GOWANUS — Peek through the gate next to Mexico Tire Shop on Third Avenue and you'll be met with an unusual sight — dozens of white-tailed rabbits frolicking in an empty lot.
The cuddly creatures, who look like they just hopped in from the countryside, burrow happily in the dirt behind a low-rise apartment building near Ninth Street. They seem to thrive even in the less-than-bucolic spot, where F and G trains thunder overhead and air compressors hiss constantly at the tire shop.
Joel Bukiewicz, who owns the knife shop Cut Brooklyn across the street from the rabbit haven, said he did a double take when he first spotted the rabbits a few years ago. He saw one squeeze out of the locked gate, scamper over to the curb and grab a discarded chicken wing.
"I thought it was a weird, hoppy rat," Bukiewicz said. "I thought I was crazy."
Bukiewicz isn't the only one to be surprised by the rabbits. They're often visible from the sidewalk and have captured the attention of photographers and bloggers shocked to see the cute bunnies in gritty Gowanus.
On a recent afternoon, about two-dozen of the animals could be seen behind the gate. Some were the same color as the dirt, sitting very still in the cold and almost blending into the bare ground. There were also black rabbits, white rabbits, blond rabbits and at least one with Dalmatian-style black spots on white fur.
Workers at the tire shop estimated that there could be as many as 100 rabbits living in the lot.
Though some locals assume the Thumpers and Peter Rabbits are being sold for meat or pets, the woman who owns them says neither is true — she keeps rabbits because she's passionate about them.
“I’ve always loved animals, but rabbits are special animals,” said Dorota Trec, a piano teacher in her 30s who cares for the rabbits and lives nearby.
“People don’t realize this. They are much more interesting than dogs and cats. To me, they are very beautiful."
Trec says rabbits are intelligent, mysterious and “erotic” creatures, not because of their well-known reproductive powers but because they are very sensitive to touch.
To her, rabbits are full of joyful personality and show it in their actions, even leaping into the air and twisting their bodies to "dance" in happiness.
Trec takes notes on her rabbits and tracks traits such as eye shape, body girth and whether their whiskers are straight or curly.
“There’s something special about each rabbit,” Trec said. “I would say they have more personality than dogs and cats. They have their moods like people have.”
She's proud that her flock includes several rabbits of unusual hue and size, including some with a blueish cast to their fur. She even has some that are miniature versions of the Belgian hare but have the velvety fur of the Rex rabbit — an unusual combination, according to Trec.
Trec keeps the animals in the backyard of the Third Avenue apartment building with the permission of the owner, Sixto Ulloa, whom she calls "the sponsor" of her rabbits. Trec feeds them food from a pet store as well as fresh carrots and apples. She declined to say exactly how many rabbits she owns.
It takes at least two hours a day to keep the animals fed, healthy and clean, Trec said. She's built special shelters to keep them warm in cold weather and has plans to plant grass in the yard, which she refers to as a garden. She's also hoping the city will turn some vacant land next to the rabbits' home into a park so that more people will be able to see her animals.
Trec occasionally visits businesses that sell live rabbits for meat and picks one out to "save from the slaughterhouse," she said.
She loves that people stop to gawk at her pets and hopes to inspire others to see rabbits as extraordinary creatures.
But some regard the innocent-looking bunnies with trepidation. Bukiewicz said he's seen the rabbits fight and kick each other in the face.
"I think of rabbits as friendly, innocent and sweet," Bukiewicz said. "These are angry, hardened city rabbits and possibly carnivorous."
"These are Gowanus rabbits. I wouldn't want to bring one home."
Trec said the male rabbits do occasionally battle each other, but there's no reason to fear them.
"I want people to pay more attention to nature and to aspects of life other than money and business," she said. "I hope when they see [the rabbits] that they forget about their problems."