Hippity hopping amid Chicago's urban jungle

Chicago Tribune

Cars and trucks zoom along the Dan Ryan Expressway in a whoosh of hot air and dust. Horns blare, sirens scream and every few minutes a city bus rumbles past, belching exhaust. In the background, the skyline rises like a mountain range of glass and steel.

This is the urban jungle -- teeming with crowds, booming to a cacophony of sound, alive in a whirl of motion. But look closely. There -- along the sidewalk -- an eastern cottontail rabbit hops down the cracked concrete. It perks its ears for a moment, alert to someone watching. Then it bounds into the scraggly bushes along the edge of a low-slung brick building, its white fuzzy tail disappearing into the brush.

It might seem an improbable sighting, a near miracle that such a creature could survive such an inhospitable environment. But survive it has; urban rabbits have become as ubiquitous as pigeons or squirrels.

The cottontail is the new urbanite, tramping along our avenues like a bucktoothed hipster, lolling on the grass in Daley Bicentennial Plaza after an all-you-can-eat picnic. Rabbits even join the daily commute by bouncing along the on- and off-ramps of the Dan Ryan Expressway, headed for the grassy shoulders that they treat like their personal salad bars.

Though rabbits have long lived in Grant Park, a spike in the rabbit population has pushed the animals into the most urban corners. Rabbits have overrun a bus turnaround west of the Loop and destroyed a grove of 40 honey locust trees on a landscaped embankment of the Kennedy Expressway.

"I saw one recently in a revolving door of a skyscraper in the Loop," said Robert O'Neill of the Grant Park Conservancy. "The rabbit had gone in thinking it could enter the building."

One night O'Neill -- wearing heavy-rimmed glasses, shiny dress shoes, perfectly pressed pants and button-down shirt -- led an urban rabbit hunt across the city, crossing busy thoroughfares, crawling under bushes and eyeing weedy edges of the parks. As president of the conservancy, he has become a protector of the city's trees, and thus the rabbits' adversary, which feast on the tender bark of saplings.

"There never used to be rabbits anywhere in this area," O'Neill yelled over the traffic noise as he stood on an overpass over the expressway. He pointed to a group of elms, planted between the ramps, that had been gnawed to death by rabbits.

Down the street, he saw more telltale signs: rabbit teeth marks on tree trunks. Then, a sighting.

"There's one!" he shouted as he stepped into Oscar D'Angelo Park -- a small patch of grass in the shadow of Sears Tower. "And there's another!"

Soon O'Neill was turning in circles, realizing that the rabbits were grazing in every corner of the park. Two dozen rabbits munched on the lush grass and hopped along the edge of the thick bushes -- ignoring the homeless men camping nearby, the traffic on surrounding streets and the pedestrians who rushed along sidewalks.

Less than two feet from O'Neill, a baby rabbit sat at the edge of a gravel path.

"It's almost as if you can go up and pet him," whispered O'Neill as he edged closer to the bunny. Though O'Neill despises rabbit damage, he has a soft spot for the rabbits themselves. "We're creating more green space and we're going to attract more nature -- which is part of the plan. The urban rabbit is a sign of success," he said.

A siren wailed in the background as O'Neill pointed to the forsythia and lilac bushes, the crab apple and hawthorn trees that ring the park. The sweet smell of a privet hedge carried on the evening air. "You see this," he said, his voice full of awe and wonder. "And you're in downtown Chicago."

The rise of the urban rabbit began in the late 1980s when -- shortly after the election of Richard M. Daley -- the city launched a campaign to plant trees and gardens. The program placed planters along roadways, turned medians into flower gardens and planted thousands of trees.

Such efforts transformed the city into a greening oasis and met with widespread voter support. But it also created a perfect habitat for rabbits.

The advent of leash laws and the lack of other predators allowed the rabbits to thrive. Coyotes that might normally cull the bunny population were chased, captured and removed by the city's animal control officers. By 2001, the bunny population had boomed, and the rabbits had eaten their way through $100,000 worth of landscaping in Grant Park. Other cities around the country, including Miami, Detroit and Hartford, Conn., struggled with similar invasions.

"Rabbits are becoming very common in urban areas, and it's no surprise because we're creating ideal conditions," said Michael Conover, editor of the journal Human-Wildlife Conflicts.

In many ways, rabbits are perfectly suited to cities. They feed at dawn and dusk, which helps them avoid danger. They can live almost anywhere, at the edge of weed-lined alleys or in brush piles. And they can eat almost any plant. In the winter, when food is scarce, they munch on the bark of saplings, often girdling it by nibbling the bark in a ring, which kills the tree.

Rabbit populations swell and shrink, depending on the number of predators and severity of winters. But their polygamous nature and their famously prolific breeding patterns -- 28-day gestation period and five litters per season -- help them bounce back quickly.

In 2003, Chicago Park District workers began aggressively wrapping young trees with chicken wire and black plastic tubing to protect them. But soon, officials discovered the rabbits were hippity-hopping into the smallest urban green spaces, dining on trees that grow on highway embankments and grazing on flowers in concrete planters.

"I saw one in a planter on Ohio Street three blocks east of Michigan Avenue," said Liz O'Callaghan, operations manager at the Chicago Park District. "It stopped me cold. I thought, 'There's a rabbit!' He was sitting there alone, and he wasn't chewing anything. Maybe he was waiting for a taxi."

To many residents, the rabbits have become a symbol of survival; their existence amid the traffic and crowds has become an inspiring sight. Ron Wolford, who teaches urban gardening at the University of Illinois Extension in Chicago, said that though he often chased rabbits out of his garden, he couldn't help but admire the animal.

"I like the rabbits. I just like the fact those little animals can get the Chicago Park District all up in arms," he said. "People need to take a deep breath and stop fighting. We're never going to get rid of them, so we have to learn to coexist."

Such a Zen-like attitude might be the only real defense, but others say a drastic situation calls for drastic measures.

Mary Zavett suggested selling the rabbits to French bistros for dishes such as rabbit ragout or rabbit etouffee.

The Park District opts to trap, and so far this year has relocated about 75 of the animals to the suburbs. But that has barely made a dent in the population.

There are areas in the city that remain rabbit-free: the city's rooftop gardens.

But Madelen Fields Gollogly, of the Grant Park Advisory council, says that's only because the bunnies don't know how to push the elevator buttons. Yet.

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