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Search is on for bunny killer

It's the seasonal equivalent of the Grinch -- someone is shooting at the Easter bunny.

Elmer Fudd notwithstanding, whoever is killing cottontail rabbits in the Merced area likely is in a heap of trouble with the law, which would like to snare the culprit before more of the furry animals many associate with this month's holiday come to a premature end.

Pat Sese, of Atwater, reported seeing 19 dead cottontails at Quinley Avenue about 150 feet from Highway 140 in the Atwater area as she was heading to church Sunday morning. Merced County Animal Control officers discovered the rabbits had been shot and then laid on the road.

Rick Blackwell, animal services manager for the county, said there were 16 slain rabbits spread over a 150-yard span discovered about 9:30 a.m. Monday. They appeared to have been killed by gunshots and shouldn't have been dispersed in that manner. He's not sure what the motivation of the shooter might have been.

Sese said the sight of the dead rabbits was the eeriest thing she had ever seen. They had not been dead long when she spotted them, and she didn't notice gunshot wounds or other visible injuries.

Cottontails are widely dispersed across North and South America. Their colors range from reddish brown to gray and they are distinguished by their stubby tails with a white underside. The rabbits, herbivores that eat fruit and all manner of vegetation, have big eyes and long ears; their lifespan in the wild is less than three years, and even less on Quinley Avenue.

Sese's friend, Robert Griffin, of Merced, went to the hare-raising scene and said the rabbits were stacked in a heap. He wrapped three of them in a box and put them in his freezer in case anyone needs to further examine them.

Griffin said the rabbits appeared to have been poisoned, with blood seen in their mouths. Two weeks ago he encountered a similar scene in the center of Trindade Road and Southern Pacific Avenue, with 15 dead rabbits also stacked on top of each other.

Lt. Andy Roberts, state Department of Fish and Game supervisor for Merced and Mariposa counties, said the hunting season for cottontail rabbits is July 1 to the last weekend of January. Those caught illegally hunting face a misdemeanor violation of unlawful taking of game, which has a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The only exception are farmers who have formal depredation permits to kill rabbits if they are found causing real property damage, Roberts said. Those with the proper hunting licenses are allowed to take five rabbits per day or a maximum "bag limit" total of 10 during the hunting season.

Griffin said as a boy growing up in North Carolina he had about 50 cottontails as pets. He alerted California Highway Patrol officers about the latest sighting. Officer Shane Ferriera, CHP spokesman, said officers responded and moved 15 to 20 of the dead carrot-craving animals off the road.

Cottontail rabbits, which seldom weigh more than three pounds, are most active at dawn or dusk. Unlike jackrabbits or squirrels, cottontails are considered game animals, which means they are subject to numerous hunting regulations, Roberts said.

Blackwell said anyone with information about the Quinley Avenue shooting or other such incidents is urged to call his office at (209) 385-7436.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or