Oregon Zoo Produces More than 25 Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit Kits
By Bill LaMaeche
Portland, OR - After a difficult start to the breeding season, the Oregon Zoo has welcomed 26 endangered Columbian Basin pygmy rabbit kits, raising this year's total to 73 kits among participating breeding facilities.
The zoo -- in collaboration with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington State University and Northwest Trek -- is diligently working to bring this endangered Northwest species back from the brink of extinction.
Huge declines in both the number and size of rabbit populations prompted the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife to list the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit as a state-endangered species in 1993. Following continued population loss, biologists removed the remaining 14 rabbits from the wild and started an emergency captive-breeding program similar to the one used for California condors.
"In the past, zoos have spread their conservation efforts all over the world, particularly in tropical areas," said Michael Illig, assistant curator in charge of the zoo's rabbit program. "While these efforts are extremely important, there is a tendency to ignore our own back yards. At the Oregon Zoo, we believe efforts in our own region more effectively engage our visitors and constituents in conservation actions."
The zoo's involvement with pygmy rabbit breeding began in December 2000, when Idaho pygmy rabbits arrived as surrogates for the vulnerable Columbia Basin rabbits. Zoo staff constructed behind-the-scenes habitats full of loose soil and tubes, which served as hiding places for the reclusive rabbits. Nest boxes were also constructed and fitted with infrared video cameras, allowing scientists to study the animals' activity patterns and learn behavioral nuances.
In 2001, the research paid off, and the Oregon Zoo became the first zoo in the world to successfully breed Idaho pygmy rabbits. Its program for Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits became increasingly successful through the 2006 breeding season, yielding a record number of births and 32 surviving kits.
The zoo shared its research and breeding protocols with WDFW, facilitating the establishment of pygmy rabbit breeding facilities at Northwest Trek and WSU in Pullman.
Pygmy rabbits are the only North American rabbits that dig burrows and live in a sagebrush habitat. Jack rabbits, which also live in sagebrush communities, are actually hares, not rabbits. In the wild, pygmy rabbits eat sagebrush almost exclusively in the winter; during summer, they eat a more varied diet. They may have two to four litters of about two to six kits during the spring and summer breeding seasons. Population decline is widely attributed to predation and habitat loss caused by agricultural development and wildfires.
"In the future," Illig said, "we have to do a better job of protecting animals and their habitats before situations become dire."
To view video of baby pygmy rabbits getting weighed and measured, visit www.oregonzoo.org/VideoArchive/Rabbits_babyPygmy.htm.
The zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission to inspire the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Washington's pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot butterflies, western pond turtles, Oregon spotted frogs and Kincaid's lupine. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats.
The zoo opens at 9 a.m. daily and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Zoo visitors who travel to the zoo via MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit www.trimet.org for fare and route information.
General admission is $10.50 (ages 12-64), $9 for seniors (65 and up), $7.50 for children (ages 3-11) and free for those 2 and younger; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo's Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $2 per car is also required. Additional information is available at www.oregonzoo.org or by calling 503-226-1561.
Caption: A baby Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit at the Oregon Zoo. The zoo -- in collaboration with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington State University and Northwest Trek -- is diligently working to bring this endangered Northwest species back from the brink of extinction. Photo by Michael Durham, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo.
Caption 2: The Oregon Zoo -- in collaboration with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington State University and Northwest Trek -- is diligently working to bring this endangered Northwest pygmy rabbit back from the brink of extinction. Photo by Michael Durham, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo.
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