Heidelberg's bunny hunters: Hare today, gone tomorrow
February 19, 2011
HEIDELBERG, Germany — Three rabbits munch on a sunset snack at Patrick Henry Village, oblivious to a pair of high-beam headlights marking them as targets for an approaching hunter.
The only sound, the distant murmur of a nearby highway, is suddenly broken by a round from a .22-caliber rifle. The first shot misses, sending the bunnies scurrying into a briar patch.
Chris Wachtendorf doesn’t miss often. An Army civilian employee, Wachtendorf has shot about half of the 203 rabbits killed by a team of hunters designated to rid the Heidelberg housing area of the chewy vermin.
Wachtendorf quickly reloads as one of the rabbits holds its ground on the edge of the thicket. It’s a fatal mistake because the maintenance man’s next shot doesn’t miss.
An estimated 1,000 to 2,000 rabbits have invaded this Heidelberg base, causing damage to landscape, perimeter fences and recreational equipment, forcing garrison officials to go Elmer Fudd on the critters.
In one area, the acrid smell of rabbit urine is quite noticeable as you walk up to a gazebo usually reserved for barbecues. Transformed into a rabbit fun park, it has begun to sink in the soft, mossy earth from the tunnels underneath it. In other areas, storage containers have suffered the same fate.
Around the fence perimeter, where rabbits have cleverly avoided gate security, there are swaths of holes and dirt piles. The tennis courts are being used as rabbit restrooms.
Since the rabbits are fenced in, their natural predators are unable to keep the population down and the rabbits are able to increase their numbers without nature’s checks and balances, said Dave Oakland, Heidelberg’s chief of outdoor recreation.
His team of about a half-dozen licensed hunters and a dog named Pepper have the task of eliminating as many of the vermin as they can. On a recent outing, it appeared the rabbits had the advantage.
“Sometimes you get 25 in a day and sometimes you only get one or two,” said Wachtendorf, who’s from Arkansas. Abiding by German forestry laws and garrison safety requirements has given the rabbits the upper hand, he said.
Darkness, bystanders and limited angles have enabled rabbits to slip away. The hunters can only take aim six times a week, typically for 90 minutes around sunset and sunrise, and at limited locations on post, Oakland said. Military police provide them with an escort during their hunts.
This is the first time U.S. hunters have been given permission from the German government to deal with a problem such as this on post, according to environmental division officials at Installation Management Command-Europe. The problem is unique to the village, they said.
German law forbids the killing of pregnant rabbits, despite their growing numbers. Hunters have not made that mistake yet, but must report so if they do, Oakland said.
“It comes down to instincts,” Robert Owen said on determining whether a rabbit is pregnant. He explained that pregnant rabbits tend to stay closer to their burrows. The hunters are trying to kill as many rabbits as they can before the breeding season, which typically starts in late February, according to the local forestry department.
Some of the rabbits are sick with a fatal respiratory disease that swells their faces. Yellow mucus can cover their eyes and blind them. Death comes relatively quickly, maybe 24 hours.
Each hunter is responsible for disposing of the rabbits they kill. Most of the healthy rabbits are given to local restaurant owners or used as bait for bigger hunts, such as those targeting foxes.
At the end of a lean hunting session that yielded only three kills, a rabbit skips across the road in front of the departing van.
The battle is far from over.