Many years ago, someone released their pet bunnies at Cannon Beach.
Pets don’t usually do well in the wild. They can’t easily find food and aren’t well prepared for predators. But for some reason, these rabbits survived to do what their species does best: Reproduce, again and again and again.
Now the coastal town is split between those who love their fluffy neighbors and those who want to be rid of them.
One of the first things a visitor will notice is that the Cannon Beach rabbits aren't afraid of humans. You can walk up to them and snap their picture from a few feet away.
Retired nurse Melodie Chenevert remembers her 5-year-old granddaughter's reaction the first time she saw the animals.
“She wanted to make them a carrot salad. So she would put down a lettuce leaf, and then she’d put down some little pieces of carrot, and they would just eat it" Chenevert said. "And she would just giggle."
That’s when Chenevert started treating the rabbits near her home like pets.
“We sort of share them with The Inn at Cannon Beach. They sort of go back and forth," she said. "And we started naming them, which was probably a mistake.”
Chenevert and her husband Gary let Butterscotch and Blacky live in their garden.
“We took to buying 10 pound bags of organic carrots at Costco. We’d cut them up," she said. "And every morning Gary would put the flag up and pretty soon there were 10 or 12 bunnies sitting in the driveway staring at him."
Chenevert thinks the animals are good for the village, because they attract tourists. She’d like to see a Cannon Beach Easter festival, complete with carrot cakes and "bunny hop" dances.
She even started a Facebook page for the rabbits. One visitor posted about watching someone get down on their stomach to entice a rabbit with a treat — only to see a seagull swoop in and steal the goodie.
Chenevert said hawks and foxes keep rabbit numbers in check — as does the fact they don’t run at the sight of danger.
“If there’s a dog loose or something, they get caught and killed," she said. "Or they dash into traffic — they’re not very smart — and they don’t look both ways before they cross the street."
Chenevert said last year, their numbers started to decline so suddenly that she asked around; somebody was trapping and removing them.
She doesn’t want to say which local business was involved, because she understands they were sick of wasting money on landscaping. The rabbits will eat flowers and dig holes in any yard.
Cannon Beach resident Peter Anderson was watering his garden when he spoke to OPB.
“My wife and I do plant some flowers and different things in the yard, and they’ve come and actually eaten the plant down to about nothing in some cases,” he said.
Anderson said his grandchildren enjoy the rabbits. But there are simply too many.
Another Cannon Beach resident, Sandy Fitzpatrick, said she's sick of stepping in rabbit-dug holes. She recently told the Cannon Beach City Council that she had counted 74 rabbits on a drive through town.
“This is as bad as rats," she said. "Some people are cutting holes in fences so they can live under their decks.”
She said some of her neighbors are treating the rabbits as pets, and pets need to be kept on leashes when they're outdoors.
“What if I brought down a bunch of chickens and let them go?" she said. "... What if I did this for dogs? Let dogs go. They’re not my dog, but I can feed it, I can play with it, I can pet it. We’ve got a problem.”
Fitzpatrick is stirred up. So are a lot of people in Cannon Beach — on both sides.
Lest you doubt the passion involved, OPB couldn’t get the city manager or Mayor Sam Steidel to talk on the record about the rabbit situation. At a recent City Council meeting, he suggested he's thinking about regulating the animals as pets.
“We could say if somebody wants to keep rabbits, they get hutches and they do things properly," he said. "Otherwise these are wild critters that need to be, in an infestation situation, eradicated. However we can figure that out."
Eradication or hutching are both reasonable solutions, said Dana Sanchez, a wildlife specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service. The rabbits may seem like pets to some neighbors, she said, but they are considered feral.
“Generally our pet rabbits are from a completely different species than the native rabbits that we see bounding around in the habitat,” she said.
Sanchez predicted that a cold winter would greatly reduce their numbers. But adult rabbits can give birth once a month, to an average of six babies. That's a lot of rabbits for a community already feeling overrun with them.