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Feral cats are killing off the marsh rabbit, an animal dear to mogul Hugh Hefner.
By STEPHANIE GARRY
Published June 6, 2007
An effort to save a rare species of rabbit in the Florida Keys has led to a showdown between two apparent loves of Hugh Hefner: stray cats and Playboy bunnies.
The species, which references the Playboy magazine founder in its Latin name, Sylivilagus palustris hefneri, is an endangered marsh rabbit named for the mogul after he paid for its study more than 20 years ago.
But the population of the Playboy bunny is dwindling, and feral cats are likely to blame, said Anne Morkill, who manages the National Key Deer Refuge where the animals are found.
"It's widely known across the country that cats are predators of native wildlife, " Morkill said. "This issue with cats is not just marsh rabbits."
The refuge announced this month that it plans to trap the cats and haul them to shelters beginning this weekend, making cat advocates yowl. They asked Hefner, as the rabbits' namesake, to intervene.
This time, more than 20 years later, he'll use his fortune to help the cats.
"I have made a contribution to Stand Up for Animals, " Hefner said in a statement. "It's an organization on the front lines, which I'm confident will provide the greatest chance of saving both the rabbits and the cats."
Linda Gottwald, the founder and CEO of Stand Up For Animals, said she hopes to use the $5, 000 donation to offer more spay-and-neuter clinics and to buy land for a cat sanctuary, where the feral cats can be relocated if they aren't adopted.
She's named a big tom cat at the shelter "Hef" in his honor.
"I was delighted that he even bothered to respond, " Gottwald said. "I really think he really does care."
Rob Hilburger, Playboy spokesman, said Hefner has always loved animals. His mansion in Beverly Hills has a zoo license and a staff to care for the monkeys, flamingos and peacocks it houses.
"He's definitely an animal lover, " Hilburger said.
It's also home to the less exotic - a couple of stray cats, named Yeller and Little Bit, who live there as their adopted home. The sympathy for the stray cats, made famous on the reality show about the mansion called The Girls Next Door, are part of the reason cat advocates thought to appeal to Hefner.
"Once they stumbled upon the grounds, they never wanted to leave, " Hilburger said about the adopted pets.
Plenty of feral cats
The controversy between the rabbits and cats arose earlier this month after the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key announced plans to capture the cats for the first time in its history.
In 2000, they estimated 100-300 Hefner rabbits roamed the refuge. It is unclear exactly how many remain, though the number appears to have plummeted.
A study from the late 1990s found that predators killed 53 percent of Hefner rabbits. Though some are natural predators, including snakes, alligators and birds of prey, the majority were feral cats.
Biologist Paige Schmidt said she's never seen a rabbit in her research because they're so rare. But she's seen plenty of cats.
"The decline of the rabbits is so severe, " Schmidt said. "They have suffered a lot recently. That's why we're trying to recover the population using any means that we have available."
A rare rabbit
The Hefner rabbits evolved about 10, 000 years ago as a subspecies of the marsh rabbit found in mainland Florida, after the sea level dropped and isolated the Keys, Morkill said. That means the rabbits are found nowhere else in the world.
True to their name, the Hefner rabbits breed year-round and with multiple partners. But that hasn't been enough to overcome habitat loss and predation.
The refuge has promised to capture the cats humanely in live trap cages and with bait such as fish oil. But cat lovers said the policy equates to euthanasia since no one will adopt a wild cat at the pound.
And the Keys has a particular problem with strays, said Gottwald, who runs the shelter there. Snowbirds come and go and leave their pets behind.
Becky Robinson, president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies, in Washington, D.C., wrote a letter to Hefner. She thinks the problem will remain until the refuge adopts a trap-neuter-return policy as a more humane and effective way to curb the cat population.
"We do not place value on one species over another, " Robinson said. "Feral cats are not the cause of the decimation and decline. Humans are."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at 727 892-2374 or firstname.lastname@example.org