Down the Rabbit Hole: The Story of the UVic Bunnies

The University of Victoria got rid of its rabbits. Then the problems started elsewhere.

“This is not your ordinary rabbit hole,” explains journalist Judith Lavoie, speaking in literal terms about how, by the late 2000s, an overabundant rabbit population had burrowed under buildings at the University of Victoria, creating tunnels that undermined their physical foundations.

But she could just as easily have been speaking figuratively.

The rise and cull of the UVic bunnies is the stuff of West Coast legend. Few, however, have followed their stories to the end — because, for the hundreds that managed to get out alive thanks to dedicated activists, their reigns of fluffy terror were only just beginning.

Co-hosted by Andrew Hynes and Amanda Watland, and produced by Hynes and Mary Decker, this week’s CANADALAND dives as far down that wondrous hole as our running time and layers of the Earth’s crust will allow:

It’s a reworked version of a twopart epic that originally aired on CFUV’s U in the Ring podcast in 2019.

Like a fantasy novel following multiple groups of characters on parallel quests, here’s one excerpt from the adventures of the part of the population that got relocated to the small town of Coombs, BC, in 2010:

Andrew Hynes: This one farm, it’s run by this woman named Barbara Smith.

Barbara Smith: No, “The Bunny Murderer” — “The UVic Bunny Murderer,” that was my title.

Hynes: Barbara Smith is a retired lawyer. She and her husband just live on this farm, just kind of enjoying the golden days. She’s into horses, so she’s growing hay for her horses. And then Barbara Smith is actually out of town…

Smith: And on the drive back, my husband said, “You’re not gonna believe what’s going on in our hayfield.” And as he picked me up from the airport, we were driving back home: I looked into our field and there was a sea of rabbits. And then next door at the World Parrot Refuge, there was a sea of rabbits, and there was rabbits on the road.

Hynes: And they’re just eating her horses’ hay. And she’s like, “This is insane. Where did all these rabbits come from?”

Smith: That day, I phoned every ministry, I phoned the regional district, I phoned local government…

Hynes: She’s the perfect person this happened to, because she is just unrelenting. She’s like, “I need answers. Tell me who to talk to.”

Smith: It took me two and a half months to get a copy of the permit. When I actually looked at the permit, Susan Vickery [who’d overseen their relocation from Victoria to the parrot sanctuary] had basically breached every condition.

Amanda Watland: And like the perfect mix, too, of being affected deeply by this, but also having all the resources and tenacity to deal with it.

Smith: It takes a certain type of person to put up with all that bullshit. And luckily or unluckily, I had the expertise.

Hynes: So now she’s mad at the Ministry of Environment, and the ministry gives her someone to call. She calls him, and he is a pest-control officer. And he shows up and he starts shooting the rabbits.

Watland: It’s what a pest-control officer would do.

Smith: There were over 95 rabbits in the field. He could not believe what he was seeing out there.

Hynes: It’s important to note that it is humane to shoot rabbits, if it’s 100 metres away from any property or home, and because it’s like a big farm field, he can just shoot the rabbits in the field and it’s totally fine.

Smith: I don’t see UVic bunnies any different than an invasion of rats. To me, it was all the same.

Hynes: He starts shooting rabbits, and then the gunshots ring out through the farm field.

Smith: And then the people next door heard him, jumped the fence, and chased him out of the field.

Hynes: And they’re just sprinting through the farm field. They hop the fence and actually chase the guy back into Barbara Smith’s house.

Watland: Rabbit activists that were housing the rabbits, that were terrible at housing the rabbits, were chasing the guy killing the rabbits. Okay. Wow. This all happens, like, in the afternoon?

Hynes: Yeah, this is just an afternoon in Coombs. And then…

Smith: So he came in and said, “I can’t do anything.”

Hynes: Barbara Smith’s like, “Well, thank you for doing your job.” He ends up shooting around 30.

Smith: And all this time, the Ministry of Environment biologist was here going, “Oh dear, oh dear.”

Hynes: And then word spreads throughout the rabbit-activist community. And how do you think they’re going to react?

Watland: Pissed.

Hynes: Rabbit activists, they contact the Ministry of Environment and the BC SPCA and then the RCMP. But there’s like nothing they can do. It was all legal, so that goes nowhere. And then…

Smith: Do you know that I got reported to the law society?

Hynes: They start targeting Barbara Smith’s law career.

Smith: “I killed rabbits in a violent and unreasonable fashion, and because of that conduct brought into disrepute the law society.”

Hynes: And they have to start launching an investigation of a retired lawyer.

Smith: “Once a lawyer, always a lawyer.” I didn’t know that. I thought that once I retired, I was just normal. All I could do is say to the girl, “Well, what’s my punishment: you gonna make me go back into law?”

Hynes: And the law society is just like, “Well, there’s nothing we can do.”

Smith: So they did their due diligence and studied it all and determined that what I had done was within my rights. But, you know, they warned me. They said, “Do not minimize the power of the rabbit people.”

Hynes: This kind of goes on for a while, where Barbara Smith just keeps taking heat and her husband is picking up the phone, being like, “Yes, this is Barbara Smith’s residence. No, I don’t care what you have to say about the rabbits.”

Smith: You know that he got a phone call from somebody in Australia, telling us what a terrible person I was killing rabbits?

Hynes: Barbara Smith’s property also got vandalized.

Smith: So they painted my aluminum gate up at the highway bloody red. Oh, and then they left me a bale of hay with a little note saying: “This is from the rabbits. We are sorry we ate your hay. We did not know it was so important to you. We hope this will replace it. We paid for it with our lives. The Murdered Bunnies.”

Top photo of the UVic rabbits circa 2009 by Jeffery J. Nichols via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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