Friday, February 14, 2014

Five Days in February

The call came through last Thursday evening, through the rabbit rescue.  Someone called up and said they found a "baby rabbit" in their back yard.  I asked some questions to try to determine if it was domestic or one of the native cottontails.  They said it had small ears and a long tail.  I was like, really?  Bunnies don't really have long tails.  The person said her neighbor told her it was a baby rabbit, and she had no idea what to do with it.  I told her to bring the little one to me and I will have a look.  This is what they brought:
Turns out they found a baby pack rat.  The little one was so tiny, I was taken aback.  He really needs to be with his momma.  I've had baby cottontails brought to me about that same size, and it's always been a terrible ordeal keeping them alive.  They just don't do well, because nothing can really take the place of their mother's care and milk.  But I knew I really had no choice.  Turning this little creature away would doom it to a certain death.  But I had no experience with anything other than a cottontail.  One thing was certain to me:  I must try.

So I researched the care and feeding of baby pack rats, and found a surprising amount of information.  Rats, as a general species, have nutritional requirements that are similar to humans, so their babies do best on soy-based infant formula.  Baby rabbits do better on kitten milk replacement formula or goat's milk.  So I set up a glass tank on the kitchen table, on a heating pad to keep the baby warm.  I put pieces of flannel on the bottom, along with some rabbit fur I had saved from trimming an angora rabbit a while ago, and constructed a warm and soft nest for the little guy.  I fed him with an eyedropper, a process he didn't care for but he put up with anyway, and left him alone for the night.

The next morning he was still with me, and he quickly became familiar with my fingers rubbing him and picking him up.  I took photos and sent them to my friend Julia, and she immediately named him Ratatouille, or Bebbeh R for short.  I had to wrap him in Kleenex when I fed him because it seemed more formula would come out of the sides of his mouth than he would swallow.  When he decided he had had enough formula, he would push the eyedropper away with his tiny hands, and firmly close his mouth to make it hard for me to insert the end of the dropper.  I did get some formula down him, but it was very difficult to make sure he did not breathe some of the formula into his nose.  That was my biggest fear, that he would aspirate the formula into his lungs.  He would do some very sweet, adorable things like grab onto my thumb with his arms and legs and cling to me.  This is what I would see every day:

I would feed the little one three times a day.  He seemed to be doing okay, and every morning I would apprehensively come into the kitchen to check his tank, and every morning he would be curled up in the warm, soft fur and would immediately jump up and move around when I touched him.  He seemed to have a good day, followed by a not-so-good day when he would not eat as much as he did the day before.  But he did seem to be putting on a little bit of weight, so I began to be cautiously optimistic that he was doing well.  He would stand up on his long, thin, wobbly legs and move around as best he could.  It was such a joy to watch him.
I had to give him a little bit of a bath after every feeding, because of the formula getting all over him, but that was okay.  I actually became really excited about the third day because he was passing a little bit of solid waste.  This was actually a really good sign, because it meant he was taking in nutrition and processing it.  Of course the Holy Grail for me would be if I could get him to stay alive long enough for his eyes to open up.  Once his eyes were open, then he would be able to forage around for his own food and eat more on his own.  So it became a race to get him to the finish line, which is his eyes opening.
I would check up on Bebbeh R dozens of times a day.  I thought about him constantly.  It's hard to understand, unless you've been through something like this, how this incredibly tiny, frail droplet of life can take over your existence, and so much of your time and energy.  He had captured my heart the very first night that I had him, and each passing day made me a little more optimistic for him survival.  I actually allowed myself to think about what he would be like when he grew up and became much more aware of me and where he was.  Would his wild instincts kick in and turn him into something difficult to handle?  Most likely, but I was fully prepared to release him back into the wild when appropriate, or keep him with me if he wanted to.  After a couple of his not-so-good days, I would always be apprehensive when I checked him in the morning, but he always seem to hold on and make it through another night.
Time would run out on Bebbeh R on Tuesday night, five days after I first got him, when I noticed he did not look well and I could hear little clicking noises when he breathed.  My worst fear had come to realization, as it was a sign that he had developed pneumonia.  He was not interested in eating, and there was precious little I could do other than hold him in my hand, stroke his tiny head, and let him know I was here.  I said goodbye to him and went to bed.

The next morning, Wednesday morning, I woke up and found him dead under a blanket of soft rabbit fur.  I was not particularly surprised, but I was extremely disappointed and hurt.  I put my entire heart and soul into keeping this little one alive.  Realistically the odds were stacked against him from the very start, being just a couple of days old and extremely tiny.  But I did allow myself hope that he, through some miracle, would make it and survive.  That was not to be, and once again I learned that the bitterest pill to swallow is dashed hopes, and seeing your very best efforts come to naught.
I miss you, Bebbeh R, and I am sorry you had such a very short life on this earth.  I would do anything to have you back for one more try.  You really did take a bit of my heart with you when you left.  You were unforgettable, and so delicate and sweet that I just can't find words to adequately describe it.  I am absolutely certain that you knew I was there, even though you never saw me, and I take a lot of comfort in the knowledge that, for these five days in February, you knew you were valued, loved and cared for.


  1. This is making me cry. I did the same for a baby starling that a storm had knocked out a nest. He was with me for many weeks and I knew the bonding was happening because while he perched on my finger, I felt my heart wrench and I had fallen in love. When he died, I cried for a whole week, and I still get choked up to think of him or when I see starlings doing silly things.
    The heart wants what the heart wants and every little creature, every living thing, has great value.
    I know your pain over this little baby. He would not have been too wild. Rats are amazing pets. They are much smarter than dogs and love to socialize.

    1. Brandi, thank you for your comment. Obviously you understand what it's like to have a tiny, vulnerable baby come into your life and how you can bond so closely with them so quickly. I'm still sad about losing Bebbeh R and I always wonder what it would be like had he lived. I've had domestic rats as pets in the past and I absolutely loved them, they are incredibly great animals. Thank you for sharing your story about the starling.

  2. I am really sorry about Bebbeh R, Stephen. There are few people around that would bother helping a tiny baby rat and I admire you even more than I did before (if that is even possible) Thank you for trying to help him.

    1. Thanks so much, Christina. I know you understand how I felt about him. As I'm sure it is with you, it was impossible for me NOT to try to help, even though your heart gets broken at the end. Thanks for your kind words, my friend.