They become the latest animals to be released illegally in wetlands

By Gary Walker

An influx of new floppy-eared inhabitants to the Ballona Wetlands has wetland advocates and scientists scurrying to keep the newcomers safe while at the same time trying to prevent them from mating with the native counterparts in the ecological reserve.

A group of domestic rabbits were rescued late last month in the wetlands and according to those who participated in the rabbit roundup, the animals were in danger of becoming prey to other wetlands species.

Friends of the Ballona Wetlands Executive Director Lisa Fimiani was alerted by Dr. Edith Read, a biologist and the manager of the Ballona Freshwater Marsh, that there were five rabbits near a maintenance dumpster close to the intersection of Culver and Jefferson boulevards, Aug. 27.

“Our greatest fear was having the little darlings run across Jefferson Boulevard,” Fimiani told The Argonaut.

Fimiani, whose organization has been working in the wetlands for more than 30 years on sand dune rehabilitation, later learned that there were at least nine rabbits running loose. All were eventually captured.

“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 in the bush again,” she said.

Read said the cottontail rabbit is a wetlands native but the new additions are domestic rabbits and were likely pets at one time.

“Many of them seem pretty tame,” Read said.

Like Fimiani, she is mostly worried about the domestic rabbits’ safety in and out of the wetlands.

“The main concern is that they will be killed (by vehicles on nearby Culver Boulevard) or that they may breed with the native population,” the biologist said.

Thus far, Read has not seen any indications of cross-breeding.

Lejla Hadzimuratovic, founder and president of Bunny World Foundation, which rescues neglected, abandoned domestic baby rabbits, was saddened to hear about the illegal discarding of pet rabbits in the wetlands.

“I think it’s extremely irresponsible and whoever does this is subjecting them to animal cruelty,” Hadzimuratovic said.

The Ballona Wetlands has served as a dumping ground for not only abandoned animals, but also for discarded household appliances, computers and other types of debris for the last several years.

In 2010, The Argonaut published a series of articles depicting how discarded refuse had found its way into what many environmentalists and nature lovers consider to be a precious natural resource.

Jonathan Coffin, a local nature photographer, witnessed two men tossing refuse into the wetlands two years ago this month and has taken a number of photographs showing the type of abandoned items that find their way into the wetlands. Broken television sets, computers, brooms, microwave ovens and furniture are some of the items that have been seen in the ecological reserve.

“I saw them just leave it there and drive away,” claimed Coffin, who reported a dumping incident to an officer at the Pacific division of the Los Angeles Police Department. “That wasn’t the first time that I’ve seen that happen.”

Then Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D- Marina del Rey) pressed authorities at state agencies to look into the illegal dumping claims at Ballona. An official at the California Department of Fish and Game, the agency that owns the 600-acre wetlands, said budget cuts over the last several years have hampered their efforts to patrol the reserve.

But according to state records that year, Fish and Game saw its funding increase for enforcement and its fish and wildlife pollution account, as well as its California Waterfowl Habitat Preservation account.

Under the category of enforcement, the number of Fish and Game employees has gone up by 137 from 2008-09 to 2010-11, according to state documents.

Terri Stewart, the supervising biologist for Fish and Game, said despite the additional enforcement listings in the budget, her agency has still been hampered by the state’s fiscal crisis.

“Even if the budget does show an increase in some places, it does not reflect an increase in local positions or bodies on the ground at the Ballona Wetlands,” she explained in an Oct. 4, 2010 interview.

Read said she has also witnessed the wetlands being used as a dumping ground.

“I saw one guy drive up, get out of his car, and release a squirrel into the marsh from a cage,” she recalled. “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.”

There have been other animals left to fend for themselves in the wetlands, according to Read. The biologist has rescued three Red-eared Slider Turtles and one tortoise.

Others have not been as lucky.

“Those that have managed to avoid getting stuck in the trash filters and drowning are now multiplying in the marsh,” Fimiani said.

The illegal dumping of rabbits and other animals is taking place against the backdrop of a planned restoration of the ecological reserve by Fish and Game. Last month, the state agency kicked off the beginning of the environmental review period, which will last until Oct. 23.

Another complication for the rabbits is that since they are domestic animals, they are at risk of being killed by large wetland denizens. Hawks frequent Ballona and foxes have been spotted in Area B, which includes the location behind Gordon’s Market in Playa del Rey as well as the area near the Culver-Jefferson intersection.

“They are completely na•ve as far as predators go,” Read noted.

Hadzimuratovic also raised the point of domestic animals becoming easy prey in the wild. “They are defenseless,” she said. “They also cannot survive extreme heat or cold.”

During the last herding of the floppy eared animals, Fimiani discovered there are many rescue organizations like Hadzimuratovic’s that are dedicated exclusively to domesticated rabbits.

“It’s heartbreaking when you go online 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,” she lamented.

Hadzimuratovic advises those who no longer want rabbits as pets to first try and make the situation better for owner and rabbit. “Rabbits need to be spayed and neutered, they need hay and they need a litter box,” she said. “That’s the kind of setup that they need.”

If all else fails, leaving them in the wild is not only illegal but inhumane, Hadzimuratovic added. “Subjecting them to a life outside is wrong. People that no longer want rabbits can contact a rescue organization that will board them and find them a new home,” she recommended.

Fimiani, who has taken the “Ballona Nine” home and is caring for them, wishes pet owners who abandon rabbits and other household pets in the wetlands would consider the dangers they are causing to the animals as well as potentially to the ecosystem of the reserve.

“People need a reality check,” she said. “Some pets with no way to defend themselves, like the rabbits, can end up eaten by raccoons, coyotes, run over by cars, or starving to death. Others become bullies of the marsh, outcompeting and out-eating the native species.

“The Ballona Ecological Reserve is no playground.” ¤