On the afternoon of Sunday, February 18, Las Vegas residents Stacey Taylor and Dave Schweiger did what they do pretty much every weekend: they swung by 6171 West Charleston Boulevard to check on the bunnies. Most days, there are hundreds of wild house rabbits there, hopping around on the grounds of a state mental health facility.
Taylor—the head of a local rabbit rescue group—and Schweiger, a longtime volunteer, visit the grounds often to feed and water the rabbits. That day, they also wanted to pick up a few of them, so they could get them checked out by a vet and take them to an upcoming adoption event.
Instead, they were confronted by a nightmarish scene. “We started seeing dead bunnies all over the place,” says Schweiger. “We saw over 30. And we knew there were more underground that we couldn’t see.”
As Atlas Obscura reported last year, Las Vegas is full of “dump site bunnies”: abandoned pets and their offspring, who have formed their own ad-hoc communities in the city’s yards, state parks, and other green spaces. For about five years, volunteers like Taylor and Schweiger have been trying to help the animals: they lay out fresh food and water for them, and work to educate the public about what it really takes to own a bunny, so as to cut down on abandonment. When resources allow, they also hold local adoption events for rabbits they rescue from the sites.
It is unclear who killed the rabbits at 6171 West Charleston. On Monday, volunteers spotted an unknown person dumping vegetables at the site that seemed to be covered in antifreeze. (They’ve since sent the vegetables, as well as several of the dead rabbits, to get tested.) The Department of Health and Human Services has “asked for an investigation into the situation,” writes Nevada Health Department Social Services Chief Karla Delgado in an email.
Even before this disaster, some sort of reckoning seemed imminent: On February 16, two days before the rabbit purge, the DHHS issued a statement saying that feral rabbits “can carry bacterial and viral illnesses,” that feeding them “must cease immediately,” and that “trapping activities” would soon begin. (In 2015, the state contracted with a local animal sanctuary to re-home the rabbits, an effort that was largely unsuccessful.) “The plan was and continues to be … to work with Animal Control to humanely trap and relocate the rabbits,” writes Delgado, who says the DHHS also plans to “reach out to the Bunny Rescue Groups.”
As they search for answers, though, the volunteers are also taking action. Since the weekend, dozens of volunteers have been taking shifts at the dump site, luring bunnies into carriers and away from danger. Local pet stores have donated food, supplies, and space.
The volunteers have also been preparing for a well-timed “transport”—a new strategy they added to their arsenal just this past year. It works like this: First, local bunny-lovers gather up dozens of the dump site rabbits. They get them checked out at the vet, spay or neuter them, and kit them out with the necessary supplies. In the meantime, a couple of volunteers from elsewhere in the country start driving an empty van down to Vegas. When they get there, they load up with bunnies and drive back, stopping along the way to drop each of their fuzzy charges off with a family that is ready to take care of it.
Previous transports have spirited off a few dozen bunnies at once. This one—the biggest yet—was supposed to rescue 75. Given recent events, though, they’ve decided to send even more: “We’re sitting here with well over 100 [bunnies],” says Schweiger, all checked out and ready to head to new homes across the country.
This still leaves a lot of bunnies in limbo, though. “We got 72 yesterday, and I don’t know how many more [before that],” says Schweiger. Volunteers are putting the rabbits up until they can find them permanent homes. (Schweiger took in five males, which are currently camped out in his backyard and garage.) The large transport is set to leave later this week, and the next one, which had been set for mid-March, might get pushed forward. Bunny-lovers far and wide are providing financial support through a GoFundMe fundraising campaign, which keeps outstripping its goals.
Whether or not the bunnies know that greener pastures await, their human helpers are thrilled to be able to send them along. “This has been chaos,” Schweiger says. “But it’s really rewarding to get these guys out of here.”