Ode to a Bereft Doe

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Robert Burns' famous poem might just as well apply to the wild rabbit--our local cottontail. Lagomorph, not rodent. Full text, in more modern language, follows later.

Robert Burns’ famous poem might just as well apply to the wild rabbit–our local cottontail. Lagomorph, not rodent (look it up, or read on). Full text, in more modern language, follows later.

They do say no matter our own troubles, someone else has more. I stumbled over three of them this morning. Yes, they were only bunnies, but all were dead, scattered across the kitchen floor like so many dominos. Newly born, cords still wet. Joey the Hun of Facebook fame, is a cat familiar to many as marauder of rabbit nests. I know how he brings in the babies, and they’re not dead and never damaged like the ones on my floor today. Joey was bottlefed–with human milk no less–so wasn’t taught to hunt by a “real” mother. He’s somehow a stalker par excellence (they’re not supposed to be when raised by people), but he’s never perfected the killing blow. He brings his catches indoors, alive unless they’re bitty mice, with a few puncture wounds that can sometimes be mended. So far I’ve managed to raise and release three of these. But today’s babies were mangled. A crushed head, a rear leg torn nearly off, skin surgically sliced. None had the punctures associated with animal attacks. And cold as ice. They’d been dead awhile, but not eaten. Those Joey brings in are warm and screaming and can be counted on to wake me. I’m supposing he found these others when their nest was destroyed. Attracted by their flailing, he brought them inside, going back for more when each disappointed him by expiring. Cats and others going about their animal business don’t upset me (too much). Animal behavior can be brutal, but it is the natural course of things, and when observed respectfully, quite instructive. While I won’t sit around and watch Joey decimate a nest I know he’s found, it’s interesting to stalk him and see him find one, watching just the once: seeing him lay over it, wrap himself around it until the babies sense his heat and start moving, thinking it must be mum come to feed them. At that point I grab the damned cat and ground him for a month.

These healthy babies were brought in by Joey with hardly a scratch. The difficulty is in feeding them  with their peculiar digestive requirements.

These healthy babies were brought in by Joey with hardly a scratch. They required only a bit of antibiotic for having been in a cat’s mouth. The difficulty is in their peculiar digestive requirements.

But this tragedy, I’m sure, was born of human ego–a homeowner’s association gone berserk trying to “eradicate” Scotch broom. As though one could. And this does upset me. It led to a resident with a John Deere and too much time on his hands mowing down what passes for hedgerow all along the greenbelts. Fine. Keep the place presentable, but know that cottontails choose exactly these areas for their nests from June to August. And they’re not the deep, protective burrows famous in England and other places, but shallow scrapings lined with a bit of fluff and covered with a flap of moss. Nearly impossible to see. Impossible unless you’re a cat with endless patience and a knowledge of cottontail habitat. Certainly impossible from the height of a riding mower. Garden tools are notorious for ripping nests open and mutilating mothers, babies, or both.

Small, sleek cowering, timorous beast,
Oh, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With hurrying scamper!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff…
“To a Mouse,” Robert Burns, 1759-1796
 

Even in the 1700s, Burns thought to grieve the harm farming activities could do these “timorous beasties,” even though mice in particular were known to contaminate food stores, overrun granaries, and nest in the thatched roofs overhead. Rabbits, likewise, have been viewed as pests simply for reproducing as quickly as the moon goes from new to full. That they patiently serve as nature’s pantry for the entire world is largely ignored. They are, however, a species of creature unlike almost any other. Not rodents, they are lagomorphs. Which means they’ve a double set of incisors and a gut that digests hard fiber by means of fermentation. Like hooved animals–like deer. In fact, wild rabbits most resemble deer in their sleek facies and graceful forelegs, not to mention their habits. They are crepuscular rather than nocturnal animals; most active at dawn and dusk, when they emerge to feed in the half-light their peculiar eyes use best for seeing. They don’t abandon their babies, but protect them by leaving the nest between feedings, just as do deer: the doe who parks her fawn behind a log, or deadfall, or bush, and instructs it to be utterly still and silent until she returns. A mother rabbit is also a doe–as her mate is a buck–and leaves her nest to wait and feed nearby so her own mature scent won’t betray her offspring.

Far from ready for release, these bunnies are attached to their human foster mother, but will become wild the moment they don't need her any longer.

Far from ready for release, these bunnies are attached to their human foster mother, but will become wild the moment they don’t need her any longer.

Private creatures, they are yet social, especially within the family. Thought to separate from their kits as soon as they leave the nest, observers are only now learning the bond is not so early severed. The worst thing I may have ever seen was a mother racing to and fro after a crow that had clearly stolen one of her half-grown babies.Too big for the bird to actually lift away, it flapped from one end of our yard to the other, with the doe running after it, frantically trying to rescue her child. When the crow tired and dropped it, the baby was recovered. It had been thoroughly mutilated–the job of some hours. In all that time the mother hadn’t forgotten about, or given up on, her kit. These are only little lives, these bunnies–whom the lawnmower man points out live here in their thousands–but these little lives are the ones they’re given–certainly as important to them as ours are to us. They are the very image of the meek who will inherit, and we have as much to learn from them as from our cat and dog friends. Sister Rabbit, Brother Dog, as Saint Francis would have said. And as some say in other parts of the world: “Namaste–I bow to the spark of God in you.” https://www.facebook.com/kay.jackson.904/videos/1494604578959/?l=7832060970311559415

About An UnCool Midwife

I'm a midwife who's been up all night for most of the last 30 years. Before that, I was editor of a small town newspaper. I left that job swearing I'd never face another 3 am deadline. Now I’m thinking what I really needed was a good night’s sleep. (And they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.) But I miss writing, so I’ve decided to launch a blog to record some of the brain activity that occurs between naps. I’m a little worried about exposing my tender underbelly to the pointy public, but have decided to dive in and see how we all get along. Unexpectedly, this blog has become an outlet for thoughts & feelings that occur with my new diagnosis of breast cancer and its ongoing treatment.

6 responses »

  1. Oh no! What a totally heart breaking story. I’m so sorry you found that horrible scene in your kitchen. It’s too bad John Deere man wasn’t aware of the damage he would cause by mowing down that area. Was he at all receptive to the idea of leaving it alone in the summer time in the future?

  2. I thanked him for his work keeping our neighborhood looking nice and told him the months during which cottontails actively breed (in our climate males aren’t even capable of breeding outside the late spring and summer months). I also showed him the bunnies & how their injuries were likely manmade. He did seem receptive after a bit, and acknowledged that vigorous efforts at cutting back the hedgerows could likely be moved both earlier and later in the season. I ended up feeling like we might have made some headway.

  3. It never fails to amaze me how some humans find no need to regard the fragile, fertile places our animal cohabitants live. As if they don’t matter. As if it’s more important to mow with impunity. But at least, per your comment above, you had an impact on the unwitting mower. May your insight teach him to be more gentle in his job. There are bunnies there!

  4. Your eloquence continues to astonish me as does your depth of knowledge. Wow, I learned alot reading this blog. These tender creatures do have worth and I thank you for making the little things the big things. And I am not talking about your foobs . . .

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