By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Rabbit lovers from Texas and Florida are now engaged in a pitched--and what looks like losing--battle to prevent a rabbit slaughter by quickly moving about 500 jackrabbits out of Miami International Airport runway zones where they were creating a hazard. About 75 rabbits have been captured in live traps so far and about two dozen have been shipped to Dallas.
Although hundreds of rabbits remain, airport administrators on Monday ordered the rescue stopped. They said that an agreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the airport set Monday as the date for a three-day eradication campaign to begin. If the deadline were extended as rabbit lovers requested, they say, there was a question of liability should a rabbit-related airplane accident occur.
"If something happens in that six or seven weeks that they are requesting, who is going to be liable?" asks Bernice Constantin, director of wildlife services program for the USDA in Florida. "If we eradicate the population, then there won't be an accident caused by rabbits because there won't be any rabbits."
The rescue was allowed to resume operations Tuesday after rabbit lovers protested the looming slaughter. Miami's city manager, who has authority over airport adminstration, decided to allow 30 more days for trapping, says Steve Rosen, a retired Broward County, Florida, dentist who is spearheading the effort.
The rabbits became a problem recently when the airport started construction on a fourth runway. The intrusion into a rabbit habitat caused more of the animals to roam onto airport runways and roads where they were meeting untimely deaths. Rabbit fatalities would not have been a big concern, but the carcasses attract turkey vultures, which pose a hazard to airplanes, says Inson Kim, public information officer for Miami International Airport.
"Rabbits are a secondary hazard because pretty much out there the only predator is airplanes, ground vehicles and natural causes. They would get killed, and we would get turkey buzzards circling over them," she says. "I've heard that their wingspan can get up to like 6 feet or something. They are pretty big. You are talking about a real potential for a very bad accident from either a bird strike or possibly into an engine or something like that."
At first, airport administrators were just going to have the animals quickly eradicated. But once the idea became public, "people began asking for alternatives," Kim says.
That's when Rosen came forward. Rosen said he would pay all expenses to trap the rabbits and, because they are not native to Florida, would also pay to relocate them to another state. Rosen says he decided to try to do something because he is tired of senseless bureaucracy being put in ahead of humane treatment of animals.
"I'm fed up with bureaucrats killing everything that gets in the way of their projects," he says. "Why don't they go wipe about 4,000 or 5,000 people out? It'll solve the traffic problem."
He says he cannot believe just how uncooperative the airport administration has been. Once the deadline for the eradication agreement was upon them, the airport just wanted the slaughter to start and the public relations headache to end quickly, he says.
"Our thinking is that they want the USDA to go in there one or two days, whatever is left, get it all done, disappear and hopefully it will all go away in a week," Rosen says. "I don't know where they got this notion that it has to be done now or what the thinking was or how the decision was made. I see no rationale for it at all."
Rosen and other rabbit lovers say that the airport's deadline was arbitrary, particularly if you consider that the turkey vultures have migrated now and will not likely be around the airport again until fall. Requests to let bird experts weigh in on the issue and demonstrate that fact were ignored, they say. As a result of the airport administration's actions, animal rights groups outside Florida are being mobilized and urged to act.
"This has been posted to every animal rescue group, to every animal rights group. Everyone is taking this personally now because we've proven that these animals can be saved," says Barbara Yule, president of the North Texas Rabbit Sanctuary, a group that has been instrumental in finding a Texas home for the jackrabbits. "This has been going on for years; they did not give the USDA any timeline, no date on which to do this. That has only come up since Dr. Rosen started to try to save them."
Those who favor eradication say the danger to airplanes is real and that other methods that have been suggested for eradication are just not practical. The idea to use tranquilizer darts, for instance, is impractical because dart guns have a short range and rabbits quickly become wary of the hunters. Besides that, the rabbits are so small and thin that darts would likely kill many of the rabbits, Constantin says.
"In spite of how bad it seems, shooting is a very humane method, even more so than darting. Darting, with the trauma and everything else, I'm sure a number of them would be killed. Shooting is instantaneous and it's painless," he says. "This is not something that we look forward to doing. Our focus and objective is human safety, human lives. We are addressing a problem. It's not that we are butchers."
Leaning on a wooden railing of a building at the Hutchins sanctuary where the Florida rabbits are being released, Kathy Rogers says they've received and released a couple of dozen rabbits onto about 240 acres of old landfill southeast of Dallas. The landfill closed about 15 years ago and poses no environmental threat to the rabbits, she says. Rogers, who operates Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Inc., said the Florida rabbits have bolted from their cages and jumped lively into the overgrown areas around the landfill.
"On the other side of the pond, there is a nice open area, plenty of vegetation," she says.
Although her sanctuary is already inundated with stray animals, many rescued from abusive environments, Rogers says she has room for a portion of the rabbits and is glad to be able to help.
"I think anytime anybody wants to take it upon themselves to even save one life, it's worth it."