Hillsborough bans retail sales of rabbits

Animal advocates lobbied commissioners for the ordinance for more than a year.
The Hillsborough County Commission on Wednesday banned retail sales of rabbits. Shown are two animals at the SPCA Tampa Bay in Largo in November 2021.
The Hillsborough County Commission on Wednesday banned retail sales of rabbits. Shown are two animals at the SPCA Tampa Bay in Largo in November 2021. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 1|Updated Feb. 1

A new ordinance says it is illegal to sell pet rabbits in Hillsborough County.

Hillsborough County commissioners approved the measure Wednesday, banning the sale of rabbits at commercial retail outlets and other public locations, like parking lots. Violators face a civil fine of up to $500.

The ordinance, however, exempts retailers who partner with rescue groups, allowing the public to adopt the animals from store locations. It is the same rule the county uses for dog and cat sales and is modeled after a similar rabbit ordinance adopted last year in Pasco County.

Animal advocates have been lobbying Hillsborough commissioners for more than a year to adopt the ban.

“The (advocates’) persistence is amazing and I think they have clearly made the case,” Commissioner Pat Kemp said Wednesday.

The county stopped short of regulating sales in 2022 and instead tried an education program with retailers. The county’s Pet Resource Center, however, told commissioners in September the public education campaign had not diminished the number of rabbits surrendered to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.

“It didn’t work,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen. “We got to this point because I think some of us felt there simply is no other choice in order to do the really humane thing.”

The problem stems from buyers’ remorse after impulse buys of pet rabbits, particularly near Easter. Baby rabbits grow into adults animals requiring significant care and cleaning because of their waste output. They also have an appetite for nearly anything chewable, including rubber, plastics, clothing, wood and electrical wires.

Advocates said it leads to owners surrendering animals to shelters or simply releasing them outdoors. Taking surrenders falls to nonprofits or volunteers because government-run shelters in the Tampa Bay area do not accept rabbits. Speakers at the public hearing Wednesday said the Humane Society of Tampa Bay received 272 rabbits in 2022 and had to turn away 95.

“It is irresponsible to feed a system if we are not willing to take care of the consequences,” said Lutz veterinarian Betsy Coville. “If we as a county cannot deal with the massive number of unwanted rabbits, we need to turn off the faucet.”

Steve Jensen, a vice president at Pet Supermarket, which has seven stores in Hillsborough County, told commissioners two weeks ago he opposed the ordinance.

“We don’t want them dumped, either. It’s not what we’re there for,” he said. ”The financial impact of this is pretty significant. It really is. It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars just in this county.”

The public hearing Wednesday drew 15 speakers, all but one of whom supported the ban.

The commission approved the ordinance on a 6-1 vote with Commissioner Joshua Wostal dissenting. He said he feared the sales ban set a poor precedent and could lead to rules governing other animals.

“I do not intend on extending that prohibition to any other animal,” said Commissioner chairperson Ken Hagan.