Monday, 16 January 2012

A Jackrabbit as a Pet


"He'll never make it.  There is no way that little creature can live with those things sucking away at its very lifeblood."
John's words made sense.  We knew that.  But this was a baby bunny in front of us and it could be so appealing if only those grotesque creatures left him alone.  So in spite of our better judgement, we selfishly pleaded for life for the poor little fellow knowing full well that along with prolonging his life, we were also prolonging his agony.
Our experience with Jacky began tragically one summer day when Jim, at fourteen, caught the baby jackrabbit on a field of summerfallow he had been tilling.  From his high vantage point atop the big tractor, he had a panoramic view of the field below him and as he advanced, he saw the gray, bun-sized fur balls scattering in front of him.  One of those fur balls seemed to be having a more difficult time than the others so to avoid driving over him; Jim yanked the gearshift into neutral, jumped down from the cab and picked it up.  He put it in the cab until he finished the field and brought him home.
Look what I found,” Jim called excitedly, as he jumped out of the tractor cab and ran towards us with a tiny ball of gray fur in his cupped hands.
The girls ran to meet him.  Jim seldom showed that much excitement.  This had to be special!
What, what, what?”  they shrieked in unison.
Our curiosity turned to horror when we saw the source of his excitement.  A tiny little bunny, no bigger than a tennis ball, pitifully looked up at us from tiny slits of eyes almost totally obscured by heavy eyelids punctuated with the swollen bodies of woodticks!  In fact, its whole body, but particularly the head, and especially the ears, inside and out, was infested with the little brown balls clinging tenaciously to the scruffy skin covering the pathetic little frame.  Most of them were swollen to round bulbs from the amount of blood they had managed to steal from their helpless host.  It was a wonder the poor thing was still alive!
Uh, how awful!” with one voice we all agreed.  We inspected it further.  By this time, John had joined us and his decision was immediate.
You can’t be thinking of keeping that thing,” he said.  “It’s half dead.  It’s just a matter of time before it’s totally gone.  The kindest thing you can do for that creature is to kill it and put it out of its misery.”
But Jim and his two younger sisters entreated him.
Oh, no, Dad, please!  Can’t you do something for him?  Please, Dad.  You can’t kill it.  It’s just a baby.  Please Mom.”
Come on you kids.  Be reasonable.  Don’t you see how it’s suffering?  Those ticks are sucking the life out of the poor creature.  How can it survive without blood?”
John looked from one to the other of the kids hoping for reason to prevail, for sanity to take over.
Jim faltered.  He understood what his father was trying to say.  It made sense.  But he looked at the bunny and his heart melted.  How could he stand to watch it die?  The girls would not even listen to Dad’s wise counsel.  All they could see was a beautiful tiny bunny that desperately needed help.
Oh please, Dad, can’t you do something?  Mom, please, please.  You can’t just kill it.  You can’t!  Mom, can’t you do something?”
Don’t you kids see what you're asking?  There are so many ticks on it you can never remove them and even if you could, that poor thing could never survive that kind of torture.”
But the kids kept begging, pleading for a chance at life for the poor wretched, little creature whose very own mother had probably given up for dead.  Especially the girls.  They just could not understand why we would not try to save it. 
Finally against my better judgment, I decided to give it a try. 
Maybe we can at least try to get all those ticks off and see what happens,” I suggested to John.  “If it dies then at least we’ll know we tried.”
You’re crazy,” John stated flatly.  “There isn’t enough life left there to withstand such an ordeal.”
Bombarded by “Please Mom, oh please, Mom” from the two girls, I abdicated.  Jim stood by hopefully now not taking part in the discussion.  He was older and he knew Dad made sense except he still could not prepare himself to watch the bunny die either. 
Let's give it a try,” I said, but John would have no part of it.
You go ahead if you want, but count me out.” he declared and walked back toward the shed, leaving me with three hopeful looking kids and a less than appealing task before me.
Under the watchful eyes of the kids, I set about trying to rid the poor bunny of his unwelcome parasitic guests.  I had heard of woodticks, but had never known them to be common in our area and had certainly never seen anything as gross as this.  My knowledge of treatment for this situation therefore, was at best, pitifully meagre.  Still I had been told that a hot needle, applied to the body, would cause the blood sucking parasite to release its hold on its victim. 
Fighting back the rising nausea that was welling up within me, I got two long darning needles that I put on the stove to heat up, and a pair of long needle-nosed pliers with which to hold the hot needles.  With Jim holding the bunny motionless, we went to work.  Running back and forth to the stove as each needle cooled, I gingerly poked each disgusting bulb with the hot end.  With some it worked, with others, it didn't, either they would not, or maybe could not, back out, so for the stubborn ones, I just applied the pliers as close to the bunny’s skin and yanked until it came out, bunny skin, blood and all.  John had decided to come back to the house to watch the operation but at this point was having no part of it.  Finally when I could take the repulsive procedure no more, and ran retching for the bathroom, John relented and took over to finish the job.
Finding the remaining ticks relentlessly retaining their hold on the bunny's skin, and blood oozing out of the wounds where ticks had been yanked out, John was about to throw in the towel. 
It’s no use, he declared.  “These guys just won’t let go.”
But the kids had tasted hope by now and it seemed that success was too close to quit now.  The entreaties came fast and furious.
No, Dad, please.  You can’t stop now.  See, the bunny is still alive.  It’s just a few more.  Please Dad.” 
Sensing defeat in this battle against the three kids, John took the pliers and forcibly yanked the rest of the heinous moochers off, bringing out a spurt of precious blood following each such extraction.  With the final tick out, the bunny was still alive, albeit bleeding from each wound, lying limp in Jim's palm.  John walked out of the house.  He was loathe to admit it but he had been as repulsed by the gruesome task as I had been.
This left me in charge once again and as the kids stood by expectantly; I took the lethargic creature and swabbed its wounds with antiseptic from the family medicine cabinet.  Then to complete the job, I went outside and called to John, who was busying himself in the machine shed. 
Need your help for one more thing,” I called. 
Reluctantly he came back to the house to hear what I had to say.
Get the Hypodermic needle and we’ll give it a shot of Penicillin.”
John stared at me in disbelief.  We had a large hypodermic needle that we used to inject Penicillin into the cattle when there was an infection.  It was huge - twice as long as the poor bunny.  Seeing that I was serious, he shook his head and reached for the Penicillin.
How much do I give it?”
Give it half of a cc.” I said dispassionately.  I just wanted to get this over with.  I didn’t think it would work either, but now that we had started, we may as well do everything we could and then let nature do the rest.
John filled the needle and feeling like Dracula incarnated, I held the bunny motionless as John poked the miniature thigh with the large needle sending a small dose of penicillin into the tiny body.
There!  We had done what was humanly possible.  The rest was up to God Himself, if He wanted to restore the poor creature to life or take it to a much better place. 
Now take it to the cage,” I told Jim.  “That is all we can do for him.  We’ll just have to wait and see what happens now.”
I’ll get him a bowl of water,” offered Connie.
And I’ll get him some clover to feed on,” Carol shouted as she ran out towards the ditch.
I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the bunny would probably not be eating or drinking for some time yet - if ever.
Jim tenderly cupped the tiny bedraggled and very listless ball of scruffy fur in his hands and carried it out to the cage that we had used for a tame bunny the year before.  The girls brought the water and fresh clover and scattered it in the small enclosure but the bunny lay motionless where Jim laid him, sapped dry of effort and will.
The cage consisted of a mesh enclosed outer area as well as a little "rabbit house", lined with soft grass.  For the first couple of days, we never saw "Jacky".  He was hiding in his little house, probably too sick to move.  We considered giving him another injection of penicillin, but fearing that it might be too much, decided against it.  There was no local veterinarian and we had neither the time nor the money to go to Dauphin on what we considered a hopeless case anyway.  We would just let Nature take its course.  Each morning and after school, the kids would poke their hand into the cage to feel if the bunny was still living. 
It’s still warm, but it seems to be shaking so badly,” they told us worriedly.
Just give it time,” I said.  “It was very sick.”
So reassured by the warm body and the feeble tremors and breathing, they waited patiently for the bunny to make his move.  Daily they brought him fresh clover, lettuce, carrots and water but there never seemed to be any sign that any had been touched. 
Just about when the kids were ready to give up hope that he would pull through, Jacky emerged from his house on Saturday afternoon.  This sent the girls into a frenzy of excited squealing.
 "He's out, he's going to make it, he'll be okay".  We rushed to see and sure enough, there was Jacky, busily and peacefully munching on some of the fresh clover the girls had put in his cage.
From that day forward, Jacky continued to improve.  He was nervous if we came too close to the cage and would dart into his house for safety but as he learned that those giants around him brought food and water and never harmed him, he became less fearful and would sit outside in his "corral" eagerly awaiting the fresh greens that the girls always provided.  Every now and then, they would take him out of the cage to cuddle him, which he would reluctantly submit to, but he never seemed to enjoy it, no matter how long he stayed with us.
Bimbo, our family dog, quickly learned that this was indeed a treasured member of the family, like himself, and took to sitting guard over the cage peacefully watching the bunny.  At first, the sight of the dog would send Jacky scurrying for cover, but eventually because he was such a common sight, the bunny learned there was nothing to fear from this shaggy black mutt and he began to derive a kind of security from his presence. 
Other members of the "family" that had to adjust to Jacky's presence were Mitzy, the dappled gray mother cat, and Tommy, the striped orange tomcat.  This was perhaps the most difficult transition.  Both Mitzy and Tommy were good hunters and instinctively, they knew Jacky as a wild creature, a tasty dinner they were used to chasing, catching, and consuming.  Yet, here was one of their usual prey, protected from them by that mesh fence!  It didn't make sense to them at all.  They would prowl around the cage seeking an opening while poor Jacky cowered and trembled inside his little house.
Inevitably, one of us adults or kids would walk by, see them stalking, and give them a sound scolding, sending them away, feeling like they had committed a terrible crime.  It took a long time for these natural hunters to realize that although this was indeed a member of the wild species, it was, nonetheless, a protected and cherished member of this family.
To get them acquainted with each other, the kids would bring Jacky, Mitzy and Tommy into the house together.  By watching them closely, they were able to bridge a bond of tolerance, and eventually even friendship, between the three family pets.
The first few such encounters were hilarious.  Both cats knew enough not to attack Jacky outright in front of the kids.  But Mitzy was curious, and would approach Jacky hesitantly to sniff his nose.  Jacky would get up on his hunches, make low grunting, snorting noises deep within his throat and his front paws would go into a whir of boxing motions that no eye could follow.  Mitzy would jump back in surprise and alarm unable to understand this creature that just refused to accept her friendly gesture.  Or Tommy would try his luck at making friends and stealthily approach Jacky.  Jacky would wait until he was almost a touch away and then he'd use those long jackrabbit legs of his and leap lithely up and over Tommy to the other side.  Tommy would sit there, surprised, looking around and wondering where Jacky had disappeared.  
These games were so much fun to watch, the kids would often bring the threesome into the house just so we could sit and watch their comical antics as the three playmates cavorted around the house, chasing each other, leaping, slapping, boxing and just generally providing us with a great show.
The cats delighted in teasing Jacky.  They'd come near him and reach a paw to touch his nose which never failed to send Jacky into his boxing and grunting frenzy.  Even the kid's friends often would come to watch these shows.
"You ought to be charging admission," our friends laughed.
With these shows coming so often, the three performers became great pals, gleaning from each other a comradeship that mutually benefited each one.  Even outside, the cats would often play tag with Jacky through the mesh wire of the cage.  By then we were quite confident that they were only playing, that they would not seriously hurt Jacky.  I think Jacky knew it, too, because he never ran to hide anymore in his little house.
Jacky became quite tame as the summer progressed.  At first, the girls made a large corral out of chicken wire where they would let him loose to graze on his own as they sat nearby watching.  Then they would pick him up and transfer him to the cage for safety.  He got used to being picked up and let loose so that he no longer shied away when they approached.  He seemed to enjoy his freedom, but did not mind being penned in either.
As fall approached, we felt we should let him loose.
"It really is unkind to Jacky to be penned in like this," we explained to the kids.  "He is a wild creature and he is healthy now so he can take care of himself.  He should really be free."
"But he's happy here.  Why do we have to let him go?" the girls wailed.
"If he's happy, then he'll stick around.  But he should be free to choose.  You wouldn't want to live in a cage would you?"
Reluctantly, they agreed.  They took him out of the cage and set him free on the lawn as they had done so many times before.  He hopped around, munching on the green grass, twitching his funny little nose and looking up at the girls expecting to get picked up at any minute, but we all retreated to the house, leaving him alone as we watched through the window.  Mitzy joined him and they chased each other around in the now-familiar games.  
We left the cage doors open but did not put Jacky inside for the night, allowing him the freedom to do as he wished.  Next morning, the girls ran out to see where Jacky was.
"He's in the cage!" the girls burst through the kitchen door excitedly.  "The door of the cage is wide open and Jacky's inside." 
The kids were thrilled that Jacky had decided to stay out of his own free will.  He continued to go into the open cage whenever he wanted and he never left the yard as we had expected, but continued to graze on the familiar grasses and clovers on the grounds, not venturing far on his own.
When Mitzy produced her fall litter of kittens, Jacky put up with them like a doting godfather and as the kittens grew, the animal shows on our yard became even more interesting and captivating.  In the evenings, we need only switch on the yardlight and we'd see Jacky and his cat family frolicking in the spotlight.  It was as if they delighted in providing us with a good show.
I worried about my garden sometimes, fearing that Jacky would find my luscious carrots and cabbages and feast on them.  But he either never found them at all, or if he did, he may have thought they were too old and tough.  Whatever the reason, my garden remained untouched by his sharp teeth.
As the winter set in, Jacky stayed within the yard limits.  His now healthy fur coat turned to white and his long legs carried him in good stead as he darted in and around the more than a hundred head of cattle that always spent their winters in the yard.  He was left on his own most of the time, but he seemed content to stay nearby and join the cats for regular romps under the yardlight.  It was as if that piece of light in an otherwise dark night was an invitation to get in that extra added bonus of playtime out of each day because we would see him feeding or just hopping around peacefully by himself in the evenings when the light was not on.  Obviously playing with the cats was no fun in the dark.
The kids still put out lettuce and carrots for him and he would feast on them at his leisure but we also saw him feeding on the grain that spilled beside the grainery so after that we always made sure there was oats under the shed where he could eat in peace. 
We were told that he would strip our beautiful trees of their bark, leaving them to die, but we watched and he never damaged a single tree preferring, obviously, the ready-to-eat food that was always put out for him, like the grain, chop, and the vegetables with which the girls still enticed him on a regular basis. 
Spring came and Jacky was still around, though we expected him to leave, perhaps start a family, or something.  He remained around the yard for the following summer, providing us with many hours of pleasure as we watched the games that he and the cats played.  He wouldn't let the kids catch and cuddle him anymore, but he obviously still just wanted to live with us. He seemed to be content to just be around the family whom he knew and trusted.
He never attacked my garden that next summer either.  Somehow, it just seemed as if it was beyond his range.  He feasted on the lush green clovers and other grasses and was often seen cavorting with the cats on the yard.  He adopted more of Mitzy's kittens and enjoyed the company of Tommy and Bimbo.  Maybe he just never realized he was a rabbit - certainly not a wild one - living with people and cats and dogs. 
Jacky was almost three years old when his familiarity with cats became his Waterloo.  He never feared cats.  To him, they were playmates.  He probably never even made an effort to use those long legs of his for a quick getaway, expecting the unfamiliar neighbour's tomcat to be just playing with him.  That morning, we found the unwelcome strange feline feasting on the remains of Jacky.  John immediately went for the gun and blasted that tomcat out of this world but that did not bring our Jacky back.
It was truly a time of mourning in our house for the next few weeks as we realized that our wild little pet would no more frolic under the yardlight and provide us with those free performances.  But we remembered fondly all the happy times we had shared because Jacky had become a part of our lives for a while.  

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