It wasn’t really supposed to happen.
I suppose a lot of stories which feature rabbits as main characters begin this way. As our neighbor points out, "You were raised on a farm, right? You do know how these things work?"
I’ll start at Mother’s Day of this year. Oh, there are more humorous escapades with this tale that happened before May; there are poignant moments, and there is even drama and pain if I recounted all of our rabbit adventures. (Writing it all down is on my proverbial list of things to do ...) But for the sake of brevity, I’ll begin my retelling from when we added two Silver Foxes to our little grouping of four rabbits.
Imagine the scene. In our front yard, nestled under the natural shade from trees -- and a red pop-up tent thrown up for extra precaution, recline four furry friends. They roam fairly freely, inside their six fences which we’ve attached together. The two Mini Lops, Zanna and her sister Zorio, weigh in around six pounds each. Zonk, a Flemish Giant/Silver Fox cross who inspires everyone to say "She’s huge!" stays close to the two little sisters. Zen, a full Flemish Giant, is only a teenager, and keeps a respectable distance from the others.
It’s the Saturday before Mother’s Day, and I have just returned from a 90-minute one-way drive to Connecticut (and back). My two younger kids have accompanied me, and we are excited about showing off our two newest rabbits.
We put them into the massive pen, and watch them interact. They sniffed each other, and chased each other around a bit, and then they essentially settled in.
We continued with our normal routine. We take the rabbits all out every morning, sometime between 6 and 7.30, before the bus comes. And we put the rabbits all back in every night, around dark, snuggling and talking to them while they are being moved around. In between, we check on them, we watch them, we sit with them and play with them.
One beautiful late May morning, I took advantage of the glory of the day, and spent a bit longer chatting with them, and observing them. I noted that one of the new ones, Zinnia, seemed rather intent on mounting the others.
I watched harder. It didn’t seem like just the "I’m top rabbit" type mounting to me ... There was something more purposeful about the activity, something funny, not-quite-normal about the way that Zinnia was going about this .... And why was Zonk, the oldest, most dominant rabbit, allowing this little upstart to intimidate her?
A little bell went off in my head, dinging first quietly, in a start of recognition -- and then clanging obnoxiously in alarm. I headed up to the computer, and immediately researched "sexing rabbits." (Yes, there are YouTube videos for apparently everything.) When my oldest came home that afternoon, we held Zinnia close and peered intently.
My son’s eyes met mine. "We’re in trouble," he said, summing up the situation succinctly.
Zinnia became Master Zinnian. We gave him his own cage that night -- and a new home within days, where he was renamed "Zeus."
I thought perhaps there was a chance, since he was so young? No, Google searches informed me that males (bucks) are quite capable of reproducing as young as three months. That’s only 12 weeks -- the age we brought him home.
Maybe the girls (does) were not old enough? No, again, my friends at Google insist that while it is best to wait until at least six months, it’s not necessary for conception.
And the timing, surely the rabbits needed more time, or the correct time? No, the websites consistently referred to putting the bucks with the does for "one or two hours." I couldn’t even bring myself to do the math: we’d had them together for 20 days, about 13-14 hours per day.
But maybe the females were not in the right phase? No, yet again, rabbits are made for this reproduction act: the females ovulate after they’ve met with their male friends.
At last, my hopes surged when I read that "often times the young bucks don’t enjoy much success because the does won’t accept them."
But then I remembered the scene that had sent me scurrying for information: Zinnia/Master Zinnian/Zeus had definitely been "accepted" by my biggest, most dominant doe, Zonk.
They couldn’t have many babies, I thought. They are all first-time mothers, and so young. Research said that the Mini Lops would have between one and four; Silver Foxes only six to eight; Flemish Giants perhaps between 10 and 12. Still, the total could be 28 ... or 35. I had to sit down: what would I do with 35 rabbits?
The kids and I -- and some friends -- prepared nesting boxes. We didn’t know when they might have been bred; the boxes had to go in now.
I started bringing them fresh greens, and I learned to identify which plants the rabbits like best. (Plantain, as it turns out, can live 65 years as a seed before germination; who knew?) I started picking handfuls -- which they gobbled down within minutes. I put the kids onto the task, and we were soon up to two five-gallon-pails a day.
We ignored all their plaintive rabbit-eye looks when we didn’t put them out during the day. Gestation runs only 28-31 days. We’d just have to enforce the lock-down until around the 4th of July.
The weekend of the Heifer Stroll, I found six little black balls in the nesting box under Zuri. We had been admonished not to touch them, not to disturb them -- and were filled with fear that, should we inadvertently do anything wrong, the mother would eat them. (More research explained this horrifying idea: the mother rabbit would need to protect herself in the wild.)
We worried that Zuri didn’t know what she was doing, that she would be one of those rabbits a friend had warned us about that would just let the babies die. But the websites reassured us: rabbits only nurse their young once, maybe twice, a day -- for five to 10 minutes total. I thought back to the hours I had spent with my kids. Not for the first time, the phrase "reproducing like rabbits" flashed through my head. There are reasons for this!
We watched Zanna, Zorio, Zen and Zonk. Another friend -- who raises meat rabbits -- advised that we watch for straw being carried in their mouths. "That’s a clear sign, I tell you," she said.
They carried straw.
They looked bigger. They were ravenous, eating every bit of greens that we gave them, now up to three or four times a day. Zonk looked like a woodchuck; Zanna and Zorio resembled stuffed animals. Zen, who was truly too young to have been bred, gave me hope as she maintained her svelte, Flemish Giant shape.
After two and a half weeks of hope that we were suddenly just raising fat little rabbits, one Tuesday, Zorio’s nesting box seemed to have more fur in it. I poked around, carefully ... and I found a pile of squirming bald kits (rabbit babies are called kits; all my research had given our family new language skills).
On Wednesday, Zanna seemed odd -- and an inspection of her box showed another group.
I looked at Zen. She was carrying straw. But she was not really any bigger. Or was she? The kids and I were not sure.
On Thursday, Zen’s nesting box held more babies.
We looked at Zonk, huge Zonk. Was she the lone holdout?
On Saturday, I opened up the back of Zonk’s hutch, checking the nesting box that she and I had been arguing over, as Zonk insisted it made a wonderful litter box, no matter how many times I’d cleaned it. Instead of throwing out dirty hay, I found another bunch of kits -- a huge bunch, the biggest of them all.
Over the next few days, we’d try to count-without touching much. Although, honestly, I decided that we’d believe one of the web sites that pointed out that people who bring them food every day would not be perceived as predators. I held the second round of babies right from the start.
Eventually, though, the tally exceed my worst fears: 39. Thirty-nine little beings that we must eventually find homes for -- although I have agreed to keep one (and only one).
We’re now up to about five five-gallon pails full of greens every day and a half. We go through 25 pounds of rabbit feed in about a week. We could fertilize entire fields with the manure output from our furry friends. Chores take at least an hour and a half of our time a day. We discuss which one we would like to keep, with every person having found something exceptional in a different rabbit. We worry about rain storms drenching them, and move them from under their pop-up tent into a shed ... where we set up fans, convinced that it is too hot inside.
But ... oh, the fun!
Have you ever seen how absolutely adorable the little fuzz balls can be when they pile together in a heap? Have you felt supreme calmness roll over you while cuddle a little soft creatures as she falls asleep in your hands? Have you watched as teenagers fall under their spell, turning to mush as they hold a little guy in their palms?
Because if you haven’t, I’ve got a great deal for you ....
Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools-now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.