Friday, June 15, 2012

The One in Three

I have been doing cottontail rehab for a couple of years now, and I can't think of anything else I have ever done in my life that can be so rewarding and so emotionally devastating at the same time.

My survival rate with the little bunnies is not good at all, probably one in three babies I get survive to be released into the wild.  But in this business a 50% survival rate is considered pretty good, so I'm not that far behind.  Still, losing any little babies that come into my care can be very painful.

One in three is just not good enough.

Two young cottontails came to me recently.  Nine days ago, when I was working at the thrift store, a woman and her daughter came in carrying a glass aquarium with a little bunny inside.  They said it was in danger of being a snack for a bull snake when it was saved, and they wondered if we could take it in, since they had no clue what to do.  I said sure, and brought home the little ball of fluff with the huge ears.  This is a picture of the bunny:

This little bun is probably close to a month in age, older than most cottontails I get.  He or she is doing very well, eating with great enthusiasm, and exhibited genuine outrage and indignance when I tried to clean his enclosure the other day, standing his ground and boxing my hand with the greatest of attitude.  And you can't help but love that.

Three days ago I got a much younger and tinier cottontail, brought to me by my friend Kathy in Payson.  Looking a lot like a furry golf ball with ears, his eyes had just opened up that day, which would put him between 10 and 14 days old.

He looked so very small and fragile, and Kathy asked me to take him because she had never cared for a bunny so tiny.  I agreed, since we have a nursing domestic mother rabbit, Tilly, and usually the mother rabbit will accept another tiny mouth to feed with no problem.  Tilly's four babies, born nearly three weeks ago, were about 4 times as big as the little cottontail, but I would try to place the baby with Tilly.

Unfortunately that did not work out, and the baby for some reason could not get enough milk from Tilly, even though she was loaded with it.  I took the baby back and started to feed him with goat's milk through an eyedropper, standard procedure with cottontail babies that size.

The goat's milk seemed to upset the babies stomach, and appeared to be doing more harm than good.  With my options dwindling, I started the baby on kitten replacement formula, and that seemed to work much better.  The baby sometimes got an "Ewww" face when I fed it, but it seemed to be doing well being fed three times a day.

The little one spent a lot of time sleeping, as do all bunnies that age, but could be very active and spry.  He (or she) got to recognize my voice and ran out of his little cardboard box when I came up to his enclosure.  I would put my hand inside his tank and he would scramble up into my palm.  He loved to be rubbed and gently stroked, and would lick my hands and fingers quite vigorously, until he fell asleep five minutes later.  This is a picture of the little one:

I spent a lot of time holding the little baby, since it seemed to crave physical contact and enjoy it so much.  I loved holding that tiny, incredibly fragile, little droplet of life.  How could that little ball of fuzz with the tiny ears, barely weighing an ounce (less than 1/3000th of my body weight), steal my heart in less than 24 hours?  I swear that if someone came in and stuck a gun to my head and told me to crush the life out of that little speck in my hand, I would say go ahead and shoot.  A bullet to the brain would be fast and quick, as opposed to a lifetime of remembering the alternative.

The little bunny ate fairly well, but never enough, and it didn't seem to grow much at all over the past couple of days.  It always seemed skinny and thin, and it was not putting on weight as it should.  It would consume a bit of kitten formula, but soon started to bat the eyedropper away from its mouth.  In spite of that I was cautiously optimistic, but I knew the little one was by no means out of the woods yet.

Today everything seemed normal, and this afternoon I held him in my hand for a while.  As usual, he licked my fingers and then snuggled in for a little snooze.  I put him back in his enclosure and went to the gym.

I returned to find him lying on his side, breathing in shallow gasps.  He had crashed on me, as is all too typical for these delicate little creatures.  He was dying, and his internal organs were slowly shutting down.

I picked him up and held him in the palm of my hand, cradling his failing body and trying to let him know I was there.  He looked at me with his tiny dark eyes as if to say, "Why?"  I could not answer.  I didn't know why his little life was being ended after such an incredibly short time.  I still can't come up with an answer.

He did not want to go, and fought his impending death for a good 20 minutes.  He gasped, stretched his arms and legs out several times, and endured a series of twitches and spasms.  Finally, he took one last gasp, and reared his head back.  His body went limp, and his breathing stopped.

I am done cursing out the universe or whatever deity is currently in charge.  I can't believe any deity of any kind - even the hateful, vengeful Christian one - would create an innocent life like that, so small and beautiful, only to take it away a short time later.  Some events seem so utterly, completely pointless and without merit.  Why couldn't that little one live?

It's been a rough year so far, with many beloved rabbits going to the Bridge.  Camilla, Babs, Elinor, Georgia, my own bunny Apricot, quite a few others.  At least this newest, tiniest resident at the Rainbow Bridge will be welcomed and cared for by some absolutely wonderful, beautiful rabbits.

And when I get another cottontail baby - and I know I will - so frail and delicate and hanging onto life by a thread, most likely I might have to go through all this again.  Why do I do this?  Why would I subject myself to having my heart ripped apart and stomped on the floor, again and again?

For the one in three, that's why.


  1. There are people in the world who fight for the helpless and people who prey on it. Be glad you are in the first group, even the ones that leave early are grateful for it.

  2. Thank you for trying to help the baby. I'm sure you've pursued lots of resources for cottie might want to contact Rondi Large at Wildcare Oklahoma ( She is fairly well versed in rehabbing these little ones and might have info about formula and feeding you could use.

    Thanks again for trying.

  3. Thank you, veganelder, I will contact Rondi and see if she can share some insights and best practices for these little cotties. Losing even one just breaks your heart to pieces.