Rabbits are prey animals. Sometimes we might be lured into forgetting that. Their displays of courage may be subtle or audacious, but, to the loving eye, always recognizable. There’s no question of rabbit bravery; even the most timid bun can muster a lunging bite when cornered. As their household companions, we honor their curiosity and laugh with them at their deliberate silliness. House rabbits, as we all know, make wonderful pets.
But rabbits are still prey. A rabbit sharing a home with humans has her own particular means of adapting to a human environment. She’ll create her own special spaces, her own safe spots and happy corners. But if she has access to a window with an outside view, or a door to a lush green yard, her natural inquisitiveness will urge her to find a way to get out there.
I’ve rescued rabbits for nearly twenty years. In the beginning, when I understood far less about the perils of their world, I’d open the sliding glass door to my backyard and allow my buns access in and out as they liked. It was LA, and the weather was nearly always clear, and the yard was tiny and fully fenced. The rabbits delighted in napping under the orange trees and nibbling the wild asparagus that grew as groundcover.
The house lacked screens on most of the windows. One day I got a bruise the size of Kansas on my thigh from leaping out of the out of the open bedroom window because a hawk had just zoomed past at eye level, aiming for my back porch.
I knew that Missy, a sweet black-and-white Dutch, was on the porch.
I’d been screaming, and I’m fairly sure that’s the only thing that threw off the hawk, which had entangled in the pine that overlooked my yard and was screaming back at me. Missy had flattened herself into the asparagus. She was safe. I altered my routine and became more watchful over playtime outside.
Six years later I lived in a different house, still in LA, this one set in the midst of a century-old avocado orchard, dense with trees and ivy. Bears rambled through at night, deer, skunks: the orchard was an oasis at the edge of the city, and the avocados drew all manner of wildlife.
I never allowed my rabbits out at night. I myself tried to avoid walking through the trees at night; I’d had several too-close encounters with startled bears. But I thought that letting the rabbits play near the door to my home office during bright daylight would be fine because I was always near.
Five months after I moved in, I noticed the largest housecat I’d ever seen eyeing the pair of buns who were busy digging holes in my flower garden. I ran her off at once. She stopped just out of my range, looking back at me, clearly unimpressed.
A week later Missy was out delighting in the flowers, along with her mate, Sparky. Sparky had come to me via a friend of a friend, the way so many unwanted rabbits seem to do. He had been so severely abused by the children of his previous owners that the nerve endings on the right side of his face had severed, leaving him with a permanent droop. He was a fearful rabbit, obviously with good reason. The only other creature in the world he even tolerated was Missy, who adored him.
The cat I’d seen was not just a cat but a juvenile mountain lion. And she leapt on Sparky from the shadows of the trees right in front of me, and bit through his skull.
I chased her and recovered the body of my pet. Missy had hidden somewhere, and I spent the next hour calling for her, weeping, until she poked just her face out from a webwork of vines. The mountain lion never truly left the orchard again. She knew I had more rabbits.
Today I live in the heart of a new city, and I stand guard over my rabbits whenever they venture out to my tiny new yard. Missy is about fourteen now, the longest-lived bun I’ve ever known. Two weeks ago she was outside in the grass with her new mate, Louis. A red-tailed hawk circled overhead, but miles off. Still I watched him, carefully following his looping path. When I opened my door the next morning, a red-tailed hawk was perched on my back fence mere feet away, directly above where Louis had dozed the afternoon before.
Rabbits are prey, and there is no such thing as too much vigilance. Its no one’s fault but my own that Sparky died; the lion was just being true to its nature, and I was not careful enough. We desire full, joyful lives for our buns, and they will go outside if they can. But never close your eyes when they’re out there. It doesn’t have to be a hawk or mountain lion; there are plenty of regular dog and cat dangers as well.
We love our rabbits, who love us back in their own rabbity way. We owe them the promise of not just love, but health and safety as well.
By Shana Abe; Illustrations by Sarah Alderette
House Rabbit Journal Winter 2011: Volume V, Number 6