The bunnies wander in from the neighboring golf course at all hours, hiding from the coyotes and hawks in the steep slopes that surround the Mission Viejo retirement community of Casta del Sol.
After getting their fill of native shrubs and plants, the rabbits move on to the landscaped yards, gnawing on lawns, pansies, petunias, lobelias and even small lemon trees.
"It's like a smorgasbord around here," said John Kiely, the Casta del Sol homeowners association president. "There's a variety here they don't get anywhere else."
Landscapers in the 1,900-home tract have tried to make the menu as unappetizing as possible, sprinkling blood meal, hot sauce, garlic spray and coyote urine on lawns and plants.
But the rabbits keep trooping out of the hillsides, devouring grass and littering sidewalks and patios with their droppings.
Powerless to close up the popular rabbit dining hall, a group of residents asked the city for permission to control the intruders another way: Shoot 'em on sight. A state Fish and Game law, however, prohibits the use of firearms to ward off animals unless crops are at stake. In 1997, the city extended that law to include pellet guns.
So City Councilman John Paul Ledesma -- facetiously, perhaps -- suggested residents of the retirement community plant rows of carrots and then reapply for permission to shoot the rabbits with pellet guns.
In the end, with no freshly planted carrots to fall back on, Ledesma voted with the rest of the council in October to deny Casta del Sol's request for a waiver to the city's 1997 firearms ordinance.
All of which leaves residents divided over whether to try again for permission to shoot the rabbits, or hang it up.
Without permission to use pellet guns, and with other methods having failed them, exasperated Casta del Sol residents have relied on poison bait boxes to control the teeming rabbit population. But the 100 plastic boxes scattered through the 486-acre community will be picked up in a few months because of a change in state regulations.
Last year, state officials revised the approved uses of diphacinone, determining it should be banned in urban settings. Diphacinone is a powder that when mixed with bait becomes an attractive meal to animals but ultimately causes them to slowly bleed to death. Pest-control companies are permitted to use diphacinone until their current supply runs out, but city officials have discouraged its continued use.
"It's a prolonged and painful death," said Rick Howard, the city's assistant manager. "And when other birds of prey or domestic animals eat the rabbit, they are ingesting the same poison."
Howard and city animal service officials suggest more humane methods: traps, fencing, repellents and rabbit-tolerant plants.
At this point, Kiely said, the homeowners association is willing to consider anything to combat the rabbits. Still, he believes shooting is the most effective and humane method.
The debate on how to battle the rabbits has created something of an uproar in the quiet community near Lake Mission Viejo.
One group has sided with the cottontails. Among their sympathizers is Frank Choate, who started a petition drive asking residents to pick fences, not guns, in the battle. Choate said installing a 3-foot mesh fence would be far more neighborly than resorting to pellet guns and more cost effective than paying pest control officials to eliminate the rabbits. The homeowners association paid Animal Pest Management $54,000 last year for diphacinone. An additional $50,000 was spent repairing landscape.
In anticipation of a new breeding season, Kiely has scheduled another meeting with city officials this month to discuss the gun option.
Casta del Sol resident Vi Davis, whose lawn and lemon trees have been chewed up, said she is willing to toss in the towel.
"I say live and let live."