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When I was growing up, my family went to the feed store one spring to buy something (farm equipment? wire, grain? rakes? cowbells? I just don’t remember).  The store had a big pen filled with “Easter bunnies” for low, low prices, and thanks to their endearing cuteness, my sister and I had to have one. My long-suffering parents were deeply reluctant, but in the end they agreed, provided the bunnies stayed in hutches outside.  We went home with two adorably cute little rabbits (and a bunch of wire for building pens).  It was the beginning of a very painful lesson about the ambiguous nature of domestication. Rabbit-lovers may want to stop reading.  In fact everyone may want to stop reading.  Not all animal stories have happy endings.

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were raised in large walled colonies in ancient Rome (like snails!) but they were not properly domesticated for the farm until the middle ages.  Wikipedia half-heartedly quotes a date of “600” (presumably 600 AD).  Goats, pigs, and cows were domesticated about ten thousand years ago—long before the first cities rose—so the rabbit is a newcomer to farming life.  Not until the eighteenth (or maybe nineteenth) century do we have any records of rabbits as pets.

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The rabbits we obtained from the feed store were certainly not raised as pets but as stock (the fact that they were sold at the feed store was a real clue). We already had cats and dogs and birds inside, so the rabbits had to live in wire pens with little straw lined nesting boxes.  For a while the bunnies were sort of stuck in a limbo between being pets and being livestock, but, as people who have real pet rabbits can tell you, rabbits don’t really love being held and they have an ambiguous relationship with children. They are also gifted escape artists and extremely devoted to producing more rabbits.  We had some litters of baby bunnies (did you know that stressed out rabbits eat their young? You do now) and we also had some rabbits that went renegade.  We tried to catch the escapees at first and we did catch some (even domestic rabbits can run like the wind) but ultimately we resigned ourselves to the fact that a certain number of rabbits would go “Watership Down” and never return.  Eventually something must have got them: the highway, the foxes, the hawks, the coyotes, the bobcats, the owls, the weasels—who knows?

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So in the end we wound up with hutches filled with rabbits that had to be fed and watered and tended to.  In the summer they would occasionally die of unknown causes (heat, stress, disease?).  I have extremely unpleasant memories of putting on rubber gloves and carrying a stiffened decomposing rabbit covered with flies over the hill to dig a shallow grave.

You can probably see where this is all heading. On a farm filled with delightful & personable animals like dogs, cats, ponies, and turkeys, the rabbits did not cut it as pets.  The cards had been hopelessly stacked against them from the beginning.  And so eventually they became rabbits for the pot.  It turned out that slaughtering rabbits was a task which I was shamefully unequal to as a child.  Jim Bowie might have slapped me around until I toughened up and became a frontiersman but my dad just sighed heavily and did the butchering himself (sorry Dad, I’ll take care of it next time).  Thereafter we found that the Amish neighbors were happy to slaughter rabbits in exchange for a share.  Rabbit fur really is soft and warm and we had a bizarre mud room filled with tanned pelts (although I am not sure what we ever did with them).  Rabbit meat is particularly delightful (especially with creamy sauce) and we had lots of savory rabbit curries, which are even better than they sound.

rabbit stew

rabbit stew

So what is the point of this story?  I am sure it will not endure me to other animal lovers (although I beg you all to stay with me–I am an animal lover too).  Maybe it is a simple story about domestication.  I like meat, but I have not forgotten where it comes from (and I can understand the point of view of vegetarians–but it isn’t my point of view).

In Australia, rabbits are a curse.  The long-eared infestation started in 1859 when Thomas Austin, an estate owner, imported a mixture of wild and domestic rabbits from Europe to release on his large farm.  He hoped to recreate the hunting conditions of England where he had enjoyed shooting rabbits when younger.  He is famously quoted as saying  “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”

Rabbits in the Arid Australian Countryside

Thus began the greatest population explosion of mammals known in human history.  Within a decade, rabbits had overrun Southern Australia. Two million of the animals were harvested annually with no effect whatsoever on the larger population.  A combination of mild winters, no predators, and light scrub vegetation allowed the creatures to breed year round and increase their numbers exponentially with no natural resistance. They ate away whole ecosystems of scrub vegetation and outcompeted the little marsupial herbivores that lived there into extinction.  By gnawing down saplings they killed entire forests within the lifespan of the trees therein.  By digging warrens and denuding the vegetation they caused widespread erosion.  It was an ecological disaster of the first order–a mass extinction caused by bunnies(!)–and only humans were there to fight the fleet-footed enemy.

Australians responded gradually at first and then with increased alacrity and fury.  Shooting and trapping gave way to mass poisonings, ploughing, blasting, and fumigation. Tens of thousands of miles of rabbit proof fence were strung across the continent.  Wicked old world predators like rabbits and foxes were imported to stem the flood of rabbits (and naturally the predators first concentrated on eliminating remaining species of Marsupials).

Rabbits around a waterhole on Wardang Island (1930s)

Australians have gradually learned to make use of the rabbits.  In times of distress, depression, or famine they have provided a ready source of food for humans and farm animals (ground up rabbits were once a major source of chicken food for example).  The fur from so many rabbits created a fur industry and a felt industry.  But make no mistake, the Australians still hate the invasive creatures.   The twentieth century has seen a new campaign of biological war against the rabbits.  In the 1950s an introduced strain of Myxoma virus wiped out an estimated half a billion rabbits.  Then in the early 1990s a calicivirus escaped a secure biological research facility (where scientists were engineering the disease to kill rabbits) and quickly spread through wild and domestic populations.   Yet despite all of the measures taken to kill the creatures they have endured and thrived.  Rabbits are still there, still causing havoc.  It is one of the more vivid lessons in human history about the difficulties of controlling ecosystems.

Today (February 3rd, 2011) is the first day of the Chinese year 4709, the year of the metal rabbit. You should go have some dumplings and rice wine and then light a bunch of firecrackers and dance with a giant dragon! If you have any business in China, you should relax—nothing is getting done there for nearly a fortnight.  This is by far the biggest and most important holiday of the year.  For two weeks, the ceaseless seething all-consuming industry of rising China comes to a stop.  Even the meanest factory drudges take time off to leave the manufacturing cities and travel back to the country for some well-earned time with family and loved ones.  When you celebrate the year of the rabbit you will be doing so with more than a billion souls.

The Year of the Metal Rabbit

The rabbit is a mythological figure of great standing in the Chinese pantheon.  The divine jade rabbit is a sage and a potion master capable of mixing the elixer of immortality.  He dwells on the moon with the beautiful and troubling moon goddess Chang’e, but every once in a while he scampers down to earth to perform good deeds and instruct worthwhile students.  In the middle ages he reputedly saved the inhabitants of Beijing from a plague!

The Jade Rabbit mixes potions in front of his mansion on the moon.

According to astrologers and geomancers the year of the rabbit is traditionally associated with the family and the homestead. It is a good time for artistic pursuits, diplomatic missions, and for shoring up the peace (which always needs to be shored up after a dramatic and dangerous  tiger year).   People born in the Year of the Rabbit are ambitious and have excellent taste and fashion sense.  They are frequently financially lucky: their ability to sense danger and flee from it gives them an edge in business.  It goes without saying that they are cautious and careful, never yielding to impulse.  Well—not never–although outwardly reserved, rabbits have their own private life.  You can look to the animal kingdom for instruction…

Speaking of the animal kingdom, this week we are celebrating Furry Herbivore Week here at Ferrebeekeeper (I made the text red since it’s not a real thing), and the rabbit has a place of honor. Few animals are more universally known and more universally successful. The family Leporidae consists of over 50 species of rabbits and hares and, together with the family Ochotonidae (the pikas), constitutes the order Lagomorpha.  But whereas pikas have a limited range, rabbits and hares are found worldwide except for Antarctica (and possibly Manhattan).  The Encyclopedia of Mammals eloquently describes the basic leporidae design:

Leporids are small to moderately sized mammals, adapted for rapid movement. They have long hind legs, with four toes on each foot, and shorter fore legs, with five toes each. The soles of their feet are hairy, to improve grip while running, and they have strong claws on all of their toes. Leporids also have distinctive, elongated and mobile ears, and they have an excellent sense of hearing. Their eyes are large, and their night vision is good, reflecting their primarily nocturnal or crepuscular mode of living.

Together with a quick and fecund reproductive cycle and a taste for readily available vegetation, this is a winning design.  Few families of mammal are more bountiful.  When rabbits and hares were introduced to the continent of Australia, they overran it completely.  Armies of bunnies have subsequently wrecked havoc on the lives of marsupial herbivores with which they compete. It is one of the most disastrous stories of invasive animals in history.

But to the rabbits it was a story of success.  It always is.  Individual rabbit stories end with jaws or talons or steel snares, but the overall story is always a running leaping thriving tale of victory.  You shouldn’t look at one rabbit or hare, you should look at them all.  When you do you will be amazed by the luck and resiliency and beauty of the leporids.  I hope you think about them sometimes as you embark on your own happy and successful year of the rabbit!

This weekend, a friend of mine who likes birds and works downtown let me know that Zelda, the wild turkey of Wall Street, is doing fine.  Zelda has been quietly going about her life in the various parklands on the south of Manhattan.  Apparently she is just not the media darling she used to be–I can’t find any contemporary news about her on the internet.  I guess that since she is, you know, a turkey, she hasn’t managed her publicity too well. Here is a shot of her from this spring.

Zelda the wild turkey (photograph by Robyn Shepherd)

In other animal news, I spent some time in Prospect Park this weekend but I didn’t see any rabbits.  The next step is to take a trip to Greenwood cemetery—cottontails will be there if they still live anywhere in New York City.  Additionally the cemetery is one of the prettiest places I know of.

According to the New York Daily News, nobody has seen a wild rabbit in Central Park since 2006 (way to horde a story for Easter, Daily News).  The indigenous eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus, which once flourished in Central Park, seems to have been completely eradicated from Manhattan.  One ecologist fairly convincingly blamed the ubiquitous raccoon for spreading parasites (I am inclined to agree after seeing the havoc those masked bandits can wreak upon a garden or anything else) but nobody truly knows the cause for the bunnies’ vanishing act: other potential culprits include feral cats, eagles (!), coyotes, and disease.

The big story of our time—and, indeed the big story since the Hadean era, when life apparently emerged from the slime—is the peculiar and complicated relationships within ecosystems.  I would like to make this a major theme of subsequent posts (after all it is the underlying tale of all living things), but right now I’m just sad about the rabbits.  Hopefully Prospect Park and Greenwood cemetery still have bunnies.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them there more recently then 2006, but I’m going to have to keep my eyes peeled and ask my Brooklyn neighbors to do the same.


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