Hillsborough commissioners to consider regulating rabbit sales in county

The Humane Society of Tampa Bay is at capacity with rabbits. They've taken in more than 200 this year due to people impulse buying them before realizing they cannot care for them. 

Last year, they spent $40,000 to spay and neuter 260 of them.

It's a problem local animal advocates have spoken up on for a while, and Hillsborough commissioners are taking notice, especially after the county spent taxpayer money to reimburse for half of the fixings.

"It really becomes most pronounced after Easter from impulse buys at pet stores that we have been talking about over a year," said commissioner Pat Kemp. "People just aren't prepared to care for them."

At a Wednesday county commission meeting, officials ordered the county to draw up an ordinance that mirrors Pasco County's rules, which ban retail rabbit sales unless they're already in the care of a non-profit.

Pasco also bans bunny-buying on public property.

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The issue fired up public speakers.

"Their nature is really unlike cats or dogs. They are difficult to raise. They destroy a lot of property," said one.

"Owners assume they are an easy first pet," said another. "Very quickly, the higher costs of neutering and maintenance add up."

The county agreed to notify several stores that currently sell rabbits that this move is being considered.

One commissioner voted against the proposal, calling it too harsh.

The ordinance discussion is expected to come up again in their January meeting. If passed, Hillsborough would join DeSoto, Martin and Orange counties in Florida, along with the State of California, in eliminating rabbit retail.

It's a marked change from the last time the issue came before the commission, when advocates had pushed for the county to add rabbits to an ordinance that already bans retail sales of dogs and cats. They pushed for this back in January of this year with an emphasis on banning sales around Easter time, when the numbers really start to go up. Then, Hillsborough commissioners denied the request and instead, passed a motion to launch a "public education campaign," placing emphasis on impulse Easter buying.

FROM JANUARY: Hillsborough County commissioners hold off on rabbit sales ban

Fast-forward to September, data from the Pet Resource Center confirmed that the campaign didn't solve any problems — 69% of retailers actually reported that sales of rabbits equaled or exceeded numbers from 2021.

In November, a man left a cage outside the Humane Society of Tampa Bay with 9 rabbits. Two were pregnant and had even more babies. They've all since been adopted.

Director of Facilities and Logistics for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, Lon Savini, said the problem is they are one of the few places in the entire region that accepts them. Surrenders and fosters fall on nonprofits because government-run shelters in Tampa do not offer those services.

"We're like the only shelter that has the capability and capacity to take in rabbits," Savini added. "Our mission here is 'every life counts' so we fully support the retail ban."

Savini said it costs them a few hundred dollars per rabbit to care for them.

"They are just everywhere," said Savini. "They are all out in the wild. Rabbits can not survive in the wild. They don't know how to find their own food."