NEW PORT RICHEY — The fluffy, long-eared icons of Easter are often victims of their own cuteness.
For months now, animal advocates have been working on Pasco County leaders to recognize that rabbits bought as pets more often than not are discarded, abandoned and mistreated. But this week, Pasco County commissioners voted to add a layer of assistance that might begin to turn that around.
Commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance to ban public sales of rabbits, stopping flea market vendors and other breeders from selling them in the open. The ban stops short of forbidding pet shops from selling bunnies, but immediately after commissioners voted for the public sale ban, they asked staff to bring them back an amendment that would also forbid retail sale.
If approved, that would put rabbits on the same level as dogs and cats, which have been banned from pet store sales in Pasco since 2020. That doesn’t mean big pet stores such as PetSmart and Petco don’t offer animals. They partner with rescue groups to adopt out stray animals in need of new homes, offering them space to display their rescue animals.
That model has worked for big pet retailers who know that once someone adopts a new pet, they are going to need a place to purchase food, toys and other supplies, said Pasco Animal Services director Michael Shumate.
Often purchased as an impulse buy, especially during the Easter season, rabbits turn out to be high-maintenance pets. They are not good pets for children, they don’t like to be held and they can scratch or bite.
When the pet arrangement doesn’t work out, many rabbits are simply let loose into the wild, where they are not equipped to fend for themselves but are equipped to reproduce rapidly. Animal shelters often don’t take them and there are limited rescue resources in the area for those who will.
“Anything you can do to stop the constant flow of rabbits will help,” said Kurtis Marsh, who runs Suncoast House Rabbit Rescue in Holiday. He just got another call from someone who has 22 rabbits to re-home.
Renee Rivard, an animal advocate from Manatee County, encouraged the retail ban on rabbits. She said that local officials say that 80% of purchased rabbits will be surrendered, abandoned or will die. Resources of animal rescue groups are already stretched thin and rabbits just add to that burden. “Please help them,” she said.
Barbara Costa, a New Port Richey resident who works with a local cat rescue, said she gets calls from people who figure she can take in their unwanted bunnies. When she tells them no and they ask her where they should be taken, she has no answer. “We know what happens to them,” Costa said. “They abandon them.”
Commissioner Mike Moore asked Shumate if he would be OK with the commission banning the retail sale of rabbits outright, and Shumate said he would. A second hearing and action will be necessary to do that, since the commission didn’t advertise that plan beforehand.
Commissioners also talked about how to handle other rabbit sales, such as animals raised for 4-H projects or agricultural purposes. County officials said they would look into the legalities of that before bringing the full retail sale ban back for a vote.
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Earlier this year, Hillsborough rejected a ban on retail rabbit sales, but several Florida counties do have one, including Desoto, Martin and Orange counties.