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More bunny rabbits are on the loose in metro Atlanta

It is fairly common to see signs in metro Atlanta neighborhoods or posts on neighborhood social networks for lost pets. This summer, even actress Julia Roberts managed to recover her chocolate lab using the Nextdoor app.

While people looking for lost dogs and cats are common, what you almost never see is someone looking to recover a pet bunny. More often, people are reporting abandoned bunnies, and the number of domestic bunnies on the loose in metro Atlanta is growing.

On Monday, domestic bunnies were spotted in the Peoplestown, Grant Park and Summerhill areas, according to neighbors on Nextdoor -- part of more than 50 rabbits recovered in the past month alone. In June, 28 rabbits were dumped at Big Trees Forest Preserve on Roswell Road in Sandy SpringsRecently, areas including Sandy Springs, Decatur and Midtown have been hotspots for rabbit dumping. 

"We have never seen anything like this year and I have been doing this for 20 years," said Edie Sayeg, co-chapter manager and board member of Marietta-based, Georgia House Rabbit Society (GHRS). The last time things were this crazy, was two years ago when GHRS recovered 160 rabbits from a woman's home in Gwinnett County , Sayeg said.

The availability and affordability of rabbits from pet stores or breeders, animal control laws in Georgia and the limited number of animal shelters that will take rabbits have all resulted in increasing amounts of rabbits out on the streets. "We have a waiting list of more than 100 people wanting to turn in rabbits to our organization," Sayeg said. The organization also offers a $1000 reward to anyone who can lead to the prosecution of someone dumping a rabbit.

Rabbits became popular pets in the late 80s and 90s, she said. Sayeg got her first rabbit in 1996. Summer tends to be high season for bunny dumping, particularly after Memorial Day. Easter has passed and kids are not as thrilled with their pet bunny. Or the family may be headed on vacation and unable to find a place to board their bunny due to limited options.

Bunnies have a reputation of being cute and cuddly thanks to popular culture (and many are), but just like cats or dogs, bunnies have their own personalities and quirks. They also come at the relatively affordable cost of $15 -$20 at pet stores or $0 - $5 by a seller desperate to unload a huge litter.

"People treat animals as a commodity instead of as a part of their family. They think bunnies are good starter pets for kids, but (bunnies) are very sensitive and don’t make good starter pets especially if you don’t know how to take care of them," said Vanessa Smet, a volunteer and rabbit wrangler for GHRS.

Some countries ban the sale of bunnies at Easter, to help crack down on frivolous purchases. Rabbits are 10 - 12 year responsibility, and they grow very fast. And while they may be purchased at no to low-cost, their care and vet bills can be very expensive (around $150 for spaying or neutering for example) because they are treated as exotic pets.

Families may want the benefits of having a rabbit as a pet -- bunnies can train themselves to use a litter box, they don't need to be walked, they sleep during the day making them good pets for people who work, they are smart companions and they are sooooo cute -- but owners don't always want to make the time to learn how to care for them properly.

What do you do when your bun needs care and most local vets don't offer service? Where do you board a bunny when you go out-of-town? GHRS' boarding service is usually booked solid from Memorial Day through summer.

The answer for some people is to drop the animal in a nearby wooded area with the mistaken belief that a domestic bunny can survive just like the wild Eastern Cottontails found in Georgia.

"Most people think they will go back to the wild and mix with wild rabbits but they are not the same species. Domestic rabbits don't have a survival instinct at all," Smet said.

If you see a wild rabbit, it is probably on the move. If you approach a wild rabbit, it will most definitely run away. Domestic rabbits are comfortable with humans approaching. Wild rabbits have a mottled gray or brown color to their short fur designed to blend in with their environment. Domestic rabbits are more likely to have longer fur in a solid color other than gray or brown.

Kira Kikla, a GHRS volunteer since February, and part of the bunny brigade with Smet, created a Nextdoor account just to monitor bunny activity. She found her bunny, Cocoa Puff, on the app about six weeks ago.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about bunnies, some of which Kikla can correct with a simple online exchange. When people find and feed lost bunnies, Kikla suggests they offer them romaine lettuce instead of carrots which have a high sugar content. She also lets them know that they can reach out to GHRS for assistance and supplies.

Sometimes the animals, particularly those in a large dump, may have been living in poor conditions and they need more care than lettuce and a cage can provide. Females are often pregnant (they have two uteri, can get pregnant as early as three-months-old and can deliver and immediately conceive again). The animals may have fleas or other issues and some are seriously injured.

While GHRS can help -- they offer supplies, classes on bunny care and more -- getting severely impaired animals into adoptable condition takes time and money. Anyone who decides to rescue a bunny must understand the animal is likely to be under their care for three to six months until GHRS has space to take it in. In some ways, GHRS has become a victim of their its success, said Lynn Rees, board chair of GHRS.

Once they encountered a woman attempting to sell rabbits on Craigslist that she had adopted from them. They reminded her of their policy (no releasing or selling animals adopted from GHRS) and asked her to surrender the animals back to them, said Rees.

But they are one organization and while they offer everything from discounted vet services, to bunny boarding to care classes and shelter and rescue, they are overwhelmed with the demand.

A new shelter is opening in Brunswick, said Rees, and they plan to work with them to offer information and support. GHRS is also pushing for legislation to prevent backyard breeding of rabbits and to bar pet stores from selling rabbits. And they are in the process of establishing plans to raise $400,000 to build a new shelter for rabbits behind the existing building.

"By growing the animals available for adoption we have brought them to the forefront of being adoptable pets. We have adopted out hundreds if not thousands of rabbits in the last 10 years," she said. "This is the same thing dogs and cats went through 30 to 50 years ago."

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.