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Issue #10, Spring 1997
"The dog has something in his mouth," Melanie says. I whistle for him and he bounds reluctantly to me through the April frost, opening his soft bird-dog mouth to deliver his prize. There, lying moistly in my palm, oddly tranquil and almost warm to the touch, a small, almost hairless being, about three inches long, wriggles feebly. Its eyes are still closed. Mouse? I wonder-but no, the tiny ears are too big for that. I am holding an infant cottontail rabbit, struggling to find any burrow out of the cold-even a dog's mouth or a man's hands. Any port in a storm.
Body temperature is clearly critical. A heating pad under a cardboard box with some rags in it seems to do the trick. We warm some milk in a pan and add some butterfat and sugar. When we put a drop of it against his mouth with an eye dropper, he licks it off as if in irritation. We feed him at intervals through the night and the next day. Once we heard on the radio that it is not wise to adopt tiny wild rabbits. We are not doing them a kindness, the expert warns us, and infants are not likely to survive. No time to think of that. The rabbit doesn't listen to the radio. His favorite program is the sound of the cardboard box lid opening, and the eyedropper descending. As days go by, he attacks dinner greedily and with gusto. Within a week or so he is consuming several dropperfulls at a sitting, and chewing the tip of the dropper to a pulp.
When I change the newspaper in his box, the small, unexpected movements of my hand agitate him, and he scurries and bounces off the cardboard walls. An eternal quivery restlessness seems to overwhelm him. Daily, his manic energy increases. Whiskers trembling, he restlessly explores every inch of this cardboard burrow over and over. I recall Robert Burns's mouse: "Wee, sleekit, cow'rin tim'rous beastie,/O What a panic's in thy breastie!" Sometimes I wrap him in a bit of towel, and feed him in front of the fire. He wriggles a lot, and snorts in surprise if the milk is too cold. A fine fur covers him now. Each day the little limbs stretch out longer and I am amazed at their force against my fingers -- astonished by his endless determination to feed, to live, to grow. He has this frenzy to become whatever kind of creature he is to become, and to do what they do. But what makes a rabbit, a rabbit?
Watching him consume dropperful after dropperful of milk, I realize my associations with rabbits are literary and largely inappropriate for the present context. Legend and literature depict rabbits and hares as creatures of infinite guile and acumen, with puckish senses of humor. I think of the movie Harvey, the "Trojan rabbit" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then I recall Bugs Bunny cartoons, the March Hare in Dodgson's Alice in Wonderland, Bre'r Rabbit, Aesop's hare and tortoise, the trickster bunny of Native American legend and ancient Chinese tradition. And then there are gentler images: the Easter Bunny, Peter Rabbit, denizens of bucolic landscapes, heralds of spring. Tales about rabbits have infected every continent. I recall reading somewhere that the first rabbits came to England from the continent with William the Conqueror. As I feed my charge, I visualize the famous crossing. There, the fearless conqueror stands astride the deck, gazing north across the English Channel at his kingdom to be -- and at his ankle, a small fierce rabbit in Norman armor -- his ears flapping in the breeze. In my enthusiasm I fence the air with the eye dropper as if it were a tiny sword. But a fierce wriggling in my lap brings me back to reality. This jittery handful will have none of this fantasy. Less rumination and more warm milk, he seems to say, is the order of the day.
Outside, as the weeks pass, things are getting greener. The baby must be weaned, and we want him to become accustomed to food sources from out of doors-but what will he eat? Slowly we pull back on the milk and begin to put green things into his cage for him to chew on. After a few days of tentative chewing, he identifies clover and dandelion greens as his favorites, and begins to devour enormous quantities. Even though we have reduced his milk intake, however, he will not take water through a dropper. In fact he has taken to sitting in the mason jar lid of cool water we give him, apparently to cool off.