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The rabbit house of Mt Eden: Auckland neighbours at war over bunnies

A suburban Auckland property home to hundreds of rabbits is causing a stir with neighbours, who have called in the Auckland Council to take control of the situation, writes Alice Webb-Liddall. Originally published by The Spinoff

Dylan Lewis is surrounded by rabbits, all different sizes and colours. The 51-year-old shares his large Mount Eden home with hundreds of the fluffy creatures, and neighbours are none too pleased with the havoc caused by what they say are daily escapees from the suburban Watership Down.

“Everything around us is all the same, but we’re different. They don’t like people with things that are different but it’s vitally important that this place stays separate from all the rest of it,” Lewis said. The house he lives in certainly stands out from the rest on the street. There are piles of rocks and dozens of different-shaped hutches scattered across the yard, and, just like how stars appear in the night sky, the longer you look, the more rabbits you see.

Auckland Council was alerted to the situation two years ago after receiving multiple complaints about rabbits absconding from the fenced property. Lewis tries to keep his rabbits enclosed with a patchwork construction of chicken wire and other scraps of mesh and stones, but the bunnies only need a small gap to squeeze out of their enclosure.

The Spinoff was alerted to the rabbit house by a concerned citizen, who slid into our inbox to say “there is this house in Mt Eden that has literally hundreds and hundreds of rabbits living in the front lawn. Babies, burrows, giant bunnies – everywhere you can see. You have to see it to believe it. Like every day a rabbit is lying dead in the street cause it tried to escape and the cars must just not care any more.”

Rabbits have spilled on to neighbouring properties and the public footpaths and roads, destroying private property, the council said. Notice has been served to Lewis and the woman who owns the property, Elaine Cowlin, asking the pair to contain their rabbits or face potential fines of up to $20,000.

Lewis disputes claims the rabbits that neighbours have encountered on their property are his. He believes the animals making a nuisance in lawns, vege gardens and on roads near his property are wild rabbits – but given that it is a suburban street in central Auckland, neighbours think that’s unlikely.

An Auckland Council investigation into the property is ongoing, said compliance response central team leader Mark Parkinson.

“Bylaws notices have been issued to the owners regarding the containment of rabbits under the animal management bylaw 2015,” Parkinson said in a statement.

The Spinoff has seen copies of these notices, addressed to both Lewis and Cowlin, which outline the “numerous” complaints by neighbours about rabbits roaming out of the property. The notices say the council has tried to contact the pair over the last two years to work through solutions to “proactively mitigate the nuisance caused by [the] animals”, but without luck.

Why does Lewis have so many rabbits? Five years ago, he bought four from a local Animates pet shop, he said. One of them he got desexed, and the following night a cat wandered onto his property and killed it. After paying $200 for the desex surgery – and taking the sudden death as an omen – he refused to desex the remaining rabbits. Now, five years later, he’s lost count of how many rabbits are living on (and in burrows under) the property.

Despite the numbers, the rabbits look well fed. Piles of cabbage leaves, citrus, tomatoes and rabbit pellets dot the property and clusters of rabbits huddle around each pile. Lewis gets the food from a variety of places but the cost of feeding and keeping the rabbits is still very high, he said.

“It costs us around about $700 a week in pellets which I get from the supermarket,” he explained.

“They go through about 12 sacks of grass every day and I’ve also been going to two vegetable stores, one in Waipuna and one in Royal Oak, and getting the vegetables that they cut off.”

In 2016, an outbreak of the rabbit calicivirus disease wiped out many of his rabbits, but despite that, this spring the numbers of rabbits on the Mount Eden property have boomed, he said.

“The numbers have always been reasonable, just this spring it’s really burgeoned. There’s nothing I can do. I just try to look after them and feed them. That’s all I can do.”

The SPCA is aware of the situation at the property. A spokesperson said the organisation is “working closely with the owner and the council for the best outcomes for all involved”.

“SPCA has offered assistance, including vet checks, vaccinations, desexing and other help, with the aim of reducing the number of rabbits on the property, including rehoming.”

Right now, the Auckland Council investigation is ongoing, and Lewis’s neighbours are waiting for action to be taken. Lewis says what happens with the rabbits is not in his or anyone else’s hands.

“How would I feel if I had my reproductive organs cut off? Rather than controlling animals I’m more into letting them be natural. I’m right with God and nature… That’s what we’re standing up for, it’s nature. Rabbits just happen to be part of that at the moment.”

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