For several decades in the middle of the twentieth century, San Juan Island was virtually overrun with rabbits. A population of several thousand domestic rabbits released in 1934 from a failed breeding operation grew by 1971 to an estimated 1 million on the 55-square-mile island, part of the San Juan archipelago lying between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island. The rabbit infestation caused serious problems for island agriculture, but the creatures also became a tourist attraction and rabbit-hunting was a popular sport. Around 1979, a significant "die off," whose causes remain mysterious, greatly reduced the island's rabbit population. In 2012 the San Juan Historical Museum sponsored a presentation titled "Rabbit Tales: 1930s to the 1970s," which featured historical accounts of the rabbit phenomenon and stories from islanders who remembered the time when rabbits were ubiquitous. This recap of that presentation, by Boyd C. Pratt, Shaun Hubbard, and Louisa Nishitani, originally appeared in The Journal of the San Juan Islands on May 30 and June 6, 2012, and is reprinted here with permission.
The First Rabbits
Do you remember when the rabbits were so thick on the island that it seemed as if a whole field would get up and move? Did you ever ride in a "bunny buggy" and net rabbits by search light at night? If not you probably missed out on a period when rabbits were a large part of life on San Juan Island. Recently (April 22, 2012), at an informal Sunday afternoon get-together at the Grange sponsored by the San Juan Historical Museum, old-timers gathered to trade stories and fill in part of history unknown to many current island residents
How did rabbits end up on San Juan Island? There are no written records of rabbits on the island prior to the nineteenth century. According to some sources, a Mr. Breedlove and H. and R. Guard introduced several domestic breeds to the island in 1903. (Although there were several Breedloves on the island, the most likely is Albert M., coincidentally elected the first Master of the Friday Harbor Grange #225 when it was formed in 1908.) During the 1910s, the San Juan Islander recorded several stories of hunters shooting rabbits on Flat Top and Skipjack islands, and even had this report about Dinner Island:
"Three well-known Friday Harbor young men have discovered that Dinner island rabbits are choice and expensive. The bunnies belong to James Guard and one of the Jensen brothers, who leased the island some time ago for a rabbit reserve. The young men in question killed eight of them Christmas day and the sport (?) is said to have cost each of them $5. The rabbits were so tame that one of the hunters whose marksmanship wasn't equal to shooting one found no difficulty in killing it with the butt of his gun. They did not know the rabbits were private property" (San Juan Islander, December 31, 1903, p. 5).
However, most of these rabbits seem to have died off after a particularly severe winter in 1916.
One Million Rabbits
The major population of rabbits came about when Howard Wilson and a Mr. Miller started a rabbit farm on Cady Mountain in 1925, with several domestic breeds of rabbits from Seattle. Although they raised the rabbits in fenced fields for several years, they released about 3,000 in 1934 when their venture failed. Left to breed in the wild, the animals soon reverted back to their ancestral type, the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculis). The rabbits thrived, so much so that they became a serious threat to island agriculture, eating crops and digging their burrows in the fields. In response to this invasion, islanders sought to reduce the population, and impact, of the rabbits, principally through hunting.
Hal Rogers, a game warden who later ran hunting parties at The Oaks, did an informal survey of rabbit hunting on San Juan in 1960. He interviewed 638 hunters that year, only 23 of whom failed to get a rabbit. Using either shotguns or .22 rifles, and occasionally bow-and-arrow, the average monthly bag was 4 to 17 per hunter, with more than a thousand rabbits killed in August of that year. J. Adkins, in a 1971 Washington State Game Department mimeo, estimated that there were about a million rabbits on San Juan Island, with an annual hunting kill totaling from 42,000 to 126,000, or 4.2 to 12.6 percent of the population.
A popular method of hunting, promoted by Rogers when he welcomed hunters to The Oaks in the 1960s, was with a "rabbit car" (Rogers called his a "Bunny Buggy") at night. Islanders converted old cars and trucks -- aficionados claimed the Model A was the best, because it "could take a terrible beating" -- by stripping off the back part and welding bucket seats onto the sides for riders. Netting crews usually consisted of three to four people: a driver, a spotter with a handheld electric light, and one or two netters who sat on the seats. The driver would guide the rabbit car through the fields at night at what felt like a fast clip -- 20 m.p.h. -- until the spotter shown a light on a rabbit, at which point one of the netters would jump off and, going around the other side of the rabbit, net it. The captured animals were then put into cages lashed to the back of the car. Using this method, a hundred or more rabbits could be secured each night.
Rogers promoted hunting, and rabbit netting in particular, at The Oaks. A map of the island that he published at the time indicated various areas that were good for hunting, and listed the various fees, from housing (camping for $2 and two-person cabins for $5) to hunting ($1) and "netting with experienced guides" ($25 for a party of five). He even took orders for rabbits: $.75 live, $1 dressed. Rogers widely advertised rabbit hunting at The Oaks, including on a billboard outside of Anacortes.
The vast majority of the rabbit-hunting land was private, and farmers would often charge hunters for either going out by themselves or with guides. Although rabbits were not considered a game animal, poaching of deer or pheasants was subject to severe fines ($250 for hunting deer without a license in the 1960s!), and either trespassing or shooting from the road were serious concerns.
Farmers Fight Back
The superabundance of rabbits took its toll on island agriculture, and was a contributing factor in the decline of large-scale farming on the island. The animals grazed on pasturage and planted crops, taking a devastating toll. Guard Sundstrom said that farmers would anticipate a loss of 25 percent of their crop, and Greg Black remembers that they would sow twice or thrice the amount of seed around the edges of the fields, so that the rabbits would concentrate there and allow the interior to get high to keep the rabbits out. Mary Jane Anderson remembered a year when they harvested less grain than they had sown; that was the last year they planted. Many recall fields where the outer 20-25 feet appeared to have been mown.
In order to combat this, farmers resorted to a number of techniques: hunting, fencing, poisoning, and ferrets. For a while, the county extension office recommended poisoning with strychnine -- lacing apples or grass with the poison and scattering it around the fields. Calcium cyanide was pumped into burrows, where it mixed with the underground moisture and created a deadly vapor. In 1978, the Agricultural Soil Conservation Service sent three semi loads of chicken wire to the island. Greg Black recalls fencing with Ernie Gann on their farms in the valley, devoting two days a week for three years. The mesh fencing was attached to existing wires and posts with hog clips, and then folded to run along the ground on the outside of the fence line a foot or so, in order to prevent the rabbits from digging under. In desperation, several farmers plowed with subsoilers and ran bulldozers over warrens in order to destroy the burrows, and some even resorted to dynamite!
All these rabbits filtered into the popular culture of the day. Netting expeditions were described in local and regional papers, and the September 28, 1964, Sports Illustrated even featured an article by Virginia Kraft: "HIPPITY HOP AND AWAY WE GO: Rabbits of varied hues run rampant on San Juan Island in Puget Sound, and dedicated hunters with nets chase them in bouncing buggies through the moonlight -- and through the looking glass." Rabbits appeared locally in various guises: the Rabbit Hutch restaurant in downtown Friday Harbor, which featured -- you guessed it -- rabbit burgers; a float for the 1966 San Juan County Fair parade; and the 1975 logo for Browne Lumber. Or what about the rabbit pellets that were bagged and sold at the Drug Store as "Smart Pills"?
One legacy of the San Juan rabbits is the "bunny cabins" at Clark's Skagit River Resort, near Marblemount on Route 20. Around 1961, the owners, Rudy and Tootsie Clark, came to San Juan and went on a netting expedition, returning with three rabbits, one of which was a pregnant doe. As the rabbit population grew, they kept building cages, until there were so many that they let them run free, and rabbit-proofed their garden fence, instead. Today, the cabins are surrounded by 'wild' rabbits, which are fed scraps of bread by the resort owners and their guests.
Toward the end of the Rabbit Tales meeting, as the stories began to wind down, people began to reminisce among themselves. Someone said, "Wait, wait! What happened to the rabbits? We're new here, and we want to hear the end of the story!" Well, good question ...
Why are there relatively few rabbits on the island now, occupying small areas such as American Camp and Hannah Heights? While it is not decisively known what caused it, a big "die off" occurred around 1979. Some attribute this to a series of harsh, wet winters. Others claim the rise in predators -- hunters used ferrets to flush the animals out of their burrows, and inevitably some of them were not recovered when the hunters had to return home -- coupled with the loss of habitat (graze) through the fencing programs. Still others claim the surreptitious introduction of disease, such as myxomatosis, from Australia where it had been used to control the rabbit population. Whatever the cause, the rabbit population plunged. No longer does one experience the vision of a whole field of brown stones getting up and moving!
What we do know for sure is that the presence of rabbits on San Juan Island is not forgotten, at least in the memories of those who experienced those times.
Here are excerpts from some of the stories told at that 2012 Rabbit Tales gathering:
Marty Percich: "I graduated in '44 here and I earned all of my spending money netting rabbits so all during the last part of the '30s and the early '40s I was out every night. Ninety rabbits was a good night. I got 10 cents a rabbit."
Sam Buck Sr. "Rex Anderson and I were going to the University of Washington so we came home and hunted rabbits. I had a whole truckload [and] I was parked right in front of the fraternity house on 45th and 18th ... Somebody came home that night late and they opened one of the doors so I had twenty-four rabbits that went out on the road and ... the chimes were right across the street from us and they started hiding there. They were there for three or four months ... .I got the truck the hell out of there the next morning."
Jo Anne Campbell, speaking for her mother Renie Vandersluys: "The local golf course, owned by the Jackson family, was fairly new and the rabbits loved it. They tunneled the fairways and partied on the greens, leaving a carpet of droppings. The Pro Shop sold little brooms to be carried in the golf bags. After chipping onto the green, these brooms were used to sweep a path for putting to the hole."
Ruthie Lawson Paull: "We raised chickens, and when it came time to kill the chickens off we'd have a fire in the yard ... to boil water and pluck the chickens. Rabbit hunters were okay if they asked permission but if they didn't ... we didn't like it at all. One day when we were butchering chickens we heard gunshots up the road, but no one had asked permission. Sure enough the hunters came down and drove into our yard and they'd shot a bunch of rabbits but they didn't know how to clean them. Mother was rather irritated with them ... and she said, 'Well, you know, you do it just like you do chickens ... you get some boiling water going ... and you take the rabbit and you dunk it and pluck it.' ... [Later] they were up there with fur flying all over and the water boiling ... ."
Guard Sundstrom: "We charged people to go hunting ... .and one time there wasn't any money in [the rabbit] jar and I wasn't going to go to the dance -- you know, the dance was $2.50 I think -- and luckily rabbit hunters came by that day and I got five bucks. I was tour guide and I'd come out and show them where to hunt rabbits. So I went to the dance."
Louisa Nishitani: "One day a friend from the mainland was visiting and she stood looking out the kitchen window ... and she said: 'I kept hearing about the San Juan rabbits -- I don't see any rabbits.' And I said 'Wait a minute' and I got a tin pan and a big spoon and I went out on the deck and I said 'Just keep looking' and I went BAM! and a hundred grey rocks jumped up."