GOWANUS — The Brooklyn District Attorney's office is investigating whether a herd of rabbits living behind a Third Avenue tire shop is suffering from neglect and cruel treatment, a spokeswoman said.
The DA's office got the tip from one of the many rabbit advocates who have been raising concerns about the health of the adorable bunnies since they were featured in a DNAinfo New York story on Dec. 30.
The advocates fear the demands of caring for the fast-multiplying bunnies could soon overwhelm their owner, and groups including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of New York and local rabbit rescue groups have stepped forward to offer spay and neuter services, vet care and help with finding new homes for the dozens of rabbits.
“If you don't know much about rabbits, they're really adorable, and you can't tell that they’re suffering," said Natalie Reeves, founder of Big Apple Bunnies, who called the DA's office about the Third Avenue rabbits.
"These are domesticated rabbits that don’t have protection from the elements. It's clearly cruelty."
A Brooklyn DA spokeswoman said Tuesday that they had just received Reeves' tip and were investigating.
The rabbits' owner, Dorota Trec, told DNAinfo in late December that she keeps the rabbits to bring joy to the community. She said she's passionate about the animals and proud that she's been able to breed cottontails with unusual traits, including a miniature hare.
Trec did not respond to a request for comment for this story. She declined to tell DNAinfo how many rabbits she owns, but workers at the tire shop estimated there could be as many as 100, and a visitor to the area counted about 80.
Keeping dozens of rabbits as pets is legal — there's no limit on the number of animals someone can have under city law.
But authorities can seize animals and arrest owners when pets aren't properly cared for, meaning that they're not given adequate food, water and shelter. It's unlawful to keep rabbits in crowded, unsanitary and "unhealthful" conditions, according to the law.
The NYPD investigated Trec's rabbit colony after a 311 complaint on Dec. 30, but the case was closed after no evidence of neglect was found, according to 311 records. The NYPD did not respond to a request for more information. The ASPCA handled animal cruelty investigations until early 2014, when the NYPD took over the role.
The city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene investigated the Third Avenue rabbits in March 2014 after a 311 call about the bunnies attracting pests, but found no reason to issue a violation, a spokesman said.
Advocates are concerned because Trec feeds the rabbits apples and carrots, which they say are bad for rabbits, and doesn't provide hay for the rabbits, an essential part of their diet.
Many of the rabbits roam outside where they're easy pickings for predators such as feral cats and hawks, and with temperatures dropping, advocates worry the rabbits' water could freeze or the rabbits could get sick.
Some of the bunnies live in cages, which means they can't burrow into the ground for warmth, advocates said.
“We're trying to prevent a situation that we can already see unfolding,” said Allie Feldman, executive director of NYCLASS, best known for advocating on behalf of carriage horses. "To keep 80 rabbits as pets and to breed them — that's not going to end well."
She added, "Just because you say you're passionate about animals doesn't mean you're well-suited to take care of them."
Feldman and rabbit rescuer Vivian Barna visited Trec and the rabbits on Jan. 3 to offer a bag of hay, vet services, spaying and neutering and adoption help. Trec took the hay, but declined the help, Feldman said.
“This population is going to increase exponentially very quickly,” Reeves said of the rabbits, which can give birth several times a year. “The government, meaning the police or maybe the district attorney's office, need to step in.”
Reeves, a lawyer and the owner of three rabbits who come when called and use litter boxes, noted that rabbits are often misunderstood and overlooked in a world that's more familiar with cats and dogs.
"If these were dogs out there there would be a lot more interest,” Reeves said. "Rabbits are commonly forgotten. They're really the most discriminated-against animals.
"They're the only animals for sale at pet stores that people also eat. People don’t view them as intelligent as other animals, but they absolutely are."