Edmonton's syphilitic cemetery bunnies killed off by different rare rabbit disease

Lauren Boothby 4 minute read December 19, 2021

Rabbits are seen in Holy Cross Cemetery at 14611 Mark Messier Trail in Edmonton, on Friday, July 31, 2020. Groups of bunnies relaxed in the shade of the cemetery's trees. Ian Kucerak / Postmedia

A fluffle of feral cemetery rabbits at a northwest Edmonton cemetery, plagued by a syphilis outbreak in 2020, has been wiped out by a different and rare illness.

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) was discovered in three bunnies living in the colony at and around Holy Cross Cemetery in September, according to a memo from the Alberta government. By the end of September about 50 had died or disappeared.

Very few, if any, are still alive.

“It was a very hot virus that rapidly ran through the colony and killed essentially all the feral domestic rabbits,” Margo Pybus, University of Alberta professor and wildlife disease expert, said in an email.

This disease is highly infectious with a rapid onset, and is almost always fatal in European rabbits, of which pet rabbits are descendants. It causes organ damage and internal bleeding. In some places it has spread to wildlife.

Gone after 30 years

Before it was decimated, the libidinous fluffle of feral domestic rabbits lived at the cemetery and surrounding areas for about 30 years.

Blane Klack, who formerly ran All Sizes Animal Rescue, estimates at its peak the colony grew to about 300.

Klack’s group began capturing bunnies with syphilis symptoms — including fur loss, and crusting or sores on the eyes, mouth and genitals  — in the summer of 2020 with the cemetery’s permission. But many rabbits were much sicker than expected, so rescuers were allowed to take any they could find.

Of about 200 rescued Klack said only 130 survived.

“Every rabbit we caught ended up being just overloaded with normally two to three different types of worms and parasites along with the syphilis,” they said in a recent interview.

Many were malnourished and had reproductive cancers, they said.

“A lot of volunteers got really burnt out because the rabbits they were rescuing were dying three days later. There was literally nothing we could do even with the best vet care,” they said. “I kept joking that my backyard is just one giant graveyard.”

The rabbits, and volunteers, also had to deal with hungry predators: “I had a volunteer chased out by coyotes. They were just feasting on those rabbits.”

With rescue efforts the colony began shrinking but numbers climbed again earlier this year, said Klack.

As they were preparing to resume rescues, a single case of RHD was confirmed in southern Alberta. Volunteers instead focused on getting rabbits already in care vaccinated.

While Klack had always hoped one day the colony would disappear — as domestic rabbits aren’t fit to live in the wild — they hoped it would be because the bunnies found new homes.

“I’m sad that I couldn’t rescue more, but knowing that there isn’t a giant colony out there that’s sick with syphilis and worms and all sorts of nasties, and that coyotes won’t be as big of a problem, that makes me happy,” they said. “It’s very much a multifaceted feeling.

“There’s not going to be more generations upon generations of rabbits just being born to suffer and die.”

Rabbits are seen in Holy Cross Cemetery at 14611 Mark Messier Trail in Edmonton, on Friday, July 31, 2020. Groups of bunnies relaxed in the shade of the cemetery’s trees. Ian Kucerak / Postmedia

Disease arrives

Alberta’s first case of RHD was detected in Taber in March. The onset is quick and early symptoms can go undetected. Rabbits often die suddenly.

While the disease is new to Alberta, there were outbreaks in feral domestic rabbits in B.C. in 2018 and 2019.

Wild rabbits and hares have typically been immune to RHA, but a new strain killed some wildlife in the western United States and northern Mexico last year, according to an Alberta government handout. Alberta’s mountain cottontails, white-tailed jackrabbits, snowshoe hares and pikas may be at risk.

So far there isn’t evidence the disease spread to local wildlife.

But according to the BCSPCA, genetic sequencing of the case found in southern Alberta closely resembles the strain in the U.S. which has killed and infected wild animals.

“This has significant implications for wild rabbit welfare as well as ecosystem health, and also means that if the virus spreads to B.C., it could be virtually impossible to eliminate,” reads a release on the organization’s website this summer.

There is no treatment or cure for RHD. Vaccines aren’t approved in Canada but the B.C. government procured some using an emergency provision. Some Alberta veterinarians also ordered shipments from the B.C. government, but this program was recently discontinued.

Sorelle Saidman, president of Rabbitats Rescue Society in B.C., who helped co-ordinate efforts for some Alberta veterinarians to get vaccines said Alberta needs to make vaccines available. But, she said, many don’t care about rabbits.

“They’re not barking for attention, they’re not purring when they’re getting their pets … (but) they’re very affectionate, very sentient. They just need extra protection because they seem so unassuming.”

Request for information from the Alberta government about how the disease arrived, how many and which kinds of animals have been killed, and whether it is working to acquire RHD vaccines were not answered by deadline.

lboothby@postmedia.com

@laurby

A rabbit is seen outside Holy Cross Cemetery at 14611 Mark Messier Trail in Edmonton, on Friday, July 31, 2020. Groups of bunnies relaxed in the shade of the cemetery’s trees. Photo by Ian Kucerak/Postmedia Ian Kucerak / Postmedia

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