Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Feast in a Time of Plague

Now in our back yard. And likely for years to come.

Here in Canada we are blessed with physical and emotional distance from the problems and challenges that face more densely-populated parts of the world. Our lives are spread over vast spaces where we can build houses and drive cars that are exorbitantly huge by European standards. But every now and then we are reminded that it's a small world, paradoxically all the smaller because of globalization.

Rabbit hemorrhagic disease, caused by a virus deadly to domestic rabbits and European hares but so far harmless to other species, has arrived on the shores of the Pacific Northwest. How exactly it arrived nobody knows for sure, and this may remain the subject of conjecture. It may have arrived by plane through Vancouver International airport on the soles of a passenger's shoes, or on rabbit meat contaminated by the virus and fed to a family pet who then went on a walk in the area where the outbreak began among colonies of feral rabbits (the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island). The virus does get spread by other animals including people, and through inanimate objects. It is highly tenacious, difficult to kill, and downright mean. The strain identified from dead rabbits on the Island (RHD2) behaves more aggressively than the same strain in Europe, and even though a vaccine should soon arrive in BC under an emergency release, no one knows to what extent this vaccine will help rabbits fight this virus. For now, veterinarians and rabbit owners are operating under the banner "every little bit counts:" all instances of biosecurity, vigilance, caution, and all protectives measures, add up to more safety and less risk in a situation where there can no longer be absolute safety. We have now and likely forever lost that innocence. So far there have been no cases in the Sea to Sky Corridor (the highway between Vancouver and Whistler), but since there are no colonies of feral rabbits here, that is proof of nothing. The virus can travel from place to place on car tires, people's shoes and clothes, on the feet and faces of pets who run around in meadows and lawns where feral rabbits live, on insects who can travel far and wide especially when they hitch a ride in a car or ferry, on/in birds of prey who eat dead rabbits. For all we know it might already be here, with only the small number of pet rabbits and vigilance of their owners accounting for absence of cases. This enemy is invisible and silent until it hits its target.

And yet we cannot live under the psychological equivalent of a siege, or keep our pets in lifelong quarantine. There must be a reasonable balance between safety and quality of life. With the arrival of spring and exuberance of dandelions, salmonberry, oregon grape and other plants beloved by rabbits, it is hugely tempting to supplement their hay and pellets and grocery store greens with proven fresh vitamins that can boost their immune systems. It may be safe to do so if the plants are gathered away from areas frequented by animals, and thoroughly washed and washed and washed. Then again, it may not be. One viral particle delivered through the microscopic residue of droppings from an eagle who has somehow flown to Squamish after feeding on a dead rabbit in Richmond, may be all it takes. The amount of risk any owner is willing to assume is personal, and may or may not be outweighed by the benefit. Or vice versa. Ultimately we take on an emotional responsibility for our rabbits' freedom to enjoy life while keeping them as safe as possible. I would not dream of taking our rabbit out for a run in the open, but she is allowed and encouraged to go out on the balcony for her Vitamin D in the sun. That will end soon with the warm weather bringing in insects (flies, mosquitoes). By then the vaccine might be here, or not. It might give her some protection, or not. Her future is uncertain, and may be days or years long. Of all the risk factors, I myself am the greatest danger to her given where I work and despite all the biosecurity measures we take. She may be incubating the virus at this very moment. Thinking about this can drive one nuts, and has to stop at some point. I use my worry to fuel practical efforts of rallying for rabbits' rights, of educating both owners and fellow veterinarians, or of simply scrubbing the floors with disinfectant when I need physical release. With time a routine will fall into place, if time is on our rabbit's side. For now we cherish every moment with her. Yes indeed; all cliches were once newborn truths.
April 17th ADDENDUM/CORRECTION: Two dead rabbits who tested positive and were previously thought to be Eastern cottontails were confirmed to be feral domestic rabbits. 

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