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Monday, August 31, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Rabbit Reprieve? -- Redmond Plans Revamped To Solve Bunny Crisis

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

REDMOND

The rabbits are cute, cooed at and well-fed. They also are unaccustomed to living in the wild, they are carriers of a toxic disease called liver coccidia and are frequently run over on the road.

A rabbit-rights coalition now says it is optimistic about solving the Redmond rabbit problem and rescuing the estimated 700 to 1,000 animals from the manicured lawns of Microsoft, Eddie Bauer and other Overlake businesses.

An unexpected $5,000 contribution late Thursday by Eddie Bauer and a revamped plan that would lower the project's original projected cost of $77,000 has coalition members forgoing their doom-and-gloom predictions of just a few days before.

"I'm quite optimistic, even though we haven't had the support from the city or some of the public," said Sandi Ackerman, a coalition member who has been caring for the unwanted rabbits for 10 years. "We're hoping local businesses will come through."

The Redmond Rabbit Coalition, formed in June by four animal-rights groups, will meet one last time with members of the business community tomorrow to make a final push for the rest of the money they need. They won't say how much.

Just a few days ago, the tone was drastically different. With Redmond City Council and King County Animal Control haggling over who was responsible for the animals and the area's business giants wary of financial commitment, the reality was a gridlock of conflicting motivations.

The coalition's Ackerman says she was depressed over the possibility of hundreds of rabbits dying from winter temperatures, bulldozers and disease.

The feral rabbits munch the grass and scamper among the blackberry bushes in the area - bordered by state Highway 520, 148th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 40th Street - that for decades has been a popular dumping - and breeding - ground for unwanted rabbits.

The problem has reached this point because of what rabbits do best. That is, female rabbits as young as 3 months old can produce litters of six to 12 bunnies every 30 days.

With an influx of dumped rabbits and a decrease in natural predators over the past several years, the rabbits are more plentiful than ever. The numbers are too big to be thinned out by natural causes alone.

"The point is that the problem won't die off," Ackerman says. "It hasn't died off in 30 years."

The coalition has volunteers ready to gather up each rabbit. The animals then would be medicated, and spayed or neutered before being released into a wildlife sanctuary or adopted as pets.

A similar plan, successful in Oregon, removed 751 rabbits from the 22-acre Glendoveer Golf Course and Park in northeast Portland, notes Jim Hartmann, a high-school biology teacher from Tigard, Ore.

Those involved with the Overlake problem agreed the rescue was a fine idea, but no one was willing to pay for it.

The city of Redmond dragged the rabbits into its dispute with the county over who should pay for services such as animal control, swimming pools and courts.

"We are certainly willing to work together," said Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives, "but the bottom line is King County has a contract to uphold, and we need to sit down and talk to them about fulfilling that responsibility.

"Them saying that they don't have the resources, that's not acceptable."

Vicki Schmitz, assistant manager of King County Licensing and Animal Control, agrees that the rabbits are "technically our responsibility."

But Schmitz says the county isn't in the trapping business; animal control deals mostly with cats and dogs. The county has asked a professional trapper from the Northwest Nuisance Wildlife Control to assess the problem.

And Schmitz admits the county isn't likely to give the rabbits shelter: "If animal control were to remove the rabbits," she says, "we would probably be forced to euthanize most of them."

The coalition took its case to the Redmond City Council twice this month. But the council both times declined to give the coalition $5,000 despite lengthy, often emotional, testimony and what Councilman Tom Paine called "the largest turnout I've seen of people willing to put their energy and muscle to back up their words."

"It's not that we're not supportive," said council President Richard Cole. "But when it comes to writing a check . . . I just don't think it's a place where we should be spending taxpayers' money."

Cole said the city already has put "tremendous" resources into the rabbits, in staff hours to research the problem, educating the public through Redmond's cable-television channel and putting up signs to discourage rabbit dumping and feeding.

Now the coalition and its supporters say they don't need the government's help.

Eddie Bauer and six other Overlake businesses, which want to remain anonymous, have come up with over half the requested money for a rabbit rescue.

Lurma Rackley, director of public affairs for Eddie Bauer, says the company donated the money because "we realize they are hazardous. We're very concerned about them."

Yet Rackley echoes the sentiments of many Overlake businesses that hoped the city would have taken the lead. "It's not a problem that one company can solve alone," she said. "We'd like to seek a joint effort."

John Pinette, spokesman for Microsoft, said the giant corporation doesn't have an official position on the rabbits. Like other local businesses, Microsoft is wary of putting money into rabbits and is waiting to see what happens, he said.

With construction set to begin on a new Northeast 40th Street overpass in January, the coalition says this is a last stand. Similar construction on the highway interchange in October 1997 bulldozed rabbit dens and resulted in an unknown number of rabbit deaths.

Lisa Wathne, campaign coordinator for Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), says the volunteers will not start until the project is fully funded.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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