As Alicia Griggs emerges from her suburban home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s latest invasive species is hopping down the street: lion-headed rabbits.
Bunnies with an impressive flowing mane around their heads want the food that Griggs is carrying. But it also represents their best chance of surviving and moving to where this domesticated breed belongs: in homes, away from cars, cats, hawks, Florida heat, and possibly government-hired exterminators.
Griggs is leading efforts to raise the $20,000 to $40,000 that the rescue team will need to capture, sterilize, vaccinate, shelter and then transfer the approximately 60 to 100 lionheads that currently inhabit the Jenada Islands, an 81-home community in Wilton Manors.
They are the descendants of a group that the breeder illegally released when she left two years ago.
“They really need to be saved. So we tried to get the city to do it, but they’re just playing for time,” Griggs said. “They think that if they do that, then they’ll have to get rid of the iguanas and everything else that people don’t need.”
Rabbits gather on the sidewalk on July 11, 2023 in Wilton Manors, Florida. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Monica Mitchell, whose east coast rabbit rescue service is likely to spearhead the effort, said capturing, treating and finding a home for them is “not an easy process.” Few veterinarians treat rabbits, and many would-be owners shy away when they find out how much work the animals require. Griggs agreed.
“People don’t realize they are exotic pets and they are complex. They have a complex digestive system and have to follow a special diet,” said Griggs, a real estate agent. “You can’t just throw table scraps at them.”
Wilton Manors is giving Griggs and other supporters time to raise money and relocate the rabbits rather than exterminate them, despite the city commission voting in April to do just that, receiving an $8,000 valuation from the trapping company.
The vote came after some residents complained that lion heads dig holes, gnaw on outdoor wiring and leave droppings on sidewalks and driveways. City commissioners also feared that the rabbits could spread to neighboring communities and cities and become a traffic hazard if they ventured onto the main streets.
“The safety of this population of rabbits is of paramount importance to the city, and any decision to intervene in the process will certainly result in these rabbits being placed in the hands of people who are passionate about providing the necessary care and love for these rabbits,” Police Chief Gary Blocker said in a statement.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which frequently culls invasive animals, told the city it would not interfere. Rabbits do not pose an immediate threat to wildlife.
Rabbits gather to eat food left by a resident on July 11, 2023, in Wilton Manors, Florida. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Lionhead rabbits aren’t the only invasive species to cause headaches or worse in Florida residents.
Burmese pythons and lionfish are destroying native species. Giant African snails eat plaster from houses and carry human diseases. Iguanas destroy gardens.
Like the lion-headed rabbits at Wilton Manor, all of these populations came into existence when people illegally released them into the wild.
But unlike these species, Florida’s environment is hostile to lionheads. Instead of the 7-9 years they live with the right placement, their outdoor life is unpleasant, cruel and shortened.
Lionheads’ thick coats make them overheat during the summer in Florida, and their lack of fear makes them vulnerable to predators. Lawn chewing is not a healthy diet. Their diseases are not cured. They need owners.
“Domesticated (rabbits) released into the environment are not designed to grow on their own,” said Eric Stewart, executive director of the American Rabbit Breeders Association. He said the breeder who released them should be held accountable, but the city didn’t go that route.
The Wilton Manors colony survives and grows only because the lionheads breed like rabbits, and the females give birth to two to six cubs every month, starting at three months of age.
On a recent morning in the Jenada Islands, clutches of two to ten rabbits dotted the streets and lawns, the boldest jumping towards residents and visitors in search of treats.
A large group of rabbits had gathered in the driveway of Gator Carter, who was preparing food for them. He said that lion heads bring joy to the neighbors, and his two young grandchildren love to give them carrots.
“People drive by, stop, love them, feed them,” Carter said. “They don’t bother me. We have a couple of Airbnbs on the island and people (guests) are just amazed that the bunnies come right up to them.”
But John King said he wanted the rabbits to disappear as soon as possible. They were digging in his yard and he spent $200 fixing street lights after they damaged the wiring. He bought rabbit repellant, but it didn’t work, and his dog doesn’t scare them: “He’s their best friend.”
“Every morning I get up and the first thing I do is cover up the holes and kick them out of the yard. I like them, I just want them to go somewhere else,” King said. “Salvation would be great.”