It only takes a day to change your world.
A couple of weeks can influence your life. Or remind you that skipping through dandelions barefoot is better for your health than joining a gym or attaching fit bits all over your body.
I’ve never been much for social conventions. Very often I connect better to animals than people. Their language is easier to understand.
Maybe that’s why my latest animal adventure isn’t as heartbreaking as some would think. A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the first day of spring and hope. With that hope was the wish that a mother rabbit would return to her young after being attacked by my dog.
She was able to escape and run away as I calmed him down, and I usually check the yard to make sure it’s clear of wild creatures before setting my hyper bodacian lose, but I forgot. My family and I were celebrating Ostara and the excitement clouded my judgement. Or maybe it was pregnancy brain. I don’t know. Whatever it was, we waited for the mother to come back.
Rabbits don’t stay with their bunnies. They generally feed them at dawn and dusk to keep predators from sniffing around.
Having worked for a zoologist and volunteered for a local wildlife rescue center I kept this knowledge close. I had no intention of robbing a mother of her babies.
The window in my toddler’s room perfectly overlooks the area where the nest was and my children and husband helped me take shifts to see if the mother came back. After 24 full hours I went out with a flashlight to find the bunnies stiff and unresponsive.
Like the dramatic animal love I am, I dropped to my knees and picked all four up, holding them close to my chest. They were ice cold and hard as stone. I thought they were dead. It’s a strange sensation knowing that nature is tough and that young often die.
But one of the bunnies moved. That tiny twitch set me running into the house. I immediately got my husband and kids setting up a small enclosure with a blanket and heat lamp as I lay with the bunnies stuffed under my shirt for warmth.
Within an hour all 4 of the bunnies were revived.
The relief was overwhelming. So many emotions attached us all. It’s insane how easily they became the center of our world.
In the past I had used animal formula from a pet store, but as a mother at the start of a quarantine in a pandemic we just used regular cow’s milk and that was a bit tough. It was not ideal but had worked in the past.
Each of the babies drank from a syringe I had leftover from feeding a stray kitten who had gone on to a happy house cat life. One drank like crazy licking the syringe and my hand as the milk dripped down. One latched onto the syringe and suckled pretty well. The other two took a little but were extremely tired.
My kids were overjoyed. I warned them, “Baby bunnies don’t do well without their mothers. We will lose some of them if not all.”
“But we have to try,” my eldest said. She wants to be a veterinarian and has helped me with other animals, some that didn’t make it.
Since they were eating less than they would from their mother, I woke up to feed them at midnight, and first thing in the morning. Hand reared bunnies need less food at more frequent intervals to avoid bloat and digestion issues. Because young bunnies can’t go to the bathroom without having their bottoms licked (usually by their mother), I had to “wiz” them with a warm wet q-tip, but everyone was digesting.
But late morning that day (Saturday) we lost the littlest one.
As a child I always favored the runts. I wanted to be like Fern from “Charlotte’s Web,” or Emily Elizabeth, with “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” Adulthood lends more perspective. I felt bad for the little one, but wild rabbits don’t have long life spans. They are considered food for other animals in the conservation world. They have a purpose that is very different than just being cute and fluffy. The smart and the strong earn their right to live longer with their skills.
The kids handled it well. I think my husband was more broken up about it, but we focused on the remaining 3.
Then, that night we lost another one.
Death is something that has surrounded me all my life. I cared for so many animals and knew so many people who died different ways growing up that I’ve come to accept it as a natural part of life. It’s not easy, and not everyone can handle that, but it is all I know.
I reminded the kids that, “Baby bunnies don’t do well without their mothers. They had just been through too much.”
I missed the littler ones, but the remaining two grew like weeds. The biggest one was my porker. It ate like crazy, sometimes nipping me if I didn’t push the milk through the syringe fast enough.
The other one suckled better so it got more intake and rubbed against me more.
We had a great few days. The weather grew colder and I wondered how we would get them acclimated for the outside.
By Wednesday the big one’s eyes opened and it’s personality became solidified. The big hungry baby, this hardy one earned the name “Porker” and seemed to have a sense of humor about it.
The sweet one started cleaning itself and it’s bigger sibling. They were growing more independent by every feeding so I added grass and clover to their enclosure to better prepare them for life back in the wild. A re-release was necessary. The thought of caging a wild animal always seems wrong to me.
Porker Nibbled the greens while the littler one stumbled around trying to get a feel for their surroundings.
Thursday evening, the little one, who my daughters named “Fluffy Tail” started opening it’s eyes. They were finally bright and opened Friday morning. Fluffy Tail was my smart one. It knew when feedings were coming, how best to eat, and where to cuddle me so I wouldn’t just put it back and try to keep my distance. haha
Now both able to see, the 2 remaining bunnies ate fresh grass that we picked for them in the morning and at night and I started to lower their milk intake as well as turn off the heat lamp at night to mimic nature.
“Can’t we just keep them?” My seven year old asked.
My husband eyed me with puppy dog eyes.
I shook my head. “Would you want to live in a cage?”
She said no.
To keep everyone in good spirits we started taking the bunnies outside to nibble fresh grass in the backyard and get acclimated to life under the sky.
The first try was short. Porker kept running to hide under my leg, or trying to climb into my hands. Fluffy Tail just sat terrified.
The next day it rained all day so we left them inside, but the day after was more successful. Even though it was cloudy and chillier, they both munched grass and clover and hopped around a little more. Things were moving along nicely, I removed the blanket from the enclosure and added dirt and planted grass with the roots and clover to make it more like their natural habitat. Fluffy Tail was curious, but started shivering so we got both bunnies back in their enclosure and under the heat lamp as a precaution.
That night I did some extra research on hand rearing bunnies for re-release into the wild. It had been a while and I wanted to make sure I was on the right track. Everything lined up. We were moving swiftly. The only highly alarming bit of information was that some bunnies seem fine and then just die. Some experts think it’s because they get bloated, or that they don’t have the proper guttural bacteria to handle all the outside elements if they did not receive enough of their mother’s milk.
I determined to avoid bloat by lowering the milk a bit more.
Our feedings were needing to be less frequent as both bunnies were eating grass. They were both very active when I left them before our morning feeding the next day, but when I woke up Fluffy Tail was gone.
It hit a little harder. I worked so much, but it wasn’t enough. Sometimes no matter how you try to help someone or something, it just doesn’t work out.
We buried it in the backyard with the other 2, but there was more ceremony.
From then on Porker was watched closely. We put everything into that fat little ball of silliness.
It looked for the other one for a little while and my seven year old gave it one of her smaller bunnies stuffed animals which helped. Soon enough Porker was exploring and playing.
Our outdoor trips held so much promise. We laughed and watched as the last bunny frolicked.
The outdoor schedule was expanded to help get Porker ready for the wild. My husband planned to build a hutch for the in-between time. Everything went so well that the kids told the neighbor about it talking over the fence (while practicing social distancing of course).
I learned from this neighbor, after the kids ran off to play some more, that she found a litter in her yard but that they froze to death when the chill swept back in.
Early spring bunnies have it hard.
I wondered if I should have just let nature take its course. The only reason I ever interfere is when nature isn’t at fault for the situation, but my dog was just following his instincts…
And yet I loved Porker and held no regret. The urge to set him free kept growing. Bunnies leave the nest pretty fast. I imagined this bun was strong enough, big enough, and smart enough to make it against the odds.
I discussed it with the kids and we talked about waiting for the next long spurt of nice weather. We sat in the grass, plucking strands.
It was during this period that Porker found a dandelion and went crazy over it. We were used to the bunny’s appetite but the petals disappeared like magic. The girls jumped up and ran off to gather more of the delectable flowers.
When it was time to go back inside we put some extra dandelions in the enclosure.
The next morning I overslept a little. I woke up with a strange thought that maybe it would be better if Porker didn’t make it. I automatically turned on myself and the idea wondering how that would ever cross my mind. But something inside told me it was intuition, preparing me, I raced to the enclosure on my writing desk and found Porker lying cold and still.
I flicked on the heat lamp and pulled the little body out.
I thought all was lost, but then Porker gasped. Like the night I pulled the litter in, I put the last remaining bunny under my shirt and rubbed the fur trying to rewarm it. The entire underside of the bunny was wet, like it stumbled through the shallow water dish and couldn’t get dry. Porker’s belly was also bloated.
I worked under the heat lamp, every so often massaging Porker’s belly and pumping its little legs gently.
The poor thing pooped and peed on the cloth I brought with me about 8 or 10 times. Either Porker was done, or super bloated.
I kept at it. Working to dry, warm, and revive Porker. “It’s okay, you just stay with me and I’ll get you warm again.”
I talked through everything as I did when I worked to save dying patients at the vet clinic. Sometimes all a creature needs is some love and encouragement to pull through.
Porker fought hard. When my seven year old woke up, she helped out. Then my eldest came out to offer her aid. I was so proud of them. I warned them that, “Bunnies don’t do well without their mothers.” It had become a mantra that I recited often everyday.
Porker’s breathing stabilized. Its body warmed. Its little nose whiskers started moving like normal and Porker started trying to sit up without help.
We worked for 4 hours, constantly.
It was worth it just to see Porker sit up and lick my daughter’s hand. I got some milk ready, thinking a feeding may help, but before I could sit down, the little one coughed and fell over dead.
Instead of dying cold and alone or gasping for air, Porker was comfortable and warm. It was a consolation at the very least.
We all mourned together. My husband took it the hardest.
After we had a good cry I asked my children, “Do you think it would have been better if we had left them in the first place?”
My eldest, the one who wishes to become a veterinarian looked at me like I was crazy.
My seven year old wrinkled her forehead and shook her head. “No!”
Then my eldest sat forward with tears in her eyes, “At least we had some time with them to give them a little more life.”
I nodded. “All we can ever do is try. We don’t know what’s best, but we can do our best. We all worked so hard. And I’m so sorry. But I’m glad we tried. I’m glad we were able to give them the time they had.”
It’s what anyone who’s ever worked in any kind of medical industry or learned to deal with death on their own terms often finds.
There were more tears and cuddles. It takes time to accept death. Some people have criticized me in the past for being so honest and up front with my children, but they are understanding and graceful. Instead of running from the inevitable and hiding from death like it is some monster we see it as an end that awaits to embrace us.
Porker’s funeral wasn’t like the others.
We had a bigger box and covered it with flowers. My husband and I stood ready to dig the grave and he turned to me. “There are so many people right now who can’t even do this for their loved ones right now.”
Acknowledging that, we all silently moved closer together.
We weren’t just burying a bunny; we were performing a ceremony for everyone and everything. We were honoring the dead and the lives they lived. We were accepting what is while hoping for a better future. We were letting go of it all, burying failed efforts in the dirt.
All the connections we have are sacred. Whether person to person or familiar animal relationships, life is filled with love and loss.
I had my, “What did I do wrong,” moments, but those were laid to rest today. I originally told myself I would only blog about this if we had at least 1 success. I just wanted at least 1 bunny to pull through. I feared that it would be too much to lose them all during a sensitive time. But that’s not what writing (or sharing experiences) is about. The writing we fear is often the most important.
I want everyone to know that no effort is ever useless. However you cope, however you must live, that effort matters.
Porker was worth it, so was Fluffy Tail, and the other babies.