A Hutch in the Plans : Restaurant Provides Haven for Unwanted Rabbits

Every year around Easter, things really start hopping at the Casa Maria restaurant in Anaheim.

That's when the ever present rabbit population on the restaurant's landscaped grounds reaches a peak of 50 or so. Many are discarded presents from Easters past. Others will be dropped off after Sunday.

"In a little while we'll start hearing from people who phone up and say, 'I bought it for my kid (for Easter), and now I don't know what to do with it. Can you take it?' " said Casa Maria district operator Ray Garcia. "Usually we say OK."

Said manager Joseph Campas: "People really identify the restaurant with the rabbits in this area. We keep inheriting different varieties, including some flop-ears and colors I've never seen before."

To the best of anyone's recollection, the first of the four-legged residents arrived about seven years ago. They were jack rabbits driven from nearby fields by developers, and many of the interlopers later bred with domestic castoffs.

Garcia said 20 or so are visible this time of the year, but the number is somewhat misleading.

"Most of them have been underground in burrows," Garcia said. "They'll be coming out now as it warms up. By May, we'll have the new families."

Some rabbits become familiar enough to the staff to acquire names.

"One was named Javier and another Ray," general manager Alfonso Magana said, explaining that they were named after restaurant managers.

During summer, the rabbits can be seen feeding on the luxuriant green grass, climbing the shrubbery or lolling near the small stream that burbles past the weeping willow trees on the restaurant grounds.

"If you look in the bushes, you can find them--one to two feet off the ground--eating," said Jerry Zimmerman, the restaurant's landscaper.

In fact, their appetite makes Zimmerman's job more challenging.

"They just love my plants," he said wistfully, "especially the flowers. I have to be pretty selective of the ones I plant."

The voracious rabbit seems to fancy all flowers except periwinkles, Zimmerman said.

They also free load.

"My wife Irene and I take carrots when we're going to meet people at the restaurant," said Jay Berman, a communications professor at Cal State Fullerton. "The rabbits are so tame they'll eat right out of your hand."

Kids especially love to play with the rabbits and feed them, said waitress Claudia Lopez.

Like many Southern Californians, some rabbits appear to find Mexican food addicting.

"One rabbit--he came every morning--he was a weird rabbit," recalled general manager Magana. "He would just eat chips--chips and salsa."

Of course, there are limits to hospitality. County health authorities say they have no beef as long as the workers keep the critters outdoors, which they do.

One would hardly suspect the rabbits to romp in such tranquility only a few steps from the busy intersection of Katella Avenue and State College Boulevard near Anaheim Stadium. Actually, the rabbits' home is not quite as idyllic as it might seem.

Automobile drivers are a threat. So are the wild cats that lurk about.

"A couple of the cats have given birth here," Zimmerman said, "and their young have grown up eating baby rabbits."

"There's a black cat that's really mean," Lopez added.

On occasion, the staff has intervened on behalf of the docile guests.

"One day we took a cat really far off," recalled Lopez mournfully, "but he found his way back."

Another check on the local rabbit population is the fact the restaurant is sort of a half-way house. It not only takes in the creatures, it also gives them up for adoption.

"There was a lady who dropped off six," Magana said. "Two days later another lady came and took two of them. Every once in a while a customer will ask me if he can take one. I tell him yes--if he can catch it."

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