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'Hefner' bunnies get help as population dwindles

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BIG PINE KEY, Florida (AP) -- Hugh Hefner may seem like he will live forever, but the Florida Keys rabbits named after him may not.

The population of rabbits on Big Pine Key has dwindled by about 50 percent in the past two years and is in danger of being wiped out. The Latin name for the rabbit is Sylvilagus palustris hefneri. That's a reference to Hefner, the Playboy magazine founder who financed research that identified the species in 1980.

The medium-sized, dark brown cottontail with a grayish-white belly was put on the federal endangered species list in 1990 when the population in the Florida Keys was estimated at 200.

Wildlife officials plan to begin a program next week to trap feral and stray cats, hoping that keeping a predator away will mean that the population of Lower Keys marsh rabbits will grow. The strategy worked on another group of the animals at the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica, Florida.

Officials will begin the program to trap cats Monday near the rabbit habitat at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key.

Not everyone is happy about the program. Some activists dressed up in cat suits and waved signs in protest near the refuge when the program was announced a month ago. Refuge officials said the cats will be "humanely trapped alive" and then transported to animal shelters.

Officials did not know how many cats could be trapped.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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