LINCOLN SQUARE — Conservation police with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources are investigating multiple reports of mutilated wild rabbits in Lincoln Square.
The bunnies' ears have been pierced and left with dangling objects, including key fobs and what one person said appeared to be an old CTA pass.
Owners of domesticated rabbits will often tattoo the inside of their pets' ears for identification purposes, but to hang "trinkets" off wild animals is "not normal," said Sgt. Jed Whitchurch, whose team of conservation officers is responding to the complaints and has confirmed the piercings.
"I've been with the conservation police for 11 years now ... it's definitely not something I thought I'd see," Whitchurch said.
Sightings of the bunnies began in May and have been clustered in an area bounded by Rockwell, Ainslie, Winnemac and Lincoln avenues.
Shawn Brodaski was among the first to come across one of the rabbits and sounded the alarm on a neighborhood Facebook page.
"At first I thought that it was probably something caught around its ears. Then I approached it and saw it was something actually pierced through," Brodaski said.
Apart from the harm to the animals, which Brodaski said is terrible enough, he's also concerned that the perpetrator's actions could be "indicative of violent tendencies," which is why he spread the word online.
Dozens of neighbors responded with similar sightings and began calling and emailing animal shelters, rescue agencies, Chicago police and the city's Animal Care and Control Department.
"Response from law enforcement has been positive," Brodaski said. "This has not been brushed aside."
Because wild rabbits are regulated under state law, the conservation police have taken the lead in the investigation.
Wild rabbits can only be hunted or trapped during specific times of the year and even that requires a permit, Whitchurch said.
"It's a criminal matter if we catch the person" piercing the rabbits, Whitchurch said.
Neighbor Kay J., who preferred not to share her last name, accompanied a conservation officer last week and attempted to capture one of the pierced bunnies.
"It just looks disturbing. It's just wrong. It's animal cruelty. There's no doubt they're being mutilated," she said.
"Just because they're wild, they should not be treated like this," said Kay, who spied a bunny pierced with what she said looked like a key. "I really want the rabbits to be rescued."
The officer's efforts were unsuccessful.
"We don't have extravagant traps," said Whitchurch, whose team is more accustomed to catching humans.
"We're the law enforcement side; we go after the bad guys," he said.
Whitchurch said it's impossible to know whether the rabbits were pierced by someone in the neighborhood or whether the bunnies were mutilated elsewhere and dropped off in Lincoln Square.
"The problem is with this, there's not a lot of leads," he said. "It's challenging unless we can catch someone in the act."
His team has theorized that the rabbits were taken as babies from their nest in the spring, pierced and then released.
"You never know what people are thinking," Whitchurch said.
His next step is to consult with wildlife biologists within the Department of Natural Resources to determine a course of action in the best interests of the animals, which, Whitchurch said, appear to be otherwise healthy.
Brodaski said he's optimistic that the bunnies will be removed and helped, but holds out little hope that the perpetrator will be caught, which, to him, is the greater concern.
"I don't want this to be a stepping stone for violence against a person in the neighborhood," he said.
Anyone with information about this case should contact the conservation police at 847-608-3100.