BANGKOK — Many Asians believe the Year of the Rabbit means good luck for those born under that zodiac sign, but conservationists warn that the furry creatures themselves are being loved to death in Asia and some species are dying away altogether.
As the Lunar New Year approaches, rabbits are being snapped up from pet stores and farms but some are warning that the animals will be dumped once the novelty wears off and the cost and trouble of keeping them kicks in.
"It's believed that feeding rabbits in their zodiac will bring luck in love and everything else, so especially young people are looking for little, cute bunnies," says Piyalak Sariya, owner of the Bunny Delight rabbit farm in Thailand.
Predicting many will eventually be cast off in Buddhist temples and parks, she recommends buying rabbit dolls instead "because these fluffy animals need more care than dogs or cats."
"People think they are small and cute, (but) they are a lot of work. They just can't be stuffed into a cage," says Ashley Fruno, Asia representative for the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.
She says rabbits often live up to 12 years, need space to roam, have fragile physiques and are prone to diseases like cancer, which means hefty veterinarian bills.
The new year – the fourth in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac that is used across Asia – begins Feb. 3.
Fruno said it's not known exactly how many rabbits are being bought because of the New Year.
But she said her group has seen similar trends before, including the scouring of oceans for clownfish after the 2003 release of the animated film "Finding Nemo" and the rush to buy Dalmations – that were subsequently dumped at animal shelters – after movies in the Disney franchise "101 Dalmations."
A far more ominous warning came from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which tracks the health of species worldwide.
IUCN is using the occasion to stress that, despite their reputation as prolific love-makers, nearly one in four rabbits, hares and pikas are threatened with extinction – mostly due to mankind's inroads.
"Year of the Rabbit – species hopping out of view?" asks the Switzerland-based IUCN.
An IUCN report says that several Asian species are under serious siege, as elsewhere, the victims of overhunting, habitat loss, invasive feral animals and viral diseases. These include the Sumatran striped rabbit, hispid hare, Amami rabbit and the Annamite striped rabbit, only discovered by scientists in 1995.
Declines have been rapid and dramatic.
The endangered ili pika has disappeared from half of its previously known locations in northwestern China since it was first described some 30 years ago.
Rabbits and their kin "include some of the most endangered species on the planet," says IUCN's Andrew Smith, adding that their decline often has also been catastrophic to their predators like eagles and lynxes.
Animal activists, and just mere bunny lovers, are hoping the new year will help turn the spotlight on the species' plight.
PETA has launched an ad campaign imploring Chinese movie star Gong Li to curb her penchant for wearing rabbit and other furs and switch to a "kinder wardrobe."
The ad shows a woman's foot stepping on the neck of a dead rabbit next to the words, "Where Does Gong Li Stand on Fur?"
PETA says its investigations have revealed that on rabbit farms in China, the animals are pulled from their cages by their ears and shot in the head with electric stun guns as they kick and scream. The rabbits are then hung upside down and decapitated.
Associated Press writers Julia Zappei in Kuala Lumpur and Robin McDowell in Jakarta contributed to this report.