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Dumping Your Pets at Ballona Is Illegal, Irresponsible, and Cruel – And We’ve Got Nine Adorable Bunnies To Prove It

By Lisa Fimiani, Executive Director of Friends of Ballona Wetlands; with contributions by Dr. Edith Read, Ballona Freshwater Marsh Manager, Karina Johnston, Restoration Ecologist / Project Manager, Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, and Michelle Kelly, Licensed Educator for House Rabbit Society and LA Rabbit Foundation

Over the years the Friends of Ballona Wetlands have seen a lot of things dumped in the wetlands, but nothing is quite as disturbing as abandoned pets – as if tame and domesticated animals can fend for themselves in the wild, not even to mention their detrimental impacts on our native wildlife.

The latest incident occurred on Monday, August 27th. The day began with a call from Edith Read, who observed five rabbits running loose in the Freshwater Marsh, near the maintenance dumpster located at the corner of Jefferson and Lincoln. They could bolt across the busy intersection at any moment.

We discussed a strategy of what to do over lunch. I keep a net in my car at all times for situations like this but had to go home to get carrying cases, so we decided to meet at the marsh at 3pm. The five rabbits initially observed had grown to seven, but we were able to quickly capture two – the biggest and the slowest. The others were proving to be quite crafty, so I called in for back up: Courtney McCammon and April Sandifer from Loyola Marymount University’s Center for Urban Resilience (LMU/CURes), who came to the rescue with lettuce and carrots to lure them out from under the dumpster.

Our greatest fear was having the little darlings run across Jefferson Boulevard, so someone was always stationed on the woodchip trail to prevent that from happening during our rescue mission. The little ones proved to be the hardest to catch, and a white one that looked injured had us running ragged from the bush to the dumpster and back out to the bush again.

Finally, after about an hour and forty five minutes, we had all rabbits (now a total of NINE!) safely contained into two carrying cases, and off I went to Centinela Feed to purchase a temporary pen.

This, however, was just the tip of the iceberg. So began a three week odyssey into the world of domesticated “house” rabbits.

I kept all the rabbits in my backyard, in a safe pen under cover – after making a second trip that day to Home Depot for a sheet of plywood to put over the top, so the neighborhood feral cats wouldn’t torment the poor things. The first order of business was to find out the sex of all the rabbits and make sure they were not about to create a population explosion (which hadn’t even crossed my mind up to that point). I went online and reached out to as many rabbit rescue groups as I could find. One got back to me, a wonderful person by the name of Michelle Kelly, Licensed Educator for an international organization called the House Rabbit Society.

After “sexing” them with Michelle (the process of determining their sex) I realized the only way I could tell them apart was by giving them names. This was the fun part, choosing names that seemed to fit their personalities. If it wasn’t for Michelle, I wouldn’t have known what to do. She has guided me through this whole process – first, by coming over and sexing the rabbits so we could separate them, and second, by lining up appointments to get them neutered as quickly as possible.

Michelle informed me that rabbits breed so fast (they have a 30 day gestation period and can get pregnant again just two days after giving birth!) they can quickly overwhelm new bunny owners. “In practical terms, you could end up with over 200-300 rabbits in a few months if they are not neutered. The best thing to do is get them fixed, quick, and then you and your rabbits can have a wonderful life together,” said Michelle.

As it turned out, had we taken the rabbits straight to the pound, they might have ended up in this rescuer’s care, as she goes into shelters to relieve them of the overburden of abandoned and turned in rabbits, acting as a facilitator to match adopters up with rabbits. More likely, however, is the sad ending most rabbits receive – they are put down due to overcrowding and shelters reaching their limited quota for rabbits they are willing to house and then put up for adoption. Our rabbits would have been at the back of the queue, and it wouldn’t look good – especially because they were not neutered.

For rabbits (and rabbit-lovers), it’s as tragic a situation as that of unwanted and abandoned dogs and cats.

Most rescue groups are overwhelmed and will just tell people to take their rabbit to the shelter or keep it. Most people giving up their rabbits don’t want to choose either of those options (thus the increase in abandonment). It’s a complex problem. Michelle said her organization can list the rabbits on for adoption and place them over time – but that’s the catch – it does take time.

What haunted me from the beginning was the fact that these rabbits were obviously somebody’s pets. The people who dumped them need a reality check. Most abandoned pets will meet a grisly end — eaten up by raccoons, coyotes, run over by cars, or starvation. Others become bullies of the marsh, outcompeting and out-consuming native species.

Dr. Read, who has witnessed many an incident in the Freshwater Marsh, commented, “this tops everything, this is the worst I’ve ever seen with dumped animals.” Over the past nine years, since the Freshwater Marsh has been open to the public, Dr. Read has rescued three Red-eared Slider Turtles (the ones families commonly get from pet stores) and one tortoise which now live in her backyard. Many other turtles, presumably peoples’ pets at one time, have evaded capture.

Those that have managed to avoid getting stuck in the trash filters and drowning are now multiplying in the marsh. She has seen cats come and go, usually living a short life in and around the Marsh, usually hit by cars or torn to pieces by some unknown predator. Occasionally, the dumped animal is wild from somewhere else. “I saw one guy drive up, get out of his car, and release a squirrel into the marsh from a cage,” said Dr. Read. “When I confronted him he said he was helping a neighbor – the squirrels were eating the fruits on her trees. He didn’t realize it was illegal to dump or abandon animals.”

The rabbits rescued on August 27th will turn out to have a happy ending, but just the day before we learned the fate of another abandoned animal. A Guinea Fowl, a bird native to Africa, was seen running around Playa Vista’s Sports Park at the corner of Lincoln and Bluff Creek Drive. I tried to find the bird on Friday the 24th, but could not. Sadly, after being moved by someone to the Freshwater Marsh across the street, it was found dead Saturday morning with a trail of loose feathers on the woodchip trail adjacent to Bluff Creek Drive, probably predated by a cat, coyote, raccoon, or a dog off-leash.

A few months ago someone dumped a lop-eared rabbit in the Saltmarsh area, and once again Edith came to the rescue letting us borrow her “have a heart” trap. After two nights we successfully trapped the rabbit, and I transported it to Edith’s house, where she agreed to “temporarily” take care of it until we found the owner or a new home.

Needless to say, the rabbit is still at Edith’s five months later, along with five of the nine rabbits abandoned at the Freshwater Marsh, which Edith took in “installments.” I was becoming overwhelmed taking care of nine rabbits, keeping them in separate pens, treating Isabelle (who had an apparent head injury when we caught her), and running to the vet, so Edith offered to take in rabbits that Michelle and I had spayed. First it was Gertrude, Coco and Carmen, and just this past weekend it was Reginald and William. Edith welcomed them to her yard to keep the Lop-eared rabbit company, and everyone is getting along. However, ideally, we would adopt them out if there were any interested pet owners – since rabbits can live over 10 years and these are all young rabbits (maybe a year old). Edith already has a menagerie to take care of!

Perhaps the most common violation of the Ballona Wetlands, including the 25 acre Riparian Corridor below the Loyola Marymount University Bluff, and the 26 acre Ballona Freshwater Marsh at the corner of Lincoln and Jefferson, is dogs off leash or using the trails, and Cabora Drive, as though they were a personal dog run. “Over the past couple of months we had people riding bicycles with dogs attached by leash, ‘mushing’ as though they were riding sleds in Alaska along the Freshwater Marsh woodchip trail, knocking people over and spoiling enjoyment of the marsh by everyone else.” said Dr. Read.

Ballona Critter Cam Photo via SMBRF/Karina Johnston

Edith is also frustrated with a population boom of bullfrogs in the Bluff Creek corridor and Freshwater Marsh. They are a voracious amphibian native to the eastern parts of the United States, out here they eat everything in sight – including the smaller Pacific Tree Frogs which are native to this area. “And there is nothing we can do to get rid of them without poisoning or shooting them,” said Dr. Read. “It is really tragic. Fortunately we have seen herons eat them, so at least there is some kind of natural control.”

Whether they are cats, dogs, rabbits, turtles, exotic birds, frogs, snakes, crabs (yes, we had an incident where someone dumped crabs) etc., people who want to get rid of their pets need to realize that dumping them in the wetlands is doing them and the wetlands no favors. The Friends and Dr. Read, out of the kindness in our hearts, are continually rescuing creatures that have no business in the Marsh. Reporter Gary Walker quoted me in The Argonaut as saying, “the Ballona Ecological Reserve is no playground!”, and it’s true – people’s pets need to stay out. Along with Gary’s article, Kristen Agostoni with The Daily Breeze and Stephanie Davis with The Westchester Home Town News all did great stories on this issue, so please read them, when you have a chance (links below).

Along the Ballona Creek just West of McConnell Boulevard is an area in the Ecological Reserve where people feed feral cats. The problem with that is the cats devastate populations of ground nesting birds in the wetlands, and usually live a short sad life out in the open, where they risk being predated themselves by coyotes. There is a rather large family of coyotes living in the wetlands now, and they help to keep the rodent population down – including wild rabbits – among other things. That’s the balance of nature. Insert non-native and/or domesticated species and all bets are off.

Ballona Critter Cam Photo via SMBRF/Karina Johnston

Karina Johnston, Restoration Ecologist / Project Manager with the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation (SMBRF) said that non-native animals that are released into wetlands wreak havoc on the native wildlife that flourishes in marsh and upland habitats. Feral cats, or free-roaming pets, hunt and kill birds such as the endangered Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, and the South Coast Marsh Vole. Allowing access of these animals and pets into a protected Ecological Reserve is both harmful and illegal.

Ballona Critter Cam Photo via SMBRF/Karina Johnston

In addition to the harm caused to native wildlife, the animals that are released are not adapted to life in the wild and do not stand a good chance of survival. Predation by coyotes, or danger from the bisecting well-traveled roadways are only two of the many ways that reduce survival rates of released pets.

Ballona Critter Cam Photo via SMBRF/Karina Johnston

The SMBRF Monitoring program has identified a high prevalence of feral cats, free-roaming pet cats and off-leash dogs within the Ecological Reserve, and have reported these incidences to the Department of Fish and Game (the site managers). To protect the health of the wildlife on site, and to protect the health of your pets, please keep them out of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve!

“The last thing we want is to identify someone’s beloved pet on one of our vertebrate mortality surveys along Jefferson, Culver, or Lincoln”, said Ms. Johnston. These surveys are conducted bi-weekly in partnership with SMBRF and the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, who’s staff dedicate time to do these not-so-pleasant “roadkill surveys” – surveying the heavily-trafficked roads that crisscross Ballona to collect data and build a record of roadkill incidents.

As it is, we struggle like all non-profits, to raise enough money to support our education and restoration programs in the Ballona Wetlands. When we have to take the precious time needed to rescue and house pets that have been let loose in the wetlands, it takes money and time away from our organization. Edith as well runs a business, as Marsh Manager. Her workmen tell her all kinds of stories of strange things dumped in the wetlands that they have to deal with, from dead chickens to other gruesome animal body parts. The Friends also come upon weird animal remains along the Ballona Creek during cleanups.

Our message to readers: keep the Ballona Wetlands wild, don’t let your cats roam outdoors near the Ecological Reserve, don’t let your dogs run off leash, and please don’t dump any domesticated or non-native creature, period. It is not only illegal, it’s irresponsible.

Getting back to the “Ballona Nine” bunnies, I discovered there are many rescue organizations dedicated exclusively to domesticated rabbits. It’s heartbreaking when you go on-line and see so many up for adoption – they are like dogs and cats in that they are soft and cuddly, but they don’t meow, purr or bark – so people tend to ignore them because of their silent nature.

I’ve learned in the short amount of time I’ve been taking care of the bunnies that they have feelings, personalities, and are genuinely fun to be around. I wish I had room to take them all in, but I don’t. And that’s the plight of most rabbits which, when unaltered, well… multiply like rabbits. The bottom line: please don’t let them loose in the wild, anywhere. They are not equipped to handle harsh settings like their cousins, the wild rabbits who live in the Ballona Wetlands.

Here are some recommended organizations that help find pet rabbits good homes (click for websites):
– LA Rabbits
– House Rabbit Society
– Bunny Bunch
– Rabbit Rescue
– Bunny Luv

And check here for information on clinics that offer rabbit neutering at a discounted price.

In addition to Michelle and her organizations, which find funding for spaying and neutering and transporting some of the rabbits to clinics, and Dr. Schwartz of the Overland Veterinary Clinic, who provided discount office visits and a reduced rate for spaying and neutering some of the rabbits, I would like to express a special thank you to three people who offered to help financially cover expenses: Susan Gottlieb, Margery Nicolson and Eric Strauss. Their generosity is very much appreciated by me and Dr. Edith Read, who also will be shouldering the burden of feeding and taking care of five of the “Ballona Nine”, probably for the rest of their lives. We are still looking for owners to adopt some of these rabbits, so please contact me at the Friends, or Michelle Kelly with LA Rabbits.

Thank you as well to our local news media for covering the abandoned rabbits story:
The Argonaut, The Daily Breeze, The Westchester Home Town News, and Global Animal.

The Friends have an emergency contact list available for download (.pdf) for various issues having to do with the watershed and animals. Please feel free to download this list to have it handy in case of animal emergencies. Looks like we are going to be updating it to include rabbits!