WILTON MANORS, Fla. (AP) — When Alicia Griggs steps outside her home in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s newest invasive species comes onto the street: lionhead rabbits.
The rabbits, sporting an impressive flowing mane around their heads, want the food Griggs is carrying. But they also represent the best chance at survival and moving to where this domesticated breed belongs: indoors, away from cars and cats and hawks and Florida heat and possibly government-sanctioned pesticides.
Griggs is leading an effort to raise between $20,000 and $40,000, which would cost a rescue group to capture, fertilize, pollinate, house, and then abandon the estimated 60 to 100 lionheads that now inhabit the Janada Islands, an 81-home community in Wilton Manors.
They are the offspring of an illegal backyard breeder’s group released her when she moved away two years ago.
“They really need to be rescued. So we tried to get the city to do it, but they’re dragging their feet,” Griggs said. “They think if they do that, they’ll have to get rid of the iguanas and everything else that people don’t want.”
Capturing them, treating them and finding them homes is “not an easy process,” said Monica Mitchell, whose East Coast rabbit rescue will likely lead the effort. Few veterinarians treat rabbits and many potential owners shy away when they find out how much work the animals require. Griggs agreed.
“People don’t realize they’re exotic pets and they’re complicated. You can’t throw any table scraps at them,” said Griggs, a real estate agent.
Wilton Manors is giving Griggs and other supporters time to raise money and relocate the rabbits rather than exterminate them, though a city commission voted in April to do just that after receiving an $8,000 estimate from a beleaguered company.
The vote came after some residents complained about the lion digging holes, chewing on outdoor wires and leaving excrement on sidewalks and driveways. The city commissioners also feared that the rabbits would infest neighboring communities and cities and become a traffic hazard if they ventured onto the main streets.
“The safety of these rabbits is of the utmost importance to the city, and any decision to involve ourselves will be certain to see these rabbits in the hands of people who are passionate about providing the care and love needed for these rabbits,” Police Chief Gary Blocker said in a statement.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which often culls invasive animals, has told the city it won’t get involved. Rabbits pose no direct threat to wildlife.
Lionhead rabbits aren’t the only invasive species causing headaches, or worse, for Florida residents. Burmese eels and lionfish kill native species. Giant African snails feed on plaster from homes and carry human diseases. Iguanas destroy gardens. Like the lionhead rabbits at Wilton Manors, these populations got their start when people released them illegally.
But unlike those species, Florida’s environment is not friendly to lion lions. Instead of the 7-9 years they live when properly housed, their outdoor life is nasty, brutal, and abbreviated.
Lionbirds’ heavy coat makes them extremely hot during Florida summers, and their lack of fear makes them vulnerable to predators. Chewing grass is not a healthy diet. Their diseases go untreated. They need owners.
“Domesticated rabbits that are released into the environment are not equipped to thrive on their own,” said Eric Stewart, executive director of the American Rabbit Breeders Association. He said the breeder who set them free should be prosecuted, a route the city did not take.
The Wilton Manors colony only survives and grows because lionheads breed like rabbits, with females giving birth to two to six offspring each month, starting at about 3 months of age.
One morning on the Janada Islands, clutches of two to 10 rabbits dotted the streets and meadows, the bravest of which hopped at residents and visitors in search of treats.
A large group of rabbits congregated on the driveway of Gator Carter, who provided them with food. He said the lion brings cheer to the neighborhood, and his young grandchildren love to give them carrots.
“People pass by, stop, love them, feed them,” Carter said. “They don’t bother me. We have a couple of Airbnbs on the island here and people (guests) are surprised the bunnies come right up to them.”
But John King said he wanted the rabbits gone soon. They dug in his yard and he spent $200 fixing his outdoor lights after they damaged the wires. He bought bunny repellent, but it didn’t work, and his little dog doesn’t scare them: “He’s their best friend.”
“Every morning, I wake up and the first thing I do is cover the holes and chase them out of the backyard. I love them, I just hope they go somewhere else,” King said. “The rescue would be awesome.”