Hillsborough ban of pet rabbit sales sought by animal advocates

A grass-roots group wants retail sales banned in Pasco, Pinellas and Manatee. too
The SPCA Tampa Bay in Largo is waiving adoption fees on pet rabbits through the end of the year. Some area residents want Hillsborough and other counties to prohibit retail sales of pet rabbits.
The SPCA Tampa Bay in Largo is waiving adoption fees on pet rabbits through the end of the year. Some area residents want Hillsborough and other counties to prohibit retail sales of pet rabbits. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 28, 2021

It’s the yuletide season, but some area residents already are focusing on Easter Sunday.

They are concerned about the spring trend of people buying rabbits as family pets.

“People don’t realize what an expensive, high maintenance pet a rabbit can be,” said Renee Rivard of Manatee County. ”They are an impulse buy that ends up being unwanted.”

Rivard and a grass-roots group of animal advocates have asked the Hillsborough County Commission to add rabbits to the local ordinance that prohibits retail sales of dogs and cats.

Related: Dog and cat retailers banned in Hillsborough

They asked for an outright ban of selling pet rabbits, but also indicated they would accept an annual, seasonal moratorium prohibiting rabbit sales in March and April to curb Easter-related impulse buys..

Easter Sunday — the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ — also is marked in some homes by candy- and gift-filled Easter baskets from the mythical Easter Bunny. It falls between March 22 and April 25 each year.

Next year, Easter Sunday is April 17, 2022, and Rivard and others want to remove rabbits from the Easter basket gift list.

“This is a year-round problem. This does not go away after March and April. I would love to see it considered as a total ban,” said Myriam Parham, president of the non-profit group Florida Voices for Animals.

DeSoto County and the city of Key West prohibit retail sales of rabbits. Orange County adopted a similar ordinance in June and gave retailers a one-year grace period to comply.

Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp said she would support the idea, but other commissioners were non-committal at a Nov. 17 meeting. They asked their legal staff to research a potential ordinance. The report is scheduled to be delivered Jan. 12. Rivard said she and others also are seeking ordinances in Pasco, Pinellas and Manatee counties.

The dilemma, advocates said, is the buyer’s remorse that sometimes accompanies pet rabbit purchases. The cute, fuzzy fur balls grow into animals requiring significant cleaning because of their waste output. They also have an appetite for nearly anything chewable including, said Parham, rubber, plastics, clothing, wood and electrical wires.

“There’s nothing much cuter than a little baby bunny, but they’re a lot of work. They’re far more difficult than owning a cat. They’re just a bigger responsibility,” said Sherry Silk, CEO of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. “What happens is people bring them in in a box or a glass aquarium and they’re exasperated and they say, ‘This is just too much work. I don’t want ‘em.’ "

Government-run shelters in the Tampa Bay area do not accept rabbits. It means the chore of taking surrenders and fostering the animals falls to non-profits or volunteers.

Related: Need a furry friend? Fees waived for bunnies

SPCA Tampa Bay said it had 167 rabbits surrendered by owners in 2020 and also cared for 74 strays or animals transferred from elsewhere. On Dec. 2, the Largo facility had 45 rabbits on hand, which prompted extending a promotion to waive adoption fees until Dec. 31.

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“Our facility was feeling full,” spokesman Eric Keaton said in an email.

The Humane Society of Tampa Bay has refused to accept rabbits when it reaches capacity to care for approximately 30 at a time. There were 249 rabbits at the facility in the first 10 months of 2021, including 139 surrendered by owners. Nearly all the rest were strays.

“What that tells me,” said Silk, “ they’re just turned loose and they don’t have a chance.’’

Domesticated rabbits released outdoors can starve, become prey to coyotes or be run over by cars, said Lutz veterinarian Betsy Colville.

Rivard said their research showed 18 stores in Hillsborough County sell rabbits. Pet Supermarket, with six outlets in the county, is the most visible.

“We hold our animal suppliers to very high standards, and all animals are checked by vets prior to arriving to our stores,” said Daphene Whitney, vice president of merchandising at Pet Supermarket. “That said, we are not familiar with the proposed ordinance and cannot comment further until we have reviewed it in detail.”