Visitors to Vermont’s Facebook group for lost and found animals will find a slew of pictures of cats or dogs — and even the occasional picture of a horse.
But for Avery Erdogan, who rescues small and exotic animals, the posts that stand out are of stray rabbits. The photo usually shows a bright color against the backdrop of pavement or greenery, often with the creature alone and looking as if it were stuck in place.
To Erdogan, the founder and director of Burlington-based Safe Haven Critter Rescue, the frequency of these stray rabbit Facebook posts signaled not only that there seemed to be a population of stray rabbits in the state but also that nobody appeared to be tackling the issue.
So she took up the charge, tracking stray rabbit sightings as part of her efforts to help save them.
“There's lots of data for stray cats and dogs,” Erdogan said, “but not so much for rabbits.”
Erdogan is not alone in noticing the trend. The Humane Society of Chittenden County has received an increasing number of calls from the public about the stray rabbit population around Burlington and Winooski, according to Erin Alamed, the shelter and volunteer director for the Humane Society of Chittenden County, which also takes in dogs, cats and other pets.
Owner-surrenders have been frequent in Alamed’s eight years at the organization, but the stray rabbit problem appears to be fairly new. And with rabbits' gestation period only being about 30 days, unspayed rabbits are able to reproduce rapidly, which could quickly make the stray rabbit issue in Vermont much worse.
“It can multiply and get out of hand very fast if it’s not remedied,” Alamed said.
By Erdogan’s count, at least 46 stray rabbits have already been documented across Vermont this year, including nearly half in Burlington.
She tracks stray rabbit sightings with the help of people who know her from Facebook and other online forums. For each sighting, she records the date and location, a description of the rabbit, whether it was a new sighting or a repeat, who she had found out about the rabbit from, a photograph and any extraneous details.
In many cases, she tries to trap the rabbit to rescue it. She first rescued stray rabbits in May 2021, she said, but didn’t hear about any others until this year, when she started to spot more postings online.
This year, Erdogan’s organization has rescued and successfully found homes for three owner-surrendered rabbits and one stray rabbit who had been running loose on Burlington’s Hyde Street with another rabbit. The second rabbit, who had a facial injury, could not be caught, but the first stray — whose name is Mochi — was adopted on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Humane Society is currently housing 10 rabbits in its foster network — which is the maximum number of rabbits that the organization allows — and seven rabbits at the shelter, which is over capacity, Alamed said.
Although rabbits are often spotted across Vermont, domesticated rabbits shouldn’t be let out into the wild because they ultimately will have a “brutal death,” Erdogan said.
Stray domesticated rabbits don’t have the same kind of survival instincts as their wild peers, and are unable to camouflage, which allows predators such as small foxes or birds to eat them, Erdogan said. Stray rabbits can also be run over by cars — which Erdogan said has happened at least once, in mid-April of this year.
Mochi, for example, was found to be drinking and urinating excessively — drinking more than four cups a day despite weighing less than three pounds. Erdogan said that the veterinarian believed that he ate something toxic while he was outside. He recovered while staying in Erdogan’s home.
It cost Safe Haven Critter Rescue $500 to neuter and perform blood work on Mochi, not including the cost of food, toys and other items, according to Erdogan.
And despite the help of Green Mountain Animal Defenders and Shelburne Veterinary Hospital, Erdogan says the cost of rescuing rabbits is significant even without injuries, with spaying and neutering costing $250 per rabbit.
Due to the costs, it’s likely that many of the stray rabbits across Burlington and Vermont haven’t had the procedure, she said.
“When you take in a (stray) rabbit, you don’t know if you’re taking in one or if you’re about to have 13,” Erdogan said.
‘It’s not ideal’
At the Humane Society, rabbits are more difficult to adopt out because they require “a lot more work to care for than a dog or a cat” and can live at least eight to 10 years — a lot longer than people might expect, Alamed said.
Rabbits stay at the Humane Society for an average of six weeks before being adopted, compared to three to four weeks for cats and dogs, Alamed said.
With so many rabbits being surrendered or being found as strays, the animal rescue organization has been trying to come up with creative solutions to motivate individuals to adopt the rabbits, including providing adopters with all the necessary resources and supplies they need to care for their rabbit.
Despite this incentive, Alamed said the rescue organization is struggling to house all the rabbits that need homes. The Humane Society is using not only the adoption floor — which ideally houses four rabbits but can accommodate up to six — but also a temporary space downstairs to house a few more.
“It’s not ideal,” Alamed said. “But because of the issue that we’re facing, we’ve made a room that usually is for cats or dogs, a space for rabbits. It’s kind of trading one issue for another issue.”
As a small and new organization, Erdogan has felt the toll of tracking and trying to rescue, spay and neuter and foster stray rabbits in Burlington and across Vermont. She tried to enlist the help of Burlington police’s animal control division and contacted Vermont State Police, but both agencies sent her to the other, she said. (Vermont State Police referred comment to Burlington police, who did not respond to an inquiry from VTDigger.)
“I've been trying to get other organizations or other groups on board to kind of target the problem because it's a lot bigger than what we can tackle on our own,” Erdogan said.
Already overwhelmed with too many rabbit owner surrenders and stray rabbit calls, the Humane Society said that they don’t have the capacity or staff to also trap the rabbits. And both Erdogan and Alamed said that it is difficult to tackle the stray rabbit problem while also taking in owner-surrenders.
“It's kind of a little bit of a juggling act in trying to please everybody and trying to also you know, remedy the situation that we already have on hand,” Alamed said.
Educating others about the responsibility of caring for a rabbit is integral in order to best reduce and address the stray rabbit population and owner surrenders, Alamed said.
Erdogan said that although she believes that the stray rabbit population in Vermont is a problem, she’s struggling to move forward without adequate help.
“I’m hitting a point of burnout,” Erdogan said. “Because I personally need a break but I definitely still want to spread awareness and see what the community can do together for this.”