‘They got out of hand’: Auckland street wrestles with fate of 400 pet rabbits
It is a quiet suburban street in Auckland: plush lawns, manicured hedges, orderly picket fences, stately wooden villas. Until you come upon the rabbits. So many rabbits: scattered across the lawn, sunbathing, consorting under deck chairs, crunching piles of cauliflower leaves. Grey, black, spotted, tan, white with shining pink eyes.
Last month there were about 400, although even that estimate was probably conservative. In recent weeks, their ranks have been thinned. The rabbits’ domain is the lawn of an otherwise nondescript, slightly run-down villa in the neighbourhood of Mount Eden. In the seven years they have spent quietly colonising this yard, it has become some of the country’s most coveted and unaffordable real estate. House prices have risen 70%. Oblivious to it all, the rabbits find themselves on the front lines of a battle for Auckland suburbia. Now, they are the subject of a court order – hundreds of rabbits must go.
The story starts simply. In August 2014, residents Elaine Cowlin and Dylan Lewis bought four rabbits from a local pet shop. They didn’t de-sex them. The rabbits began to breed. “We just love rabbits,” Cowlin tells the Guardian. The property has two houses – Lewis lives in one, providing full time rabbit care in exchange for free rent.
“The numbers were in check for maybe the first four, five years,” says Lewis. “Then they got out of hand.”
“It gets quite explosive after some while,” Cowlin muses, looking out over the garden. “Not a long while either.’
Rabbit populations are a textbook example of the exponential growth curve – without predators, their population grows by a factor of around 3.5 each year. If Cowlin’s 400 were left alone for three years, they would outnumber the human population of Mount Eden – a sprawling suburb home to around 14,700 people. While they’re relatively common as pets, wild rabbits are considered pests in New Zealand. According to Newsroom, they cost New Zealand over $50m in lost agricultural production, and another $25m in pest control each year.
Now, for the vast majority of these bunnies, the end is nigh. In June, after years of complaints from neighbours, the environment court ruled that all but 16 of the rabbits must go “by any means necessary”. The pair have until 2 August to get rid of the rabbits themselves. So far, around 200 have been euthanised, and others taken to animal shelters. Lewis says there are 53 left – an estimate which seems extremely optimistic, judging by the number hopping past him. He plans to take the remainder to shelters.
For the neighbours, the rabbit house has become a nightmare – a chaos agent descended on the prosperous safety of suburbia, leaving a trail of faeces, dead rabbits, potholes and a distinct odour. They have laid a multitude of complaints with council. In recent years, tension have run high: Lewis says the local cats are decapitating his pets, and so he started putting dead rabbits on neighbour’s property in protest. He received a trespass notice, which prohibits him returning to the property.
“I’m actually trespassed from [that] house because I kept putting dead rabbits on the property,” Lewis says, offhand. “I got upset,” he says.
One resident who asks not to be named said: “It’s not about neighbours at war. It’s about human rights”. They point out where the driveway is strewn with rabbit droppings: “E. coli everywhere.”
The bevy of rabbits makes it hard to sell houses, the resident says. They also suspect that there are far more rabbits than are immediately visible: “For every rabbit above ground there are six below.”
Over the fence, a carefully maintained lawn is pitted with holes. A single bunny stares, unapologetic, from the grass.
Now 82, Cowlin first moved into the street when she was 24 and newly married. They bought the first rabbits a few years after her husband passed away. Now, she says she’ll never leave the property – the house has too many memories.
“It’s nothing like it used to be,” she says. “When we first moved into the street there were constant knockings on the door. Now, people in this street are more short term. They’re often here for their children to go to certain schools. Everything’s quicker.”
Quicker, and vastly more expensive. Auckland’s suburbs are now one of the world’s least affordable places to live. The average house price in Mount Eden is $1.9m, up nearly 18% in the past 12 months. “Things have changed so much … not just in this street, all over Auckland,” Cowlin says. “There’s an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, people valuing their property much more than anything else.”
One of the villas across the road sold for $3.62m in February. In such a place, a multitude of fluffy animals let loose is not just an eccentricity – it represents a potential threat to the value of a street packed with multi-million-dollar assets.
Cowlin is sad to see them go. But perhaps there is an element of relief, too. She says she has burned through much of her savings, feeding her rabbit companions. “It’s a total commitment,” she says. But why rabbits?
“They’re free spirited,” Lewis says. “Yes,” nods Cowlin. “They’ve got their own minds.”
As she talks, more than 100 pigeons stud the powerline over the property, like some kind of omen.
“Yeah,” Lewis says. “We feed the pigeons as well.”