• Wed. Dec 7th, 2022

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‘Do not touch or move dead rabbits’: National Parks warn of bunny virus

National Park Service rangers warn that a rare virus is sickening and killing wild cottontail rabbits in Dinosaur National Monument.

Visitors to the park, which spans Colorado and Utah, are urged to take caution and not approach any wildlife, particularly wild rabbits, because of confirmed cases of rabbit hemorrhagic disease, or RHDV2, which caused by a highly contagious and lethal virus.

Dinosaur National Monument spokesperson Dan Johnson said the virus’s effect on rabbits is brutal and almost always deadly: “They often have a bloody froth at the mouth.”

Park rangers first noticed large numbers of dead rabbits around early March, Johnson said, and the park released the news of the confirmed cases as soon as the test results came back this week.

Since it was first detected in France in 2010, RHDV2 has spread across Europe and Australia and was first confirmed in U.S. rabbit populations in April 2020, when outbreaks were identified in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and northern Mexico, according to a report from the National Wildlife Health Center of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Johnson said Park Service rangers were warned last year to be on the lookout for the arrival of the virus: “It’s highly transmissible, so we have been expecting it to show up at a certain point.”

While RHDV2 poses no risk to humans or dogs, it is “hardy” and can be transmitted on clothes and objects, and it can easily spread to domestic rabbit populations, Johnson said.

In addition, people are warned to keep themselves and their pets away because “multiple dead or sick rabbits can also be a sign of tularemia or plague, which are diseases that can cause serious illness in people.”

Johnson said those two diseases are already widespread in mammal populations in the inter-mountain West and that they can explain a large number of dead animals.

The Park Service warned there is reason to believe that RHDV2, which is still rare in the U.S., could eventually have a severe impact on wild and domesticated rabbit populations in the country and animals up the food chain.

While Dinosaur National Monument spans Colorado and Utah, the sick and dead bunnies were found in Uintah County, Utah, Johnson said.

If visitors encounter sick or dead rabbits, the Park Service encourages them to take photos and immediately contact rangers, who will use special protective equipment to handle the carcasses. Keep dogs leashed and do not let them interact with wildlife generally.

Owners of domesticated rabbits “should exercise extreme caution” to avoid exposure to the disease, and the animals should not be housed outdoors if contact with any other rabbits is possible.

Johnson said one general rule helps park visitors and their animal companions stay safe: “Until an animal is tested, if you suddenly see a bunch of dead animals, we just generally want people to stay away from them.”