabbits have ruined my flower beds, eaten plants and flowers! Now what?" with a double underline on the "what".

Even as she stepped out onto her porch to talk about the rabbit infestation, a bold black bunny was wrecking lilies in a bed parallel to the driveway.

She ran over. "Get away. Shoo," she said, clapping her hands, and the rabbit bounded away.

But he'll be back, that much is clear.

Dozens, maybe a hundred or more, of marauding rabbits run loose in this part of East Anchorage, off Sherwood and Otter Street, and then across Chester Creek in the Foxhall Subdivision.

On Friday, an Animal Care and Control Center officer gave notice to occupants of one house - they won't say which - that they must pen up or fence in 35 rabbits the resident acknowledged taking care of, said a center spokesman. Or face fines.

The rabbits running around the neighborhood are white, charcoal, tan - colors that characterize pet rabbits, says state Fish and Game biologist Rick Sinnott.

They're endearing to some, but pests to others.

"They're cute but they're not good, not good for the environment," said Sinnott. "They can be an invasive species. They compete with our native snowshoe hares. They can pass disease on."

He thinks killing them is a good idea. "They're good to eat. I like rabbits."

Warning - there are all sorts of restrictions about dispatching rabbits in a neighborhood, including that you can't use regular bullets or go on someone else's property without permission, and must have a hunting license. Then there's the fact that neighbors are likely to call police if they see someone harming a rabbit.

WARNING SIGNS

Some people are conflicted: They are charmed by the feral rabbits, but don't want them in their gardens.

Amber Reichardt, a real estate salesperson who lives across the street from Smith, also posted a sign for a while. Hers reflected mixed feelings. In the left hand corner: an ominous pot-roasted rabbit recipe. Below: hand-drawings of rabbits they call Chocolat and Nougat.

Once you name them, they're probably not going in the stew.

"We all enjoy seeing them," said Reichardt. "But last week they got all our cole crops. ... I guess we'll kind of wait and see."

"This was cabbage and broccoli," Reichardt said, pointing to a space where plants had been eaten away from raised beds in the backyard. "I replanted all of it. Two hours later they ate it again."

She and her husband have since tried to rabbit-proof their yard with chicken wire under the gate and a barricade where the fence meets the house. As of Friday, the line of defense was holding. "It's been 13 days, a little bit shy of two weeks. We're doing well."

MULTIPLICATION FACTOR

Reichardt has lived in the neighborhood since she was a kid and says there have always been rabbits.

Former Anchorage Assembly member Sheila Selkregg, who lived at the end of Otter Street in the late 1980s and the 1990s, said the rabbit colony began after one of her neighbors let a couple of domestic rabbits go sometime in the 1980s.

"As the story goes, first there were two, then there were 12. ... Then there were easily 36 or 40," Selkregg said.

Another neighbor really liked the rabbits and kept them fed and sheltered in the winter, she said.

A mailman once told her he counted 120 of them, she said.

Many children liked the bunnies, and they were sweet animals, she said. But she could no longer keep a garden, and was angry about that.

And the rabbits attracted some goshawks, which are birds of prey. A few cats, including one of her family's cats, disappeared, she said.

One day Selkregg went to the house of a known rabbit feeder and said, "I've just had it with the bunnies. We have to do something."

The neighbor replied, "What do you want me to do, let them die?" Selkregg said.

Selkregg said she finally surrendered, and accepted the rabbits as a fact of life.

LOVED BY SOME

The communities on either side of Chester Creek are still divided over whether the rabbits are a problem, and what to do with them.

Paul Rotkis, who lives on Yorkshire Lane, across the creek from Otter Street and rabbit central, says he's only seen a few different ones around Yorkshire. "They're not a nuisance," he said. "Almost everybody likes them on Yorkshire."

He said he's been feeding two black ones for more than a year.

Bernadette Raiskums, also on Yorkshire, said a charcoal bunny with a little white spot on his foot hangs out in her yard a lot. Someone named it Andrew, she said.

She and her husband saw it sitting across the street during winter.

"I went over and laid a little crumb trail from over there to where we put the dish of food," which was rabbit pellets from Alaska Mill, Feed and Garden, Raiskums said.

They made Andrew a spot under a van they're not using. They put Andrew's photo on their Christmas and Easter cards.

Raiskums said she didn't want Andrew to starve during winter, but she doesn't agree with continuing to feed him in the summer when lots of food is available.

"Now he's just being a delinquent."

TRAPPING RABBITS

Collin Smith said some of her neighbors tried to catch rabbits in a live trap from the Animal Care and Control Center, which lets people borrow traps for a $50 refundable deposit. They trapped some babies.

Animal Control says they'll evaluate any domestic rabbits for adoption, but they have to be able to be handled.

Smith has lived in her house 20 years.

"Every year we get them. This is the first year we're had such a problem," she said.

They don't get in the iris, geraniums, the poppies or lilies of the valley. "But, by God, they bother everything else," she said.



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