I know it isn’t Easter yet, but I thought this rabbit tale from Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island deserved a note.
The rare New England cottontail is getting help. Biologists from the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the University of Rhode Island have teamed up with Roger Williams Park Zoo and the Wildlife Management Institute to restore populations by breeding these rabbits in captivity and releasing them in natural habitat.
The collaborative project aims to help restore sustainable cottontail populations. Currently, the species is believed to have vanished from Vermont, with sparse populations throughout the rest of New England.
Since late 2010, the partners have captured wild adult cottontails and brought them to a breeding facility housed in an off-exhibit area of the Roger Williams Park Zoo.
“To try to rebuild a species, first, we have to learn if we can keep healthy individuals in captivity,” said Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at the Zoo. “We’ve learned that we can. We’ve also learned that we can successfully breed these wild animals in captivity and raise the young from birth through weaning. Now, we are testing whether the captive born babies can be released to a wild setting and survive the winter.”
On 11 November 2011, the offspring of the wild rabbits, nine bunnies aged three to four months old, were released at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in a one-acre habitat surrounded by predator-proof fencing. This will allow them to become acclimated to a natural environment without predation pressure. They will later be released from the pen into the wild. “So far,” says Perrotti, “they seem to be doing well. Come spring, we’ll have a better idea of whether we’ve developed husbandry protocols that can succeed on a larger scale.”
When we think of conservation, it is easy to think of charismatic species in exotic lands. It is heartening to see that a local species like the New England cottontail rabbit is getting critical support from a wildlife institution like the Roger Williams Park Zoo.