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Baby boom for Helsinki's city bunnies

While exact numbers remain unclear, an expert estimates there are thousands of rabbits across the city.

The so-called "city bunnies" are descendants of former pets that were let loose - or escaped from their owners - in the 1980s and 90s. Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP
Yle News

Helsinki's feral rabbit population - which plagued areas of the city for more than two decades to greater and lesser degrees - is on the rise, according to local officials.

The so-called "city bunnies" are descendants of former pets that were let loose - or escaped from their owners - in the 1980s and 90s. However cute they may look, as the populations grew in the early 2000s, the animals became an increasing nuisance and a scourge on trees and other vegetation.

The city eventually decided to cull the animals, and started an intensive hunting effort in 2009, according to a study from the University of Helsinki.

The hunting continued over the next several years, but officials admitted that it was likely impossible to entirely rid the city of the animals.

Later, in 2016 the invasive bunny population was hit by rabbit hemorrhagic disease and its numbers dwindled by up to 90 percent.

However, according to Helsinki's environmental inspector, Raimo Pakarinen, the population has rebounded to levels seen five years ago.

"Rabbits are known for their ability to breed, especially if they face no limitations," Pakarinen said.

Eastward bound bunnies

The inspector said he was unsure of exactly how many rabbits there are, as no attempt has ever been made to count them. In any case, he said there are thousands of the feral animals in Helsinki alone.

"More than five years ago the rabbits were often seen in the Kallio district and near the Opera House [in the Töölö district], but now they're not as visible in central parts of the city," Pakarinen said, noting the rabbits have moved to areas like Herttoniemi and Vuosaari, in eastern Helsinki.

Even so, Pakarinen said the bunnies have taken over much of the city - with the exception of heavily-paved downtown areas and in the forested areas of Östersundom in the far east of the city.

These urban rabbits do not thrive in large wooded areas, but rather smaller parks closer to the city, the inspector explained.

Mild winter means more rabbits

If this year's warm winter weather continues, the rabbit population could even expand further.

"Yes, it would make their lives easier," Pakarinen said. "There's no snow covering their sources of food and their mortality rates are slightly lower than they would be [during a cold winter]. If the winter remains mild until spring, then the rabbits will have improved breeding conditions a little earlier in the year than they would after a snowy winter."

The city is still on the hunt, catching rabbits in live traps, but rounding them up is more difficult in snow-free conditions, because when there's no snow cover, the bunnies are able to find plenty of other food to eat that's not trap bait.

When asked whether trapped rabbits were still being fed to the lions and other big cats at Helsinki's Korkeasaari Zoo, Pakarinen confirmed that the city is still making use of the animals in this way.

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