No, not the coral bells.
Yes, the coral bells. Devoured. Adele Wilcoxen paid $40 to plant a pair in her flower garden, only for them to become a bunny’s lunch.
That was it. “Game on,” said Wilcoxen to the rabbit. “I’m declaring war.”
It is a frustration shared by more area residents this summer than extension agents and conservationists can recall in recent years. Fat cottontails are hopping amok in urban and suburban neighborhoods, leaving lawnmower-like paths wherever flowers, shrubs and vegetable gardens grow.
Experts cite the past year’s weather, being moist and mild, for producing not only lush vegetation but also a bounty of wild critters feasting on it.
Among the most ubiquitous in residential areas is the eastern cottontail rabbit, what textbooks call Sylvilagus floridanus. Its telltale signature is a chew mark that snips twigs at a 45-degree angle, the way a whittler makes pointed little spears.
So Wilcoxen, of Overland Park, rented a rabbit trap.
She placed the box and its spring-action door a few feet from the coral-bell remains. She “started thinking like a rabbit,” she said, and sprinkled apple pieces in strategic places leading to the trap.
And from her kitchen window she watched. What a joy for her to actually see it happen.
The young culprit appeared, sniffed, munched and finally scooted deep enough into the oblong trap.
“I saw that door come down,” said Wilcoxen, who works for K-State Research and Extension in Johnson County. “I’m, like, victory! Yes!”
For other gardeners, however, trapping a rabbit in these leafy conditions is about as likely as pulling one out of a hat.
“Everywhere they put their feet down there’s something to eat,” said Steve Arbuckle of A All Animal Control of Kansas City. “How do you entice them to go for the food in a trap?”
But suppose you do snare a bunny. Then you’re kind of stuck, legally, when it comes to dispensing it.
Missouri law prohibits trapping cottontails without a game permit, unless you can make a convincing case that the critters are destructive. The state also says you can’t release wild rabbits in public parks. As for private land, you need the owner’s permission, and even then you’ve got 24 hours to report your actions to a conservation agent.
In Kansas the laws are less strict and you need no permission to trap. But state wildlife authorities strongly urge you not to release. You kill.
“I’m going to advocate with all nuisance animals that you put them down,” said wildlife biologist Andy Friesen of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Cottontails usually don’t wander more than 5 or 10 acres from the backyard they call home. Relocating them could lead to suffering if the new grounds don’t offer enough water and treats.
Dumping rabbits on the side of a rural road, though a common practice, almost guarantees “a slow and miserable death,” said Dennis Patton of K-State Research and Extension.
And Friesen said sick bunnies placed in a healthy habitat could threaten other animals.
So he recommends drowning the cuddly creatures. Just plunge that occupied trap into a barrel of water.
The angriest of gardeners wouldn’t hesitate, extension officials say.
Yet Wilcoxen just couldn’t do it. She set her bunny free in a place with water and munchies.
Nobody counts cottontails. Reports of their proliferation are mostly anecdotal.
But something must be different this year given the activity at Kansas City’s Lakeside Nature Center, which rehabilitates wild critters that are orphaned, injured or ill.
“This is our biggest year of rehabbing ever,” said center director Kimberly Hess. “Everything’s coming in, from birds of prey to bunny rabbits.”
More rabbits overall mean more rabbits needing help, she said.
And in 2015 they’re getting injured a lot. Lawnmowers are passing over young ones hidden in thick grass. Midsummer rains are washing out their softball-sized nests.
Hess said the nature center normally handles a total of about 500 wild rabbits year-round. Almost that many have already arrived this year.
When Missouri Department of Conservation spokesman Joe Jerek goes to work at the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center north of Brush Creek, he sees more rabbits on the grounds than ever in the eight years since the state offices located there.
“I usually get no calls about rabbits. This summer I’ve had six ... and all are saying, ‘We’ve got so many rabbits at times we can barely see our yards,’” Jerek said.
Jerek said part of this year’s bunny boom is owed to a phenomenon called compensatory reproduction. Many experts believe that wild rabbits go through population cycles every seven to 10 years, with peaks and troughs in birth patterns that the ecosystem mysteriously knows how to regulate.
Rabbits may have been headed toward a peak cycle regardless of the favorable weather conditions, Jerek said.
“It’s been a very good spring and summer” for plant life, Jerek added. “All that goodness means more rabbits. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to go after your garden.”
If that is their intent, repellants are available at area nurseries.
“Rabbit Scram,” for example, contains a mixture of dried blood, garlic and white pepper. When sprinkled around plants the product is supposed to ward off cottontails, though some retailers contend a few squirts of fox urine, sold in bottles, work better.
Certain plants such as goatweed and marigolds are said to be cottontail-proof; many local gardeners have found otherwise.
Foil pie-pans hung on string might make enough clatter to frighten.
The best solution, said Jerek and others, is to separate your prized plants from the hungry hoppers as best as you can. Chicken wire wrapped around gardens and tree trunks can do it provided the openings are no wider than an inch.
It’s not exactly the look that gardeners such as Wilcoxen prefer: “Your beautiful plants are in jail.”
Urban areas rule out shooting nuisance bunnies, a popular rural option.
Lee’s Summit is among the municipalities that prohibit outdoor use of “anything that discharges a projectile,” said police Sgt. Chris Depue. That means no air rifles, BB guns, paintball shooters or slingshots.
“If people are shooting rabbits here, they’re doing it discreetly,” Depue said. “We’re not getting many calls from neighbors.”
Despite shooting bans in the city, a cottontail isn’t safe anywhere.
Their purpose on earth is to produce enough babies to keep other animals well fed.
Mother bunnies can be away from their litters for hours, partly so predators don’t see them and swoop in. Still, the nests are so often raided by birds, foxes, snakes and domestic pets, fewer than 20 percent of newborns survive to adulthood.
So the adults reproduce and reproduce again, with local females producing about a half-dozen litters a year.
Their unstoppable numbers are only part of the reason area exterminators and animal-control officers are disinclined to involve themselves when cottontails mow down gardens.
“They have a right to enjoy the outdoors just as we do,” said Patrick Egberuare, Kansas City’s manager of animal health and public safety.
Many people are content to let the cottontails have their way.
“A rabbit in your yard is kind of fun to watch,” said Don Kaufman, a mammalogist at Kansas State University. “So what if you get a rose twig chewed up?
“People are funny about this stuff. You have one rabbit in your yard one year and see two the next, and that seems like a huge increase. We have no idea how high their numbers have really gotten, but I think the population gets multiplied by some anger factor.”
Vanishing foliage in autumn will expose adult bunnies now hiding in tall grasses and beneath shrubbery. Owls and red-tailed hawks will have a swell time.
Wild rabbits hardy enough to make it to October should be revered as champions rather than reviled as nuisances, said Robin Rysavy, director of the Kansas City chapter of the Missouri House Rabbit Society.
“These guys are survivors,” said Rysavy, whose group consists of owners and foster caretakers of domestic bunnies. “They’re all precious to me.”