Bunnies saved Joseph Martinez’s life and now he’s saving theirs.
The son of poor Italian immigrants, Martinez and his three sisters grew up on a farm in the middle of Israel’s Negev desert and subsisted largely on the rabbits they raised.
“Thanks to bunnies, we survived, so I owe a lot to bunnies,” he said. “Basically, bunnies saved our lives.”
The Steveston veterinarian will spend most of this Labour Day weekend spaying and neutering 40 bunnies from the University of Victoria before they are shipped to the Wild Rose Rescue Ranch in eastern Texas.
“Bunnies are my forté,” said Martinez, who made the switch to vegetarianism at age 10 and decided to dedicate his life to animals, later studying to be an animal doctor in Italy.
UVic has long had an overpopulation of feral rabbits on campus. The university euthanized 104 of them last May, prompting animal rights groups to fight against a large-scale cull. The Ministry of Environment recently granted a permit to one group, allowing them to transport up to 1,000 rabbits off campus.
Because the ministry classifies rabbits as wildlife, not pets, the animals cannot normally be given over to a rescuer.
On Thursday Sorelle Saidman and Laura-Leah Shaw of the ad hoc organization TRACS for Texas-bound Bunnies, were busy unloading 40 floppy-eared critters from the back of a pickup truck.
Stacks of cages quickly filled the small waiting room at Martinez’s Little Paws Animal Clinic on Second Avenue and Chatham Street.
This is a trial run. The Texas ranch agreed to take 1,000 bunnies, but the logistics of getting that many rabbits down south are difficult.
The ministry permit lets TRACS take possession of a maximum 96 bunnies at once, after which the group has seven days to sterilize and ship them to Texas.
The task is difficult considering the group relies on donations.
“You can’t keep making these big trips, there’s no money to keep shipping rabbits down there,” said Saidman. Martinez is one of only three vets who can perform the surgeries, according to the ministry permit.
“We basically have to do a whole whack of fundraising and try to get the ministry to add more vets and give us more time,” said Saidman.
Martinez has to complete all the operations by Tuesday so the bunnies can cross the border. They will be housed in a Washington State holding facility before making the long drive to Texas.
It takes about one hour to spay or neuter each bunny, including the anesthetic, operation and recovery time. That means Martinez will work 10- or 12-hour shifts all weekend, while still caring for his regular clients.
Though he is happy to help save the UVic bunnies, the donations he has so far received are barely enough to cover basic expenses and he is seeking further support.
In April, Richmond council banned the sale of rabbits in stores as a way to reduce the number of abanded domestic rabbits in city parks.
Local politicians are also asking other B.C. municipalities to get behind a ban on the retail sale of rabbits.