Mar 11, 2001
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Boo Boo Is Dead -- Mysterious Disease Strikes Bunnies in the Heartland


July 4, 2002

One of the most mysterious series of sudden deaths in the U.S. began one crisp morning two years ago, sending federal officials to Paul Reiser's two-and-a-half acre farm near Denison, Iowa.

"Frank and the other two babies died," Mr. Reiser's daughter, CarLee, then 15 years old, wrote in her diary on March 31, 2000. "I cried."

She wrote that a Dr. Blair, his boss and a man from Brussels were on the phone in the living room for two hours having a conference with people from Washington and New York. They were dressed in lab coats with plastic around their boots. Two more federal vehicles arrived.

With the help of a terrorism expert, investigators talked to people within 20 miles of the little farm. They rushed parts of the corpses to doctors in Italy, Spain and Plum Island, a federal laboratory off Long Island, N.Y. Soon, Mr. Reiser got the shocking news: "Your rabbits succumbed to a disease that has never been in the U.S."

The culprit was viral Rabbit Calicivirus Disease. The disease causes massive bleeding in the lungs, intestines and liver, killing its victims within a day or two. Since its discovery among rabbits in China in 1984, RCD has spread to Asia, Australia, Europe, Mexico and South America, but apparently never before to the U.S.

"Nobody could figure out how it ended up in the middle of the heartland," says Caird Rexroad, acting associate administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service. State and federal officials killed the rabbits that had eluded the disease on Mr. Reiser's farm. They also burned the cages and the corncrib. In all, the Reisers lost 25 rabbits, including a state-fair champion named Boo Boo.

It was just the beginning of a bizarre whodunit that is still baffling veterinarians and other scientists. The plague struck again last summer in Utah, causing federal officials to destroy thousands of rabbits as a precaution. Then, in December, the disease made it clear across the country, killing eight rabbits in the petting area of the Queens Zoo in New York. "I'm not getting any more rabbits until we're comfortable this problem's resolved," says Scott Silver, the zoo's curator.

Adds Jay Kirkpatrick, an animal-reproductive physiologist with Zoo Montana, a wildlife park in Billings: "This is one of the most deadly diseases on planet Earth. What if it mutates and jumps species?"

There is no evidence that it affects humans. In fact, it doesn't even affect wild jack rabbits or cottontails -- just the domesticated bunnies at the heart of the rabbit-breeding industry and rabbit shows. In the U.S., rabbit breeding gained momentum out of necessity during World War II as food -- "the other other white meat," the American Rabbit Breeders Association likes to call it. Today, breeders sell about $10 million a year in meat and another $15 million in rabbits for research. Sales of rabbit meat already have to contend with what at least one breeder calls "the Peter Rabbit syndrome," perpetuating the image of bunnies as something to cuddle, not eat.

Bunny breeders are rallying the government to keep investigating the cause of the disease. "The USDA almost always pins down the source of a new disease," says Alvin Smith, head of the laboratory for calicivirus studies at Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Corvallis. "Not this time." He adds: "Only by the grace of God was it bunnies, not us."

USDA officials say they have essentially run out of leads, but will continue to investigate new outbreaks.

Australian officials a few years ago proposed intentionally introducing the disease to deal with its rabbit overpopulation. But before the debate was resolved, RCD mysteriously cropped up there, too, and continues to wipe out rabbits by the thousands.

Why the first known U.S. case struck the Reisers is just one of the conundrums. "Why us?" asks Mr. Reiser, who raises cattle on a nearby farm and works at night selling cars in Denison, about four miles away.

Mr. Reiser says he began bunny breeding as a "pet project." When CarLee was 10 years old in 1995, the family went to the Crawford County Fair, where she spotted a little red female rabbit and persuaded her dad to buy it for her. Then he borrowed a male his boss had won. From their first surviving litter came Boo Boo, who won at the county fair the next year. On it went, until they had 27 rabbits. They set up cages next to the red barn.

One day, Mr. Reiser and his daughter flipped through a book about rabbits. "We came across calicivirus. It said it was only in Mexico and China," Mr. Reiser says. "I told her, we'll never have to worry about that here."

The spring grass had just begun to come up that March two years ago when he found the first dead rabbit. The coyotes got it, he figured. When he found some more casualties the next day, he thought the grass was poisoned. Then, Boo Boo was dead, the vet was called, and the feds were pounding on the door. They tested tissues, water and hay and asked whether the Reisers had had any visitors from China or other countries where the disease has been found. They said they hadn't.

That stunned scientists. "There's a gazillion-to-one chance it came naturally," says David O. Matson, a professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, Va., who is studying the virus.

Then the disease struck again -- at a former mink ranch in Ogden, Utah, where Stan Kener kept about 700 rabbits, many of which have won prizes. One morning last August, as he prepared for a big rabbit show in San Diego, he found some dead rabbits and called the state veterinarian. A crew of state and federal investigators and veterinarians worked 24 hours a day in shifts. They gave hundreds of rabbits an overdose of barbiturates, and the State Department of Transportation hauled away the carcasses to a county landfill.

Two other farmers nearby lost 300 rabbits. Some local rabbits had been moved to Illinois, so rabbits there were killed, too. They were also in contact with rabbits in Idaho and Montana. Altogether, about 4,000 rabbits were destroyed.

Mr. Kener and his wife went to San Diego anyway, without the rabbits. "Someone said, 'What the hell are you doing here? Get out,' " he says. "My whole world fell apart."

In December, before the Queens Zoo opened one morning, workers found eight rabbits in the domestic petting area dead in their pens.

Dr. Smith seized on the New York City incident to prod the government. Finally, Dr. Rexroad of the Agriculture Department agreed to arrange a meeting in Washington, with various officials, including a representative from Homeland Security.

Last year, the USDA brought the Reisers a dozen new rabbits. They wanted to see if the disease was still there. Coyotes ate all but two. "When they're gone," Mr. Reiser says, "I don't ever want another rabbit again."

Write to Ianthe Jeanne Dugan at ianthe.dugan@wsj.com2
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