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Abundance of rabbits has some Seal Beach residents hopping mad

Some are suggesting using pellet guns or cages to thin out the rabbit population at the Leisure World retirement community, while others recoil at the idea.

July 07, 2009|Dana Parsons

They were described as "cute little critters" that bring happiness and solace to residents. They were lauded for their playfulness and for being part of the reason some people had moved into the neighborhood.

The speakers at the microphone weren't talking about the members of the Seal Beach City Council, although the council members appeared to be fine fellows and four of the five were wearing colorful Hawaiian shirts.

The speakers were talking about the rabbits.

It is the abundance of bunnies -- and what to do about it -- at the city's Leisure World retirement community that kept the debate flowing at last month's council meeting. It is an issue that has flared in different parts of Orange County over the years.

"Most rabbits only live about a year," Nita Lambert told the council, "though they make the most of their short lives as far as reproduction goes."

Lambert said that people spend hundreds of dollars on their lawns and gardens and that rabbits have become a problem at Leisure World.

"Stop and watch 'em scratch," she said. "They've got ticks. They've got fleas."

And hope one doesn't die downwind of your home, she said; the carcass' odor could cause "headaches and nausea."

She's among a group of residents who want to hire a private firm to reduce the rabbit population with pellet guns. She and others said the plan isn't to annihilate the rabbits, but merely to "thin out" the population.

Other speakers recoiled at the thought.

If nothing else, the June meeting showed how divisive rabbit management is.

One speaker referred to Lambert's remarks as "a rather hysterical presentation." Said another: "I can't understand why people are so hateful." That prompted a man to follow her to the microphone and say, "We are not hateful people, ma'am."

Some of the mutuals, the governing residential bodies at Leisure World, hire a company that traps the rabbits. They are then taken to Riverside and shot, residents said. But even some residents who decried that method said that for safety reasons, they're opposed to switching to shooting the rabbits on site with pellet guns.

The discussion rekindled the on-again-off-again wrangling in areas where rabbits once had natural predators, such as coyotes and hawks, but now don't.

Several years ago, residents at another Leisure World in southern Orange County made news by confiscating poison bait boxes that had been set out for the wild rabbits.

At the Casta del Sol community in Mission Viejo, a private firm shoots rabbits with pellet guns in post-midnight raids. Not all residents there approve, but that's the method that Lambert and some others in Seal Beach's Leisure World want to employ, saying it is more humane and cheaper than using cages because the animal can injure itself trying to escape from a cage.

Not going to happen, said Seal Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Kirkpatrick, who is sympathetic to the problem but not to pellet guns.

A city ordinance bans projectile weapons, Kirkpatrick said, and an exception won't be made for rabbit hunting.

"It doesn't pass muster simply from the point of view that I can't allow anyone to come in and risk the residents' safety with an errant shot," he said. "I'm sure there are many qualified shooters out there, but I just can't allow the community to be at risk."

Although some speakers at the June meeting asked council members to see if the chief might change his mind, Kirkpatrick said none has approached him.

All of which frustrates those who say Leisure World's flower beds and lawns are a veritable banquet for the rabbits.

Even a rabbit-friendly observer such as Rick Gilliland, director of the San Clemente/Dana Point Animal Shelter, concedes they can be a problem. "They do become pests at times," he said, but he insists he's not taking sides in the Seal Beach dispute.

"Rabbits are not like cows," Gilliland said. "Cows tend to graze, so they eat grass on a field where they keep moving. . . . Rabbits tend to sit in one place and graze all the way down to the dirt, and now you've got a bare spot."

Kurt Bourhenne, who'd like to see the population thinned, said people mischaracterize the pellet guns as dangerous. He said the cage method is inhumane because rabbits invariably lose some skin or fur trying to escape.

Only 10 of the 16 mutuals at Leisure World use the cages, Bourhenne said, in part because the private firm charges $131 for each rabbit trapped. Residents have paid $16,500 through May, he said.

More than one speaker at the council meeting said the rabbits soothe people's souls and shouldn't become targets for humans.

"I can't think of a more tranquil sight than a sweet rabbit on the front lawn," Marsha Gerber said. Her aging mother doesn't get out much, "and the enjoyment she gets from seeing the rabbits is priceless."

Another speaker said the wildlife was "part of the charm that drew me to Leisure World." She said nature's predators can handle population control.

But Allen Bourhenne, who's on the community's security team and is Kurt Bourhenne's brother, said, "Hardly a day goes by that we don't get a call from some resident complaining some way or another about rabbits.

"There are only two hawks in Leisure World. They can't begin to control the population. Every once in a while a coyote will come in. They can't do anything because a resident will call and scream about a coyote being in Leisure World."

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dana.parsons@latimes.com

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