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A Florida suburb is facing an invasion of pet rabbits

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WILTON MANORS, Fla. (AP) — As Alicia Griggs exits her suburban Fort Lauderdale home, Florida’s newest invasive species hops down the street: lionhead rabbits.

The bunnies, which sport an impressive flowing mane around their heads, want the food Griggs is carrying. But it also represents the best chance for them to survive and move to where this domesticated breed belongs: indoors, away from cars, cats, hawks, the Florida heat, and possibly government-hired exterminators.

Griggs is spearheading efforts to raise the $20,000 to $40,000 a rescue group is raising to capture, neuter, vaccinate, house and then give away the estimated 60 to 100 lionheads that now make up the Jenada Isles, an 81-home community in Wilton Manors, people, would cost.

They are descendants of a group that a backyard breeder illegally released when she moved away two years ago.

“They really need to be saved. So we tried to get the city to do it, but they’re just reluctant,” Griggs said. “They think if they do that they have to get rid of iguanas and everything else that people don’t want.”

Monica Mitchell, whose Rabbit rescue on the east coast would likely lead the effort, said capturing, treating and finding housing for her was “not an easy process”. Few veterinarians treat rabbits, and many potential owners balk when they learn how much work the animals require. Griggs agreed.

“People don’t realize that these are exotic pets and that they’re complicated. They have complicated digestive systems and need special diets,” 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 eradicate them, despite the city commission voting exactly to do so in April after receiving an $8,000 cost estimate from a trapping company.

The vote came after some local residents complained that the lionheads were digging holes, chewing up cables outdoors and leaving feces on sidewalks and driveways. City councilors also feared the rabbits could spread to neighboring communities and towns and become a traffic hazard if they stray onto main roads.

“The safety of this rabbit population is of the utmost importance to the city and any decision to engage us will ensure these rabbits end up in the hands of people who are passionate about giving these rabbits the care and love they need to provide,” police Chief Gary Blocker said in a statement.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which often kills invasive animals, has told the city it will not intervene. The rabbits pose no immediate threat to wildlife.

Lionhead rabbits aren’t the only invasive species giving Florida residents a headache or worse. Burmese pythons And lionfish kill native species. Giant African snails Eat stucco from houses and transmit human diseases. iguanas destroy gardens. As with the Wilton Manors lionhead rabbits, these populations arose when humans released them illegally.

But unlike these species, Florida’s environment is not friendly to lionheads. Instead of the 7 to 9 years they live when properly housed, their outdoor life is uncomfortable, brutal, and abbreviated.

The lionhead’s thick fur causes them to overheat in Florida summers, and their fearlessness makes them vulnerable to predators. Eating on the lawn is not healthy eating. Their diseases go untreated. They need owners.

“Released domesticated (rabbits) are not equipped to thrive on their own,” said Eric Stewart, executive director of the American Rabbit Breeders Association. He said the breeder who released them should be prosecuted, an avenue the city has not pursued.

The Wilton Manors colony survives and grows only because lionheads breed like the rabbits they are. Females give birth to litters of two to six offspring each month, beginning at around three months.

On a recent morning in the Jenada Islands, clutches of two to ten rabbits were scattered across the streets and lawns, and the bravest hopped among residents and visitors in search of treats.

A large group of rabbits gather in the driveway of Gator Carter, who provides food for them. He said the lion heads bring joy to the neighborhood and his two young grandchildren love giving them carrots.

“People drive by, stop, love them, feed them,” Carter said. “You don’t bother me. We have a couple of airbnbs here on the island and people (guests) are just amazed that the rabbits come right up to them.”

But Jon King said he wants the rabbits gone soon. They dug in his yard and he spent $200 fixing his outdoor lights after the wiring was damaged. He bought a rabbit repellent, but that didn’t help, and their little 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 chase them out of the backyard. I like them, I just wish they would go somewhere else,” King said. “A rescue would be great.”

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