A pesticide that causes animals to slowly bleed to death is being used to control a booming rabbit population at Leisure World-Laguna Woods, despite protests from some residents and new state regulations prohibiting the chemical's use on cottontails in Orange County's suburban areas.
After learning of Leisure World's use of the poison, state agriculture officials last month limited its use on cottontail rabbits to farming areas. Companies can keep using the poison on cottontails in suburban areas while their supplies last, and they can use it to kill jack rabbits, usually found only around fields, and various rat, mouse and squirrel species.
"We can use our supply until it is exhausted," said Terry Quinlan, a spokeswoman for Leisure World's management company, Professional Community Management. She said landscapers have enough of the pesticide diphacinone to last about two more months.
That doesn't sit well with residents, some of whom have organized a brigade that scours the gated south Orange County community, snatching up the baited traps.
They say that the use of diphacinone is inhumane because it causes the rabbits to suffer an agonizing death, bleeding internally for days.
"I think the management company should call a meeting and have the people who want to kill these animals bring one of their grandchildren with them and explain what this does to the animals and why they want to kill these bunnies," Leisure World resident Bruce Melin said. "It's because of their pansies."
The rabbits are drawn to flowers and shrubs in common areas and gardens within the senior community. Landscapers began setting out bait after residents complained about damage to their gardens.
The poison can cause bleeding in people and can be lethal to pets, though such cases are rare, said Rick Melnicoe, director of the UC Davis Western Region Pest Management Center.
Leisure World-Laguna Woods spends about $50,000 a year on rabbit abatement and replanting vegetation, Quinlan said.
"It's still a severe problem, even with the abatement program," she said. "And once we are no longer able to do the abatement, the rabbit population will increase, and the cost to the residents will increase because of the need to replace shrubbery and damage to the lawns and gardens."
She said the management company will research alternative methods of eradication.
Larry Cooper, a spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture, said no other pesticides are now approved to kill cottontails.
"The only other options would be trapping or shooting," he said.
A 1997 report by the University of California said rabbits can be discouraged from feeding if garden areas are fenced, cleared of dense shrubbery, and treated with odor and taste repellents.
That would be a far better solution, resident Melin said. "If you're willing to spend $50,000 on poison," he said, "then you should be willing to spend that much on finding ways to stop the problem without killing the rabbits."