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SPCA Warns Of Calicivirus Threat

1 June 2005

SPCA Warns Of Calicivirus Threat

The Royal New Zealand SPCA has warned that domestic and farm rabbits are at risk as a result of plans by regional councils to reintroduce Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD).

Also known as Rabbit Calicivirus, RHD was released illegally into New Zealand in 1997, in a bid to combat feral rabbit infestation.

"Domestic and farm rabbits, from a wide range of breeds, are still dying on a frequent basis as a result of the previous illegal importation. The virus has been strengthened for the national series of releases, so the incidence of death is bound to rise. We strongly advise all breeders and owners to make sure their rabbits are vaccinated against the virus, as this should substantially boost their chances of survival," says the SPCA's National Chief Executive, Robyn McDonald.

A consortium of ten out of thirteen regional councils has successfully sought clearance from the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority's Agricultural Chemicals and Veterinary Medicines Group, to import the virus from Australia. The councils plan to release the virus over the next few months.

"It is simply appalling that ERMA and the Food Safety Authority have both agreed to the reintroduction of RHD, without requiring mandatory notification by regional councils to communities of the enhanced risk and of the precise time and place of projected releases.

"It is also unreasonable that rabbit owners will have to foot the bill for vaccinating their rabbits, despite the fact that it is not them but members of the farming community who are intended to benefit from the RHD releases. Vaccination costs between $30 and $40 per rabbit, which will place a considerable burden both on breeders with large numbers of rabbits and on families with a pet bunny at home.

"We urge regional councils to recognise their responsibilities to rabbit owners, who are ratepayers like everyone else. At the very least, councils should provide detailed and well-publicised notification of their exact intentions at least a month in advance of an RHD release. This would give veterinarians time to ensure they have adequate stocks of vaccine, as well as giving owners time to have their rabbits vaccinated. We would also urge councils to consider ways of compensating owners for the cost of vaccination, "she says.

Robyn McDonald points out that RHD has not to date proved an effective long term solution to the problem of feral rabbit infestation. Feral populations have tended to recover over time, suggesting that wild rabbits can gain immunity and that the virus is inappropriate to New Zealand conditions.

"Overseas experience also tells us that RHD is not the 'magic bullet' to end feral infestation. However, its failures provide little comfort for breeders facing the loss of thousands of dollars of investment or for families who lose a beloved pet.

"Similarly, it is bad news for law-abiding New Zealanders that the illegal contamination of our environment is now to be topped-up by elected authorities, acting with the sanction of statutory bodies such as ERMA and the Food Safety Authority. It's never a good thing for illegal actions to be retrospectively sanctioned, particularly when it's our bio-security laws which have been flouted," she adds.


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