Rabbits will soon be merely a memory at the University of Victoria.
On Thursday, the school decided to change its tack on the animals that have for decades been an unavoidable part of life on campus. Instead of trying to maintain a population of 200 rabbits inside Ring Road, UVic will re-locate all existing animals and, as of March 1, will euthanize any new ones abandoned on school grounds.
“We learned some lessons after we put out the first rabbit management plan,” said Tom Smith, director of facilities management. That first plan intended to see all but 200 of the rabbits removed.
The change of plans came after an outpouring of support from the community that saw 823 of the lagomorphs trapped, sterilized and shipped to sanctuaries throughout the province as well as to Texas.
While initial estimates, earlier this year, put the rabbit population on campus at upwards of 1,600, Smith said the removal of 925 since spring (102 were euthanized in May) helped reduce the remaining numbers.
“The combination of the lack of reproduction combined with the removal of so many rabbits — and the impact the owls and hawks have had — has been really significant,” he said.
Only about 50 rabbits are left. They will be shipped off to sanctuaries within a few weeks before breeding season begins and removal permits expire.
Laura-Leah Shaw has been a fervent advocate for the relocation of the rabbits and has helped fund and transport 230 of the rabbits to Whitehouse, Texas.
The advocate says she’s “delighted” by the decision to remove all the rabbits, but would like to see a bit of financial support from the university.
“We saved them from a public relations nightmare,” Shaw said, referring to the initial management plan that was geared towards a cull, rather than relocation. “The community stepped up with money to save the rabbits. The university had to have budgeted for the alternative, so, we’re thinking, in all fairness, they could help us out.”
Shaw says she’s personally taken out a $25,000 line of credit to fund the relocation project. “If we had to wait to gather the cash, they’d be dead by now.”
Smith says the university did save money through relocation, both in the short- and long-term, as groundskeeping tasks, like vegetation upkeep and burrow reparation, will no longer be an issue.
But a rabbit-free campus doesn’t sit well with those who, for as long as they remember, have known UVic as a home for rabbits.
“I remember coming here on field trips (in elementary school) and playing with the bunnies,” said Tyler West, who works on campus. “They used to be everywhere. You’d just look out the window and there were bunnies as far as the eye could see. But I haven’t seen a bunny in a while. It’s kind of sad they’re all going to be gone because they’re part of UVic’s identity.”
The director of facilities acknowledges many students and faculty will miss the rabbits. But he also thinks people will be quick to move on once they get beyond their sentimentality.
“I think people will enjoy the fact that the grass grows and there’s not rabbit poop anywhere,” Smith said.
As of March 1, any rabbits caught on campus will be removed and euthanized.
“We need to do that because we need to let people know it’s not OK to drop your unwanted pets off at UVic anymore,” Smith said.
Sara Dubois, manager of wildlife services with the B.C. SPCA, supports UVic’s decision to become rabbit-free. She says the killing of any future rabbits an “unfortunately reality.”
“As a community, we need to keep responsibility of our pets. We can’t just leave them in an environment where they’re not prepared to live a good quality life,” she said.
On a municipal level, Saanich is currently looking at bylaw amendments that could prevent sales of unsterilized rabbits in pet stores. The options will go to council in the spring.
In November 2009, Oak Bay amended its bylaws to ban abandoning rabbits in the district.
Last summer, the City of Victoria began looking at overhauling its animal control bylaws, including possibly prohibiting the sale of rabbits. Recommendations will be made this year.
“Obviously the problem started with a couple of rabbits being dumped, so the assumption is the problem will return if we don’t take the initiative to continually manage it,” Smith said. “We’re very relieved we can focus on things other than rabbits now.”