The people of Carabanchel Alto haven’t always hated the interlopers. Once upon a time, they welcomed them, thrilling to their wildness and exoticism.
Five years on, however, curiosity has given way to exasperation and the signs of one of Madrid’s most intractable turf wars are all too evident in the schoolyards, parks and gardens of this south-western corner of the Spanish capital.
Lengths of tape delineate the no-go areas, burrows pock-mark embankments, trees bear scars, vegetation surrenders and, here and there, lie the bones and wizening bodies of a few of the many rabbits that seem set on reclaiming the territory they have lost in Madrid’s continuing sprawl.
“When all the buildings went up and the roads were built, all the rabbits’ natural predators disappeared, leaving them alone,” says Mateo Meléndrez, a craftsman and spokesman for the Carabanchel Alto Neighbourhood Association.
“The rabbit numbers now are off the scale and if you have a wet spring, the population can triple.”
At the end of last month, the association and three local parents’ associations warned the rabbit situation was getting dangerously out of hand. While they have nothing against the rabbits themselves, they are growing tired of the destruction the animals are visiting on gardens, vegetable patches and saplings, and concerned about the diseases they carry, such as leishmaniasis.
More than 200 infants at one school haven’t been able to use their playground since last year because of the health risks posed by rabbit urine and excrement. At another, the increasingly brazen rabbits have eaten all the carrots and onions in the educational garden.
The animals have also proliferated in housing developments whose lushly irrigated lawns and flowerbeds offer a beguiling buffet, especially during the infernal Madrid summer.
“In June, the whole area round the communal pool was full of excrement – your towels would be studded with it,” says María Secos Morales, the chair of the Colegio Ártica parents’ group.
“The residents clubbed together to get a guy to come in with his ferrets to clear out the rabbits. He captured 12 or 13, but now we’ve spotted another 18.”
As she speaks, three flashes of brown fur and white scuts shoot out of the rose bushes to chase away the sparrows that have had the temerity to descend on their territory. Secos Morales points out the holes the rabbits have dug beneath the pine trees, including one from which a dead cat was pulled.
“The rabbits have no shame at all,” she says. “And it all got worse during the pandemic because no one was allowed out.”
Meléndrez and many others in Carabanchel say the local council just isn’t taking the “occupation” seriously enough and needs to do more than engage in periodic captures and install the odd bit of fencing.
To drive the point home, he puts on a surgical glove and takes a recently found rabbit skull out of a plastic bag to show how easily the creatures can squeeze through the new fencing around the entrance to the Pinar de San José primary school.
“We can’t get all the rabbits out of the area,” says Meléndrez. “But we could put proper, rabbit-proof fences around schools and flats. It’s not like building the Escorial palace; it just needs a bit of thought. At least if the council did that, the children would be able to play in their school playgrounds.”
For far too long, he adds, the problem has been ignored and the rabbits left to do what they do best.
“I like rabbits and I think they should be protected,” he says. “But when the problem becomes a health issue – especially when we’ve just been though an awful pandemic with diseases spreading from animals to humans – I don’t think it’s funny.”
Carabanchel district council says it is working with affected schools to keep the rabbits out and to get children back into their playgrounds, sandpits and vegetable gardens. As well as shoring up fences, it is carrying out another ferret deployment.
There is, as Juan García Vicente of Ecologists in Action points out, “no magic solution” to Carabanchel’s cunicular conflict. Nor is it unique. He notes that territorial competition between humans and animals has given rise to similar urban incursions by bears in Romania, coyotes in Los Angeles and wild boar in parts of Spain and elsewhere.
“It’s not that they’re invading us – it’s that we’re occupying their natural habitat in a damaging way,” he says. “We can’t act like we own everything; we need to share these spaces. It’s just about control and trying to maintain the balance.”