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Monday, April 20, 2009

Easter Gifts, Multiplying on the Loose

Karena Cawthon for The New York Times

The rabbit population is booming on Okaloosa Island, Fla., and some have been hanging out in the backyard of Phil and Shirley Dykes, left. Trapping has begun.

Published: April 17, 2009

OKALOOSA ISLAND, Fla. — What is it about Florida that inspires pet owners to set their captives free?

Green iguanas released decades ago now splash in the pools of Palm Beach. Peacocks roam free in parts of Miami, Burmese pythons are spreading through the entire state — and here, on this two-mile shoelace of beachfront land, the bunny problem keeps multiplying.

Dozens of rabbits, the spawn of Easter gifts from as far back as 2002, now run wild in a field of two-story condominiums.

Actually, wild is an exaggeration. “I have two that let me pet them,” said Denise Callahan, 55, out for a walk on Wednesday with her dog, Gigi. “One’s Peter; the other’s Mama.”

A few feet to her right, a snow-white rabbit with dark eyes sniffed the sand near a boat trailer. Behind her, a chubby brown one hopped past a parked Hyundai. Clearly, in a neighborhood of mostly parking lots and small apartments, these bunnies felt at home.

John Wagnon, 45, a bartender working on a bicycle in his garage, said they often cheered him up. “Some days,” he said, “you have a bad day at work, you turn the corner and you say, ‘Bunnies!’ ”

He pointed excitedly, mimicking his usual reaction. “It’s like the homeless situation,” he said. “Where else would they want to live?”

Next door, Russell Beasley just shook his head. He had been building cabinets in his garage when he felt compelled to offer an opinion. “They’re a pain,” he said, revealing a Massachusetts accent. Antibunny bile followed: He compared them to rats; he said they would attract snakes; he said they would cause car accidents because drivers would swerve to miss them. “People might think they’re cute, but they’re a menace,” said Mr. Beasley, 61. “They’re multiplying like crazy — that’s what they do.”

Previous cases of unintended fertility in Florida have led government officials to step in. State rules that took effect last year force anyone who buys a python to purchase a $100 annual permit, and the slithery reptile gets a mandatory microchip that would let officials track the animal back to its owner.

Palm Beach County Commissioners have pushed for the same policy to deal with its leathery iguanas.

Here in Okaloosa Island, the solution has been a little more old-school: wire traps with carrots as bait. The local animal shelter put them out after Easter this year, and the first rabbit was caught on Wednesday, in the front yard of Phil and Shirley Dykes. Their little patch of green had already become ground zero for all things bunny because they lacked a dog and provided a delicacy — healthy rose bushes.

Even with a large, confused brown rabbit in the cage, a half dozen others sat nearby, including a black, furry baby that would fit in a child’s hand. “This is an animal friendly environment,” said Mr. Dykes, 68, a retired engineer who once worked for NASA.

Standing on his front porch, he admitted that his wife had to convince him to host the trap. His soft spot for animals was well-known; recently he let a group of doves nest in his garage. He even left the door partly open so they could come and go as they pleased.

The rabbits initially received the same warm welcome.

“It’s amusing to watch them play in the yard,” he said, adding, “I didn’t mind them until they ate the shrubbery.”

His wife was less generous. “I just had three in the garage, and one came right up to me,” she said. “No thank you.”

Mr. Dykes insisted, however, that they not be killed — a common request here that previously kept the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society at bay. Dee Thompson, director of animal control at the agency, said a solution emerged only in the last few days: a man with lot of land in Walton County volunteered to take them after seeing an article about them in The Northwest Florida Daily News.

“He already has rabbits on his property,” Ms. Thompson said. “He said he wouldn’t eat them.”

Residents here are likely to miss the bunnies if too many disappear. Cassandra Higgins, 25, said they did not cause much harm, and even her dogs, Lady and Rugar, seemed to like them.

When told about the traps, Ms. Callahan said, “Oh no.” Come to think of it, she said she had not seen Mama — “a huge brown rabbit with scars all over her like she’d been through the mill” — in days. And as she walked Gigi down the road during a gorgeous coastal sunset, she turned around with a final call to action.

“Save the rabbits!” she said, laughing, knowing it sounded a bit ridiculous. “Save the rabbits!”