The Things I Know Now… (after fostering a baby jackrabbit)

[A continuation from Taming…]

Here’s what can I tell you about baby jackrabbits that I didn’t know three weeks ago…

I can tell you that jackrabbits are not rabbits but hares. This meant nothing to me, personally, but when I tell people they usually nod knowingly like it means something to them. (They obviously learned more in fifth grade science than I did.)

Baby jackrabbits are born fully furred with their eyes wide open, unlike rabbits who, like squirrels, are born furless with their eyes closed. Which means that baby jackrabbits are set up to run and hide within minutes of being born and are, in addition, unbelievably cute with their massive amounts of fluffy beautiful fur, tiny little face, strong back legs and perfect rabbit ears.

While baby rabbits live in a den with their mother, baby jackrabbits live out in a field. Mother jackrabbit stashes her young in different spots in the field, apart, so if she loses one to a predator she hopefully won’t lose them all. She visits them in the morning and at night to feed them. Otherwise, they are on their own.

My baby jackrabbit, handed to me by the Peninsula Humane Society for foster care, was found along with his sister by some kids in a schoolyard. They were chased, caught, then passed from kid to kid in the classroom, high stress for a wild rabbit. His sister didn’t make it into foster care.

Part of the new protocol for jackrabbit foster care was “taming”. That meant I was to bond with the little guy — groom him, comfort him, and make myself his new bunny momma. This is so our feeding sessions would go more smoothly and so he had the comfort of a mother for those few minutes each day.

When I first got baby bunny, he was just one or two weeks old. His face was young-bunny round and flat, so his eyes faced forward — later his face would get more long and narrow, so his eyes faced to the sides to better watch for predators.

Baby bunny had brown eyes. Perfectly round circles of brown surrounding perfectly round black irises, the windows into his soul. The brown of his eyes matched exactly the brown of my own and Mark’s. So as I lay on the floor with him sitting on my stomach, feeding him formula and grooming him with one damp finger, I had the strangest feeling as I stared into his eyes that he was family. One of us.

As I groomed baby bunny, he groomed me back. Warm, determined little licks on my hand or sleeve. His big brown eyes locked onto mine. He had a job to do, and he was going to do it.

A seasoned jackrabbit foster-mother told me that each jackrabbit she fostered had a very different personality. Baby bunny was brave and stubborn. He wanted to explore… first the couch, then the bedroom. I tried to keep him to a safe area, but the boy could squirm and dash, so we had an incident or two. At first I thought he would settle down after exploration to feed, but it never happened. So with each feed, I had to set the little guy straight — food first.

After a few days of successful eating, baby bunny put on weight nicely. I was a bunny-momma extraordinare! But then we had to enter the next stage… Cecotropes.

So, like you and me, baby bunnies need bacteria in their bellies to help digest their food. But they are much more fragile and the wrong bacteria can be the end of a bunny. So before weaning off mother’s milk and starting on solid food, baby bunnies get their good bacteria from their mothers. They do this by eating momma’s cecotropes.

Quick lesson on cecotropes… Both rabbits and hares have a completely vegetarian diet, eating mostly grasses and hay. To get the most out of their diet, they need to digest it twice. Not having two stomachs like cows, they produce cecotropes — tiny little damp night poops — that they reingest and redigest before producing the dry little balls we see in little piles in the fields.

So our little guy needed some cecotropes before he could start eating greens. Since most bunnies eat their cecotropes directly from the source (showing how flexible they are) and since I don’t make cecotropes (or ingest them), getting them was a bit of a trick. But the good people at the Peninsula Humane Society got some from a resident bunny.

Now I was told that baby bunnies and jackrabbits will eat a cecotrope right off your finger, recognizing it as something yummy they should have. But if that didn’t work, I was to put it in the corner of his mouth and he’d have a taste and happily munch away.

Somehow, baby bunny missed that memo. That first cecotrope evening went a little something like this:

Baby bunny, 7 pm: What’s that on your finger? Ew, disgusting.

Baby bunny, 7:01: Why are you squishing that against my mouth? EW, bleck. Now I have to clean myself off.

Baby bunny, 7:20: Finally, dinner! Wait, this tastes funny… EW, I’m not eating this!

Furless Momma, why are you feeding me poopy milk? Do you not like baby bunny anymore?

Baby bunny, 7:45: Okay, I can still taste the poop in this poopy milk, but I’m hungry.

Baby bunny, 8:10. Thank goodness that’s over. That shit was bananas.

Like a stubborn child, baby bunny avoided the rubber-tipped syringe after that. He’d squirm away every time, but once I got some formula past his clamped jaw, he realized he was hungry and he would lap happily away, like we hadn’t just gone three rounds to get there.

Despite our battles, when the feed and the exploration was done, baby bunny always hopped back to be with me. I sat face-level to the couch where I fed him. So he would hop over and sit right in front of me. Then I would put my hand around him, lightly cradling his fluffy body. And he would inch sideways, closer and closer to my face until he was right up against me. My warm breath on his body, his delicate ribcage against my lips. And then he’d lick my fingers.

One morning he put up more of fight than normal, taking only half of his regular feed. I noticed a tiny bit of eye goop, just the most delicate little bit that I wiped away with my finger. That night again, he ate very little, and I got concerned.

Before I went to bed, I took him out for an extra feed to make up for what he had skipped earlier in the day. That’s when I knew something was wrong — his breathing was labored, his whole body shuddered with each breath. I stayed with him for about an hour, trying to get more formula into him between breaths, but mostly I just stayed with him and held him cradled against my face.

I breathed warm air into his fur and I whispered that he had eat and get better. He had to grow tall and strong to dash around the fields, escape predators, and find his mate. I thought about staying with him all night, but decided he might rest more on his own. I didn’t sleep well and thought about checking on him several times, but I forced myself to give him some peace.

Early the next morning he was still with us, but for the first time he had his head down, propped on his front paws, worn out, still breathing heavy. I got some food into him, but mostly we sat together. I breathed in his warm bunny presence and breathed out my love for him. And we waited for the humane society to open.

When I brought him in, they told me what I already knew — he had a respiratory infection, often deadly for bunnies. They would give him meds and hope for the best. I had a feeling he wouldn’t make it and I wanted to be with him at the end, but they wanted to keep an eye on him for a while. If he turned around, they said, they would call so I could take him home. I never got the call.

Epilogue:

When I told a friend about baby bunny, he asked if I was done with wild bunnies who die so easily. I was stunned at the thought. My ten days with baby bunny were a gift, a rare experience few people have.

Those days made real what I’ve thought for a while — that we are all the same. No matter what our shape or size, whether we have hair, feather or fur, whether we eat hay, seeds or meat, we all take comfort from the presence of our loved ones. And we can, when our minds and hearts are open, feel love for all creatures great and small.

Baby bunny had the brilliant ears of a rabbit, the front paws of an elephant, camouflaged fur like my cat, the bravery of a tiger, the eyes of my loved ones, and the open heart of a child. Rest in peace, baby bunny. I wish I could have watched you grow up and dash off into the fields…

For a photo slideshow, click here.

Video:

Exploring… Check out his wonderful limbs. The extra poof of fur at his front feet reminded me of elephant toes…

An excellent hiding spot… (feel free to skip to the end when he disappears)

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One Response to The Things I Know Now… (after fostering a baby jackrabbit)

  1. Alane says:

    Oh, Loretta, he’s so beautiful… I cried reading your post, but I agree with you: the more we love, the harder we grieve, but that love is such a gift. What would life be without it?

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