Three years ago my wife and I rented an old bungalow in Avondale, and when we moved in, we discovered the street was lousy with rabbits—the eastern cottontail, to be exact, one of the most common species in the U.S. On one side of our house lay a weedy area that the rabbits used for cover, and on the other side stood a grassy open plot that they treated as their personal country club. When I came home at night, there would always be one in our front yard, giving me the hard stare, twitching its nose if I spoke, and hopping away if I made a move askance. I remember some epic stare downs with those guys, and they always won.
After a while we came to think of the rabbits as our friends and neighbors, and we looked forward to seeing them when they came out to forage at dusk. Periodically we'd sit down for ceremonial viewings of the misbegotten 1972 horror movie Night of the Lepus, set in an Arizona town that's been overrun by rabbits after the townspeople have gotten rid of its coyote population. Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh are scientists who inject rabbits with a hormonal formula to stunt their breeding, and after one of the rabbits gets loose, authorities begin to find mutilated bodies of livestock and people. Eventually the scientists discover that their serum has created a mutant species of marauding bunnies the size of bears. Cheapo special-effects shots show live rabbits loping around miniature sets, though an actor in a rabbit suit fills in for the attack scenes.
Chicago rabbits may not be quite as big, but their numbers have risen dramatically since the 1990s, when Mayor Daley's various greening projects began to invite more woodland creatures into an urban environment. Drawn by the elevated heat level of the city, rabbits began spreading from parks into grassy areas like expressway ramps, and even made their way into the Loop. They eat any kind of vegetation, laying waste to people's gardens. When there's no greenery available, they'll chew the bark off a tree trunk.
Similar greening projects have brought population explosions in other cities. As a graduate student at University of Frankfurt and a doctoral candidate at Goethe University, ecologist Madlen Ziege has made comparative studies of rural and urban rabbits and finds that city rabbits are a lot like us. Out in the country, rabbits live communally in large, sprawling burrows, with multiple exits that offer escape from predators; as they move into the city, where predators are less common, their burrows become smaller, simpler, more private, and more uniformly spaced. Ziege has also discovered that urban rabbits establish communal latrines that they use to demarcate their territory from that of rival bunny gangs.
During the winter I'd come home after dark, find rabbits sitting in our snowy front yard, and marvel at what tough bastards they were. But according to Mason Fidino of the Urban Wildlife Institute at Lincoln Park Zoo, 70 percent of Chicago's rabbits die every winter. The population keeps growing only because they breed like crazy: with a gestation period of four weeks, females typically deliver 16 to 20 offspring a year. Apparently rabbits do nothing but eat, mate, defend their turf, cause property damage, and die. So, you know—typical Chicagoans. v
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