Thursday, May 12, 2011

Leap of Faith

I did another release of a cottontail into the wild yesterday. I had been caring for the adult male cottontail since January, as he recovered from injuries sustained in an accident with an automobile. Here is a picture of him a couple weeks after I got him:

He came to me very lethargic, in a dazed condition. There was bleeding from behind his right eye, and dried blood in his right ear. I was very concerned that he had suffered a brain injury. I had seen that a couple of weeks before, when another cottontail was brought to me in a similar condition after being struck by a car. That poor little guy just sat in a hunched-up position and would move around and eat very little. I tried to syringe-feed him some food but he just was not interested in eating. I took him to the vet who agreed that there was some severe head trauma but there was nothing we could do for him other than to keep him quiet and comfortable and hope that he will come out of it on his own. Sadly, that was not to be, and I awoke one morning to find him laying on his side. If he was meant to die, I'm glad he could do it in a place where he was warm and safe, and in the presence of someone who cared about him.

This last cottontail rehab had a happier ending, as he got over his injuries and returned to being a normal bunny. As he recovered, he showed he was comfortable with me and would come over to the side of his cage and look me directly in the eye as I talked to him. It was as if he was trying hard to understand me, but I was talking some alien language. Which, of course, was true.

For a wild animal, he adapted very well to living in captivity with a human. I gave him a little wooden house in his cage to hide in, but he enjoyed sitting on top of it so he could watch everything going on in the room. He had a real liking for oatmeal, but for him rabbit pellets were an acquired taste. I tried 4 different kinds of pellets on him until I found one he sort of liked. He also liked grated carrots for a while but in time he decided they weren't really his cup of tea and wasn't as interested in them as he had been.

For the past couple of weeks I had been watching him in his cage and I was slowly coming to the understanding that the life he had with me was not what he was meant to have. Sure, he had everything he needed - food, water, shelter, safety - but he was alone. As he got healthier his instincts started kicking in and he became more wary and frightened of me. I really couldn't take him out and let him play in the playpen as I do the domestic rabbits in my care, because I was afraid he would hurt himself in a more open, unfamiliar environment. I think he could have lived in my home in that cage for a long time, much longer than the life he will have in the wild, surrounded by predators and dangers, but as the old saying goes, a gilded cage is still a cage. I really wanted to keep him, but I had to come to the realization that it's not about what I want, but what is best for him.

I think what really convinced me that he needed his freedom as when I moved him and some other bunnies out of the bunny room in my house to the guest bedroom. His cage had been against a wall opposite the only window in the room. In the guest bedroom, he was atop a bank of cages directly in front of a window, and he spent a huge amount of time on his wooden house staring out the window into my yard. He was clearly very interested in what was going on outside and I couldn't help but think he really wanted to be there. I couldn't deny the feeling that he was trying to tell me something, that he wanted and needed to be outdoors with his own kind, living the life he was meant to have. Sure his life would be fraught with danger every step of the way, and the environment would be harsh and unforgiving. But the cottontails are native to this area and they have the instincts and survival skills to live in this land where death can happen in a split-second. It may sound to humans like a cruel, brutal existence, but to the cottontails, it's what is meant to be for them.

So, on a bright, cool Tuesday morning, I released my cottontail into the underbrush near the home of my friends Kim and Michael in Paradise Valley. This release was pretty much like the others I have done - I took the bunny out of the carrier, said goodbye and put him on the ground. For a couple of minutes, he just sat there and did not move, as if he were overwhelmed by what was happening to him:

Then, as he started to look around and get his bearings, he took what I like to call the "Leap of Faith," his first tentative hop into a world that is both new and familiar at the same time:

As he scampered off into the bushes, I could tell he was very glad to be back in his intended environment. Any misgivings or regrets I might have had about returning him to the wild disappeared at that point, because I knew he was happy:

Then, as I followed him around to a couple of bushes, he stopped and looked at me, and I was able to get one last photo. I like to think he was saying, "Thanks, Dad, for everything!":

If I could say one thing to him, I would say: Thank you, little one, for being in my life for a couple of months and allowing me the great privilege of caring for you. I hope somewhere in the back of your mind you will keep a small memory of me and know that you were loved and had value. Go and enjoy every second of your life, and make hundreds and hundreds of beautiful little cottontail babies who will run and jump and dance in the morning sunlight, just as you did when I set you free.

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