OCEAN CITY — The city is overrun with rabbits this year, and they are breeding like, well, like it’s their job.

The Ocean City Humane Society gets at least a call a day about the animals, animal control officer Jennifer Knipe said.

“They want us to remove the rabbits,” she said. “They’re destroying gardens. They’re defecating all over properties.”

But there is little the Humane Society or anyone else can do about the rabbits. State law prevents the city from trapping and relocating wildlife under most circumstances. Besides, relocating or exterminating rabbits in a yard is unlikely to help much.

“Even if we came and removed one from a property, 10 more would just move in,” Knipe said. “They just keep reproducing.”

The Humane Society handles animal control under a contract with the city. It also maintains a no-kill shelter off Tennessee Avenue, where it typically offers veterinary services as well. Services are limited this summer in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with adoptions available by appointment only, and those using the veterinary services asked to wait in their car until called on their cellphone.

According to city spokesman Doug Bergen, the city has received multiple calls from visitors and residents about the rabbits, but has few options.

“We can’t get into the business of exterminating wildlife. We’re not allowed to remove wildlife or relocate it. That’s state law,” he said.

The Humane Society does respond when a rabbit is injured, for instance if one is struck by a car, a fairly common occurrence in the summer.

The eastern cottontail rabbit, the species commonly found in Ocean City, is the most common rabbit species in North America. They sometimes dig shallow depressions in lawns, and babies start their lives in well-camouflaged nests until they are old enough to wean, but they do not dig large burrows like other rabbit species, Knipe said.

They are docile and rarely carry diseases, although a close look at the local population will often show multiple ticks on their faces and ears. Knipe said she does not believe there has ever been a case of rabies in any animal in Ocean City, although there have been cases reported in other wildlife in the mainland communities.

But they do love gardens.

According to John Vaughan of Vaughan’s Farm and Garden on Roosevelt Boulevard in the Marmora section of Upper Township, while rabbits will eat vegetables, your tomato plants are usually safe. It’s the soft, tender flower shoots that they most crave.

“It’s an island. It’s overpopulated. They don’t have a lot of places to live other than your yard,” Knipe said. They will eat grass and clover, but they seem to especially enjoy gardens, which makes this year’s carefully tended zinnias a bunny buffet.

“Try planting things that aren’t tasty to rabbits,” Knipe said. There are other options, such as placing a rag soaked in ammonia outside. Some people have purchased fox urine to spray or have tried cayenne pepper.

For these to be effective, she said, they need to be rotated or the rabbits will soon learn there is only the smell of a threat and be back for dessert.

Vaughan sells a product called liquid fence that he said has been an effective rabbit deterrent. There are granular versions and a spray.

“It smells bad to them, and it tastes bad to them,” he said. “They’ll go next door to the neighbor’s yard. My wife swears by it.”

Vaughan said it is harmless to the rabbits, not to mention to the plants and to people.

He believes the bunny boom goes beyond Ocean City. Customers report increases in other areas, and earlier this year it was difficult to keep the rabbit repellent in stock. But as an Ocean City resident, he, too, has noticed an increase.

“You don’t see one rabbit. You see three or four of them bouncing around,” he said.

Vaughan and many other locals cite a lack of foxes for the boom. He’s not wrong, said Knipe. In 2018, the highly contagious skin disease mange tore through the island’s fox population, which had in earlier years also reached exceptional levels.

Fox sightings had become commonplace. This year, they are much more unusual.

Rabbits have other natural predators, including owls and hawks, but Knipe said the birds often choose easier prey.

There are signs foxes are returning. The Humane Society is tracking a few new dens with litters this year. Unfortunately, at least as far as Knipe is concerned, people have posted images of the animals on social media and others have fed the wild animals.

“Kids are getting close. The foxes are getting more domesticated,” she said. “Then we start that whole cycle all over again.”

In other years, some foxes on the Boardwalk became so used to people that the animals were taking doughnuts from human hands.

Ocean City has taken extraordinary steps to control wildlife, including approving a $193,600 contract with Wildlife Control Specialists LLC to use birds of prey to clear aggressive sea gulls from the Boardwalk. But the gulls are just more skittish — they have not left the island.

According to Knipe, even if the foxes return in force, rabbits will remain part of the local landscape.

“It will help, but we’re not going to have dozens and dozens of foxes come into the city,” she said.

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