Stop the Great Rabbit Invasion of Canmore

It finally happened. The little problem Canmore, Alberta has been having with feral rabbits for the past two decades hit the national news last night. I did a short information piece in the summer on the “bunny problem” for Highline Magazine and managed to suppress my own opinion on the topic. The bunnies might be cute but that does not change that they are also a pest and invasive species and drastic action needs to be taken to control their population. However, information circulating in Canmore and now across the country regarding the rabbits is turning what should be an simple issue to deal with into a three circus.

The bunnies are not a native species. They are the result of irresponsible pet owners in South Canmore and decades of the town not taking action. The rabbit problem could have been prevented if there had been a cull or a mass sterilization when the population was restricted to the area around Lawrence Grassi Middle School and the Bow River. Instead, the town council and the majority of citizens choose to look the other way and when 4 years ago rumblings of a cull began the response that the local papers choose to share in their “Letters to the Editor” was “my children love chasing the bunnies, if we kill them what will that teach them?” The answer is two-fold. First, it will teach them that pets need to be treated like pets and that it is not acceptable to set them free when you are tired of looking after them. Second, it will teach them about invasive species, how delicate ecosystems are, and the cycle of life. Though children could learn the same lessons when a hungry cougar wanders into Canmore in the winter in search of a bunny feast and instead happens upon something more substantial like the family dog or, as has happened before, a human.

The reaction of groups like Save Canmore Bunnies is just as worrying as the sentiment that culling the rabbits will not teach children appropriate things about the natural world. This group and others view the rabbits as just as natural to the environment as elk, bears, cougars, wolves, marmots, and other native species to the ecosystems of the eastern Cordillera. Once again, the rabbits are the same one you can buy in a pet store. They come from breeders. They are not natural and it would be a waste of resources to set up a sanctuary for them as is done for bears outside Golden. If you would like to save the bunnies, I suggest you offer up your backyard as a sanctuary and let anyone who catches a bunny drop it off. Just make sure none of the bunnies can escape and be sure you are prepared to take care of a few thousand of these creatures.

What is most worrying about the “save the bunnies” response from an environmental history perspective is how symptomatic it is of the sever disconnection from the processes of the natural world in modern western culture. This disconnect has been growing since the beginning of the rush away from the farm and towards the city at the turn of the 20th century. Even in Canada where until the late 1960s the majority of the population lived in rural areas, people are so disconnected from nature from the natural rhythms of the world, from how species interact with each other and with their environments that a domesticated animal can become a “natural” part of the ecosystem worth saving.

If the Canmore rabbits were hares and their populations were declining as a result of rampant development of the Bow Valley this would be an entirely different debate. But the rabbits are the pet store variety and their populations have boomed alongside the development of the Bow Valley. This is not a species at risk, or threatened or endangered and in need of protection. This is a species that is disrupting the ecological integrity of the area (or what is left of it), posing a risk to native species, and increasing the visits made by large predators to the townsite. None of these are good things and the most effective way to combat them is to eliminate the source – the rabbits.

As I pointed out in “Bunnies for Sale” this species has wreaked havoc around the world. Australia and New Zealand were so over run with rabbits that they have destroyed unique ecosystems and it has taken decades of culling to bring them down to numbers that are nearly manageable and still the rabbits remain a problem. At the University of Victoria, where in the 1960s someone living in residence set their pet rabbits free on campus, the problem got to be so bad that sterilization attempts were ineffective in controlling the population increase that the university was forced to cull the rabbits. Keep in mind UVic is a smaller and more contained area than the Town of Canmore. Even Iceland has a burgeoning bunny problem which an Aussie living in Reykjavik pointed out with calls for caution in the Iceland Review last week.

Canmore need to take drastic action about the bunnies. Action that should have been taken twenty years ago when the rabbits were only in South Canmore. At this point it is impossible for the people who let the original rabbits free to be identified and punished for irresponsible pet ownership, as proposed to Council by the Humane Society of Canada. (It is an open secret among people who have lived in Canmore for more than twenty years who started the bunny problem.)

Council needs to stop pandering to the bleeding hearts and take action about the bunnies. The necessary action will not be popular but it is essential to finally bring the bunny problem under control. The rabbits are an invasive species. They are attracting more coyotes into the town because they are easy prey. If nothing is done they will attract more dangerous animals than coyotes – cougars. If the rabbits are not culled there will be bigger problems than homeowners having to shell out hundred of dollars for rabbit-proof fencing and traps to take control of the problem in their own neighbourhood.

The bunny problem has moved far beyond a neighbourhood headache. It is now an issue of wildlife attraction as well as health and safety for the entire town. A significant portion of rabbit population must be culled, not trapped and sterilized or relocated, culled. This is the only way to gain a hand up on a species that is breed to reproduce as the pet store rabbits are.

When I was in Ms. Hauck’s grade six class (in the version of Lawrence Grassi that was torn down a few years ago) there was a poster on the wall that read “What is right is not always popular. What is popular is not always right.” The opinion I’ve expressed here is not popular but is the popular opinion regarding the bunnies really the right solution?

If you are for drastic action being taken write to the Canmore Leader or Rocky Mountain Outlook, voice your opinion to Council and Mayor Casey. As it stands the more vocal side of the debate is the “save the bunnies” league. Their message is dominating what the rest of the country is hearing about what citizens of Canmore want done with the bunnies but they are not the only opinion.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Canada, Environment and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Stop the Great Rabbit Invasion of Canmore

  1. David says:

    Hi Lauren,

    I agree with you about the destructive potential of rabbits and their capacity to reshape an environment. When I read the links from your first post, I thought that to have an Australian contributing to a discussion about bunny rabbits might have been like inviting Darth Vader to a kid’s birthday party. So I resisted my natural urges. Of course your bunnies have multiplied, as that is what they do best. It is simply bizarre to encourage the spread of these animals and I sympathise with your frustration.

    I agree with you that it is perhaps a measure of the disconnection from the natural world that encourages the sentimental response to rabbits. There are always consequences when you introduce exotic species and you rightly make the point about predators developing a taste for them. Presumably this will mean that the people who like the cute bunnies will also have to adapt to the cute coyotes and cougars.

    In Australia, rabbits have also become a part of the diet of other introduced predators such as feral cats and foxes. And bunnies are now linked to causing the potential extinction of 153 varieties of flora and fauna in Australia. Even given that there might be local conditions here that makes us more vulnerable to rabbits, it beggars belief to allow the uncontrolled spread of an animal that has established credentials for producing environmental mayhem. It does not make sense to release non-native species, such as rabbits, into an alien environment and not expect there to be consequences. A pair of rabbits can, in 18 months, produce 184 individuals – lots of food for coyotes and cougars. I agree Lauren, I would be just a bit worried. At least we don’t have those types of predators.

    Lauren, you might want to look at ideas for possible eradication campaigns here
    (no place for bunny lovers) and here for what can happen in urban areas

    • Thanks David for the more in-depth description of the rabbit situation in Australia. For some reason people tend to ignore the evidence from other places that have coped with the same problem for much longer. It is amazing how much damage a seemingly innocent animal can do to an ecosystem — as the Australia examples demonstrate over and over again.
      Last I heard, the plan to catch, sterilize, and relocate the rabbits of Canmore (the project of the Save the Bunnies group) caught less than 200 before they packed it in for the season. As you point out that is not nearly enough to prevent the population from continuing to increase.

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