Rehabilitating Rabbit

I lifted a sodden fur ball out of the pool skimmer one morning. It lay motionless in my hand with its life almost burned out. But when I peeled back an eyelid to check for the glazed eye of death, it winked.

It was a cottontail bunny, barely a month old, yet already independent of its mom. After falling into the pool overnight, it had scrambled (or swam, as rabbits can) to hold its head on a ledge above the cold water.

Cottontail rabbit
Drying out

Wrapping him in a towel, I laid Peter in a warm cardboard box with the lid folded over to cover him in darkness. All wild bunnies at our home are called ‘Peter’ for sentiment’s sake, notwithstanding my doubts about his sex. As a boy, I learned the distinction is tricky, and once (but never again) made the mistake of keeping two ‘brothers’ together in the same hutch.

Hours later, when Peter had dried out, he still looked lifeless. My wife started to nurse the bundle, hoping that her own body heat would revive him. But his adrenal glands had been pouring out corticosteroids and epinephrine in a shrinking effort to generate energy for thermoregulation, and he was tipping towards hypoglycemia, heart block, and ventricular fibrillation. What should one do with a hypothermic rabbit?

In Beatrix Potter’s story, “Peter Rabbit was not very well during the evening. His mother put him to bed, and made some camomile tea; and she gave a dose of it to Peter. One table-spoonful to be taken at bed-time.”

Peter was unconscious. I had to gently prize his mouth open to insert a dropper for feeding him a little honey diluted in warm water. I hoped it would strengthen him, but didn’t expect to find him alive the next morning.

What a strange species that cares for varmints (vermin)! Most days, the sight of rabbits grazing in the garden can bring on murderous thoughts. Herbaceous borders and veggie beds are cultivated for our benefit, not as help-yourself salad bars for plunderers. There are no free lunches in our yard, not if we can help it, though there are exceptions. If a critter is promoted to become a patient or a pet, it is fed bounteously, and, if necessary, we even dig in our pockets for a vet bill.

Luckless rabbits are not the only creatures that win the generosity of strangers. The same week, I disentangled a garter snake caught by its windings in a garden net. And, a day later, I screeched to a halt after narrowly driving past something crawling across the road, but I was too late to rescue it from becoming turtle soup under the wheels of a following vehicle.

Our ambiguous relationship to nature is deeply puzzling. We want to control wild nature, yet celebrate wildness. Despite our predatory instincts, it feels good to be merciful to animal casualties from road accidents and window strikes as well as orphans and victims of domestic pet attacks. We even adopt wild animals as if we had the duty of parents. Notwithstanding strange myths like Romulus and Remus, it is unlikely that role-reversal ever happened where an animal became the carer of a human dependent.

Our hearts are touched by the individual creature that falls into misfortune, but rarely by a herd or swarm or shoal. I can’t feel the same compassion for the anonymous rabbits in a whole warren as I did for Peter. We spare the individual and shoot the masses. When wee Peter plunged into our lives, his fluttering existence called on our compassion, and we happily submitted by welcoming him into our care for a few days. It seemed so natural and attractive to behave mercifully, even though it was against our nature to rescue a garden raider, and an edible one at that. Perhaps Peter was lucky to have his accident in our yard, and not next door in Mr. McGregor’s.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
First edition 1902, Frederick Warne & Co.

“Now my dears,” said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning (to the young bunnies), “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden; your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor” (The Tale of Peter Rabbit).

Our kindliness to animals is partly owing to our peculiar tendency to anthropomorphize them, and this may account for the greater tenderness shown them by young children. Peter Rabbit in Beatrix Potter’s Tales, and Hazel, Bigwig, and Cowslip in Watership Down, are all sympathetic characters modeled on our better selves. On the other hand, Napoleon, the Stalinist tyrant of Animal Farm, is a caricature of our grotesque side, which should greatly offend the civil porcine community.

St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis: Sermon to the Birds (c. 1298) Formerly attributed to Giotto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dreamers and writers have told utopian stories of making peace with the animal kingdom. Isaiah dreamt of the wolf living with the lamb, and the leopard lying with the kid; St. Francis delivered a sermon to the birds; we grow up with stories of animals who were friends of Tarzan, Mowgli and other heroes; and a bevy of cartoon animals living with humans have entertained us.

Maybe there is an even deeper reason why our sentimental selves are roused by the sight of a sick or dying animal? Perhaps Mr. Lockley in Watership Down put his finger on it. “Rabbits are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have … an intuitive feeling that Life is Now. A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass.” When tragedy strikes, we share the mystery of mortality.

But returning to practical, if not legal, matters, as a law-abiding Virginia resident I ought to have handed Peter over for professional care. According to Virginia code, All persons caring for sick, injured, orphaned, or displaced wild animals are required to have a permit from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. It is illegal here to raise and treat wildlife without a permit. It seems odd that a critter that can be shot or poisoned with impunity cannot be cared for and rehabilitated except by authorization of the DGIF. Admittedly, there is a public safety argument (even rabbits can carry rabies), and it understandable for rare and endangered species, but for bunnies?

In fact, rabbits are among the most common species transferred to licensed ‘rehabbers.’ Across the state, there are over 300 trained rehabbers who care for injured, sick, orphaned and displaced wild animals with the goal of returning them to wild, or euthanizing those beyond help. These remarkable folk work for the love of animals at their own cost, with veterinary backup when surgery or medications are needed. Every species has its specific dietary and accommodation needs, so rehabbers can’t offer an ‘Ark’ service for every critter presented on their doorstep by the gentle public. Some specialize in hawks, owls and eagles; others care for reptiles and amphibians; some are devoted to the furry kind. And when large creatures need long-term care or cannot be released, they are transferred to specialized centers. The Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro has cared for 65,000 patients of many types since 1982.

Peter needed gentle handling because rabbits are high stress animals that easily die from shock. The fictitious Bigwig was less sentimental about the mortality of his relatives than we were for Peter. He thought that extreme measures to save them are not necessary because “a wild animal that feels that it no longer has any reason to live reaches in the end a point when its remaining energies may actually be directed toward dying.” Perhaps that’s why a live prey carried away in the gape of a fox or the claws of a hawk seems to give up the struggle by going limp before its death throes.

Peter Rabbit
Peter the Rabbit ready to run

Perhaps our Peter had already given up when I fished him out the pool. But, if he was yielding, I refused to accept his fate, and that brought his story to a happy ending. Maybe it was the warmth of strangers or the taste of honey, but something we did revived him. And, later that week, he could scamper off to the veggie bed and disappear among his kind.

Next Post: My Big Fat Neanderthal Family Wedding