They called it “sharing the love” – a plot to spread the rabbit calicivirus to a rival breeder. TONY WALL investigates skulduggery in the bunny community.
Before she died of cancer last year, Matamata rabbit fancier Lorraine Price wrote a confessional letter to breeder Janine Sax.
One night a couple of years earlier, Price wrote, she had crept on to Sax’s property near Tauranga and interfered with the rabbit hutches.
She left soft toys in the play pens, drew dollar signs in the grass with Roundup, spread laxative powder on the cages and left a dead chicken outside the converted shed where Sax lived.
“It was a sick prank,” wrote Price, who was an executive member of the Rabbit Council of New Zealand (RCNZ), the stated aim of which was to protect the interests of all New Zealand rabbit breeders. Sax was not a member.
“I am really sorry for what I did, it was really mean and nasty and I regret it deeply,” Price wrote, saying she hadn’t been thinking straight because of medication she was taking.
But there was more.
“Have you, in the last 12 months, had rabbits die from RCD?” Price asked, referring to the rabbit calicivirus disease which causes the animals to die painfully from internal bleeding. It was illegally introduced by farmers in 1997 and is now widespread throughout New Zealand.
“If you have – I know where the virus came from and who was involved in the organisation of spreading it.”
And then she dropped a bombshell: “Joanne McMillan organised for RCD to be spread on your property.”
McMillan was president of the RCNZ at the time; she and others had been feuding with Sax since Sax began breeding in 2016.
Price explained that she had become a “total believer” in McMillan’s cause, which was, according to her, to have Sax’s breeding operation shut down and Sax placed in mental health care.
In January 2018, McMillan had spoken publicly about how RCD had got into her rabbitry in Rotorua, killing several of her stock.
“She lost a number of rabbits, and she didn’t think it fair that she should have RCD and not you,” Price wrote. “So she organised for one of the infected carcasses to be delivered to one of your neighbours so that they could release the virus around your rabbits. She called it ‘spreading the love’.
“But it was not very loving. And was done more than once to ensure your rabbits were affected. A slow and painful death that they didn’t deserve and which I find sickening.”
The shocking revelations were the culmination of more than two years of warring between Sax, her neighbour and rival fanciers, which included allegations of theft and mistreatment of rabbits, online bullying and even death threats.
Police were called multiple times, complaints were laid with various agencies and the parties took each other to court. Who knew rabbit breeding could be so nasty?
Sax, 42, studied law at Otago University and was a top triathlete, finishing ninth among women at the ITU World Long Distance championships in Las Vegas in 2011.
Around 2014 she started rescuing wild rabbits that had been caught by cats and in 2016 began breeding under the name Bunnyton, producing specialty breeds such as mini lops, jersey woolys, netherland dwarves and english angoras.
She became a target of rival breeders, who accused her of spreading RCD, letting her bunnies run loose and mate with wild rabbits, passing off cross-breeds as champion stock and running a “bunny mill”.
A Facebook page was formed. The administrators, including McMillan, claimed they were just trying to warn the public but Sax (who declined to be photographed because of fears for her safety) says it was a hate page spreading malicious falsehoods designed to incite harassment.
“I was getting death threats all the time – for ‘being cruel to animals’ and ‘wrecking the breeding community’,” she says.
“I’ve had up to 200 abusive messages a day through Trade Me, through texting. I’ve been called on my Saturday night to be told I’m a c….”
Citing the Harmful Digital Communications Act, Sax went to court seeking the removal of the site – the administrators agreed to take it down by consent.
Meanwhile, Sax had also been feuding with her neighbour, Melody Campbell. The pair shared a driveway and lived in converted sheds just a few metres apart, surrounded by kiwifruit orchards.
They had been friends but fell out in 2017, each accusing the other of harassment and calling police on one another.
Sax believed Campbell’s cats and dog were harassing and killing her rabbits– Campbell accused Sax of taking her cats.
Sax admits she caged one of Campbell’s cats when she caught it killing a rabbit, and had Campbell’s labrador impounded after it came on to her property and frightened her bunnies, causing them to run into the sides of their cages. The dog was later returned.
Campbell did not respond to requests for comment. She has applied for a restraining order against Sax and moved away from the region.
She had joined an anti-Sax Facebook group called Saxaphobia, which McMillan and Price also belonged to.
After her attack of conscience, Price shared some of the group’s messages with Sax.
They show the women talking about “keeping the pressure” on – they’d been in touch with police and mental health services.
“She [Sax] hasn’t quite yet reached the stage that they can come and take her away but it’s getting close…we need to keep in contact with all the authorities. So it seems that we need to keep the pressure cooker on as she’s about to blow,” one post read.
The group also began plotting Price’s night-time raid. McMillan suggested she write “troll” in the grass with Roundup.
Price said the plan was to cruise up the driveway with her lights off. “Just need to check if there are cameras there. Or gate alarms or electric fences – f… I hate those things,” she wrote.
When Sax discovered the vandalism the following morning, in November 2017, she called police, saying she feared for her safety. But it wasn’t until January 2019, when Price went into the Matamata police station and confessed, that the identity of the offender was revealed.
Police later wrote to Sax saying Price was “very much sorry for her actions” and hadn’t been charged.
“I have warned her for being unlawfully on your property and a warning has been entered against her name,” the officer wrote. “I haven’t trespassed her at this time as I believe her when she says she will not return uninvited to your home.”
Price died last August.
“I SHOULD HAVE HAD MORE SELF-CONTROL”
In January 2018, McMillan told the other members of the Saxaphobia Facebook group that she had been hit with RCD.
“Why wasn’t it Bunnyton?” one person posted.
Campbell wrote that she would “love Joanne [McMillan] to pop over and share the love, or I could pop to Rotovegas and pick up some love”.
McMillan wrote: “At the moment the gift is on ice until I am no longer a suspect. That is, I am not really proud. It goes against everything I should be doing as an RCNZ member and president.”
McMillan, who is a senior legal secretary, is now out of the breeding business, and keeps just one house rabbit. She resigned from the rabbit council after her activities were revealed, posting an apology on its Facebook page and calling her actions “disgusting and unforgivable”.
She looks back on that time with shame, but tells Stuff that Sax had driven her over the edge with legal threats and court action. Sax had even contacted her employer, she says, at which point she sought a restraining order. (The court issued a reciprocal order, that both women stay away from each other.)
“I was in a terrible place,” McMillan says. “She was still continuing to harass me and still going through this battle in the court … and badmouthing me. You get to a point where you just can’t take it any more. I should have had more self-control.”
McMillan says the arrival of RCD at her property had been devastating.
“It’s terrible, it’s the worst thing that could ever happen. You go out into your shed and there’s dead rabbits, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
“It’s a bit like Covid-19, you can do all the right things and still they die.”
She admits she met Campbell on the side of the road in Rotorua and handed her the carcass of a tan rabbit that had recently died of RCD.
What was she thinking? “I’ve got to stop this woman somehow. I wasn’t mentally in the right place.”
Price’s night raid on Sax’s property was “just to play with her mind and drive her crazy”, McMillan says. It was Price’s goal to send Sax mad, not hers, she says.
She and Price fell out after the latter came clean, claiming she’d been under McMillan’s influence and was bullied by her.
McMillan says Price turned on her “because she didn’t get what she wanted with the rabbit council. I never bullied her – she was a very good, very manipulative and convincing liar”.
McMillan admits that when she was chatting in the Facebook group, “you kind of get wound up into the moment and things get said and done that shouldn’t be said and done.
“I told the police that I said ‘I have a friend who’s got gang affiliations, they’ll sort her out’. Clearly it didn’t happen, but I said it, in the heat of the moment.
“My son’s got a slug gun. I think I said ‘I’ll take his gun with me’, something like that. I’ve never shot the thing and I don’t even think we’ve got pellets for it. [Police] understood it was… all bravado.”
She says she co-operated with police, and was told she had not committed any crime. “It’s probably not very moral.”
Police say they have closed their investigation.
Despite the women saying on Facebook that the “love has been shared” several times, McMillan now claims that Campbell didn’t actually spread the virus.
“I was led to believe it was spread but since talking to Melody she’s assured me it wasn’t, and the reason she told me it was, was because she didn’t want to disappoint me.
“I understand [the carcass] was put in the freezer and it was thrown away.”
Sax doesn’t believe that. She says a couple of rabbits died mysteriously around the same time, and tests by Landcare Research – seen by Stuff – came back a few months later positive for RCD.
Sax says the virus cost her thousands of dollars for sanitising and vaccinations. She has moved her rabbits to a new area and spaced them 50 metres apart.
“I guess I was fortunate in that the bunnies were so spread out it didn’t spread like wildfire like it did with other breeders because they keep their bunnies in tiny little cubbyholes.”
Sax says it’s hurtful that she’s been accused of breeding “ugly mutts”. She admits that some of her rabbits have escaped and bred with wild rabbits in the past, but says she’s never been deceitful about the lineage of her stock. Cross-breeds have been advertised as such.
“I’m the most transparent breeder in the world because all of my litters coming through are posted online… and people when they get their pedigree can look it up.”
She says the rumours that she had RCD in the early days of her operation – spread on the Facebook “hate group” – came about because an autopsy of a rabbit found the animal had a pinkish liver, a sign of the disease.
“We don’t think I did have it in the end, because it didn’t spread in the way the calicivirus would – the deaths weren’t consistent enough with the virus.”
She is still waiting on some results, but is hopeful that she’s now clear of RCD.
Sax says the way she’s been treated by the rival breeders – who she calls “the trolls” – is “disgusting and unfair” and police didn’t do their job, essentially leaving her a “sitting duck”.
“I’ve done the best that I could against a torrent of harassment.”
She says her rabbits are her “children” and she would never do anything to harm them.
Dogs and feral cats continue to attack and kill her animals, she says.
“Cats are pretty much unstoppable once they get the taste for rabbits.”
She recently caught a cat which killed one of her mini lops, Miss Polly, and it was put down by animal control.
She has started a petition calling on the Western Bay of Plenty District Council to make it an offence for anyone to come on to private property “or allow their cats and dogs to do the same”.
She says the attacks on her reputation – including her customers being contacted directly – have affected her business.
“Bunnyton is about to fall over, but I know it’s salvageable – somehow we’re going to have to claw out of this.”
Sarah Freeman, the new president of the rabbit council, distanced the council from McMillan and Price’s actions.
“The council would like it known that the alleged actions of the parties concerned were not in any way known, condoned or encouraged by, nor were they acting on behalf of, the Rabbit Council of New Zealand. Any alleged behaviour was conducted privately.”
Former breeder Ben Ellis, of Christchurch, who quit the rabbit council to form a rival group, the now-defunct National Rabbit Association (NRA), says the “ludicrous” behaviour of the feuding parties has harmed the rabbit breeding industry.
It was a competitive community, he says.
“Whenever you bring out people who are passionate and competitive anywhere, it’s going to bring the crazy out in them.”
Ellis says the industry has gone downhill in recent years.
“Because of the small gene pool in New Zealand, the quality of the stock has deteriorated. All our top breeders have been hit by calicivirus – it’s just so hard to come back from that.”
A South Island breeder who goes by the online pseudonym Daisy Taylor to avoid some of the nastiness of the community, says she has bought rabbits from Sax and has found her professional.
“She provides pedigree certificates and you can actually trace back a minimum of three generations with her.”
She said the online attacks on Sax were “appalling”.
“I had one person message me out of the blue and tell me negative things about her – they never have a shred of evidence, they never provide anything.”
Taylor says it’s driven by insecurity and jealousy.
“The standard practice is to undercut and try and run smear campaigns against their competitors.”