Canmore has a little problem: a little, fluffy, pet-store-variety, cottontail rabbit problem.
They’re cute as can be, but the problem is that they reproduce like, well, bunnies. Over 30 years ago, these family pets were released into the backyards of South Canmore and, for years afterwards, were lovingly referred to (by some) as “the South Canmore Rabbits.” Then they started to expand their territory. By 2008, they had taken up residence as far away as the Canmore Hospital. Within the year, the bunnies had done the unthinkable: they had crossed the Trans-Canada Highway and become an issue for all residents of Canmore (the horror!).
An Ongoing Debate
The debate over the bunnies has raged for at least a decade. On one side are those who see the bunnies as a pest and feel their uncontrolled population growth should be reined in for the sake of humans and other wildlife that share the valley. On the other side are those who feel the bunnies, like all the animals of the Bow Valley, have a place here and should be protected. Emotions run high on both sides when the prospect of a bunny cull is raised because, no matter what, one side will disagree with the outcome.
At some point, both sides will have to put their sentiments aside and focus on the facts of the bunnies’ true ecological impact in order to decide upon a course of action.
Getting the Facts Straight
To begin, we must remember two very important things about the bunnies:
1. They are animals. They are not little plush toys or fuzzy bunnies on TV. They are cute, but so are bears. And when we treat bears like the cuddly version of popular culture icons, we have historically created garbage bears and other problem bears. Which is not good for them or for us. When we treat the bunnies like cuddly creatures, the effects are the same.
Anyone who visited or lived in Banff in the 1960′s and 1970′s will tell you about going to the dump to bear-watch. This created problem bears. Bears that came into town, showed no fear of humans and put themselves at risk. The only solution, when relocation failed, was to kill the bear. The Bow Valley lost its fair share of grizzlies and black bears this way. We had to be reminded that bears are wild animals and that tempting them with human food and not respecting their natural instincts leads to the death of a bear and often injury to people.
We are creating a similar situation with the bunnies by forgetting they are animals, not community pets, and willingly inviting huge ecological change by allowing them to procreate unchecked.
2. The bunnies are an invasive species. The bunnies are not native to the Rockies. They were introduced by irresponsible pet owners and have flourished with the protection from predators afforded by the town environment. They can destroy an ecosystem if left unchecked, as the Canmore bunny population has been.
Ecological Imperialism … What’s That You Say?
Bunnies, rabbits and various other rodents have caused enormous damage to ecosystems around the world. So have humans, the ultimate invasive species. Environmental historians study the effects of human migration on the natural world and have noted one of the factors that helps humans establish themselves in a foreign environment are the other species they bring with them. This process is called Ecological Imperialism. By importing diseases, plants and animals from Europe to the Americas, Europeans were able to colonize and completely transform civilizations and ecosystems.
In Australia and New Zealand, rabbits caused huge ecological problems. They were accidentally brought from Britain and spread so quickly they were called the grey blanket. For three generations, people tried to combat the rabbits and the destruction they caused to gardens, farms, natural ecosystems and native species habitat. The problem was so bad and so widespread that, following the Second World War, the Inter-Colonial Rabbit Commission offered a reward of £25 000 for a solution to the problem. The solution they came to was to cull as many of the rabbits as possible, but the problem was so widespread it took decades to make a sizable dent in the populations. By that point, the rabbits had already done irreversible damage to the native ecosystems.
What are the risks of leaving the Canmore bunnies alone? They will continue to spread and reproduce and cause headaches for gardeners and home owners. They will continue to attract predators into town because bunnies are easy prey. Right now, mostly coyotes are daring enough to wander into Canmore at night (and day) in search of bunnies, occasionally claiming house cats and small dogs. But it is only a matter of time before a hungry cougar comes into town in search of prey, and instead of sticking to bunnies, supplements their diet with larger prey – humans. And what happens when that cougar is caught, killed for being a danger to humans and itself, and an autopsy is performed only to find its stomach full of bunnies? Is that when we finally stop debating what to do with the bunnies and act? Will it take the death of a human for people to see the bunnies are a problem and a threat to the ecological balance of the Bow Valley?
These are questions we need to think long and hard about before the extreme case becomes reality.
Are feral rabbits, the consequence of irresponsible pet owners, worth the risk to the balance of the Bow Valley ecosystem?
***For more on the history of wildlife and tourism, specifically bears, check out Alice Wondrak Biels Do (Not) Feed the Bears: The Fitful History of Wildlife and Tourists in Yellowstone (University of Kansas Press, 2006).
***For more on ecological imperialism, check out Alfred Crosbys Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
***For more on rabbits and other invasive species in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, check out Thomas Dunlaps Nature and the English Diaspora: Environment and History in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Cambridge University Press, 1999), or his shorter article that talks about rabbits Remaking the Land: The Acclimatization Movement and Anglo Ideas of Nature in Journal of World History 8:2 (Fall 1997).
***I was able to order the books at Cafe Books. The article is available on-line, for a price, unless you have access to university library journal subscriptions.