On noticing.

On noticing.

Midway through dinner, I thought I heard a strange sound.  A faint bleating, maybe, that seemed to be coming from our backyard.  Many musicians studying at the Jacobs School live in the apartment complex behind our house – we can often hear them practicing – but this didn’t sound like a conventional instrument.

I stood up, walked over to the window, and opened it, looking around our yard.  It’s currently grackle mating season – watching a male grackle inflate his plumage to double his size is pretty incredible – and they make a variety of noises.  So I suspected an ardent bird.  I lingered there a moment, looking and listening, trying to determine where the sound had come from.

Those few seconds were too long.

I heard it again, and, with the window open, recognized the distress cry of a young rabbit.

I pulled off my socks, ran outside.  Sprinted around our house to the small fenced enclosure where we have our air conditioning unit.

A large rabbit fled from the HVAC enclosure when it saw me.  It bolted across the yard and slipped through the back fence.

Yes.  Our yard has a lot of fences.  We have dogs.  The back fence keeps them inside the yard.  The fence around the HVAC unit keeps our dogs from crashing into the various wires and tubing and ripping them from the wall (which our younger dog did last year, necessitating expensive repairs).

The distress call had stopped, but now I knew where to look.  And there, sprawled on the mulch, was a juvenile rabbit, about as big as my hand.  His fur had been ripped from his face, leaving his nose raw and bleeding; he was also bleeding from gaping wounds down his back, and his hind legs were broken.  (I’m assuming gender here because I think that’s what triggered the attack – probably a territorial adult male felt that this juvenile was impinging on his territory.)

The mutilated juvenile sat watching me for a moment, then tried to hop away.  He couldn’t.  His legs kicked back slowly and he toppled.

Prostrate on his side, the wounds looked even worse.  He was breathing heavily, watching me.

My children, still inside the house, called through the window to ask what was happening.  I shook my head.

“There’s a baby rabbit, and he’s very, very hurt.  He’s going to die.”

The kids wanted to come see.  I didn’t really want them to – they are only four and six years old – but we all have to learn about death.  Our elder child visited her grandfather in hospice while he was dying after a stroke, and she understands that her grandmother died after somebody hurt her.  Our younger child is at an age where many of the stories she tells involve death, but I’m not sure she understands the permanence yet.

And the thing I really didn’t want to talk about – but would have to, for them to understand – is the brutality of territorial violence.  I hadn’t known that it was so horrific in rabbits.  This baby bunny had been murdered by an irate elder.

And the violence that we humans use to claim and protect territory is one of the worst aspects of our species.  We are a brilliantly inventive species.  Many – perhaps most – of our inventions sprang from the desire to make better weapons.

The world was here before us, but we pound sticks into the ground and say “This part of the world is mine.”

We’re far too fond of building walls. 

And fences.

I sighed.

The kids joined me outside.  My spouse came out; as soon as she saw the poor rabbit, she cried.  I tried, as gently and non-pedantically as I was able, to explain what had happened.

My younger child clasped her hands in front of her chin.  “I’m sad the baby bunny is going to die.”

The rabbit’s breathing was clearly labored.  I wonder how well he understood that this was the end.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m sad, too.”

The sun was setting, and the air was starting to grow chilly.  My spouse went back inside and cut up one of my old socks (I typically wear socks until they disintegrate, and my spouse thinks that any sock missing both the heel and toes is fair game to destroy, so we always have spare fabric on hand) to make a small blanket.

The dying rabbit probably felt scared – I’d asked the kids to keep a respectful distance, but we humans are quite large.  Still, I tried to make myself as small as possible as I reached out to cover the rabbit’s torso with the blanket.  I left my hand there, gently resting over his chest, for warmth.  I could feel his panting breaths rise and fall beneath my palm.

I quietly offered my apologies and said a prayer.  The rabbit watched me.  I tried to smile with no teeth.  I stayed crouching, immobile, until the rabbit’s breathing stopped five minutes later.

Then I went inside and finished eating dinner.

At times, being vegan is a comfort.  All of us, in living, impose harms upon the world – that’s the unfortunate nature of existence.  To grow food crops, we till the soil.  Spray pesticides.  And kill all those plants.

Our lives matter, too.  If we don’t take care of ourselves, and strive to enjoy our time alive – if we don’t place value on our own lives – then how could we value others?

Still, my family tries to minimize the harm we wreck by being here.  We live well, but try to be cognizant of the costs.

I was glad that the meal I returned to was made from only plants.

After I finished eating, I went and sat on our front porch with my children.  We spread a blanket over our laps.  We watched birds flit between the trees.  A chipmunk dashed across the lawn.  Two squirrels chased each other through a neighbors yard.

Our elder child clutched me tightly.  I hugged her back.  We sat silently.  I didn’t know what to say.

Then it was time for the kids to go to bed.

It was my spouse’s turn to read the bedtime stories that night, and our dogs wanted to go outside, so I took them to the back yard. 

I don’t think our dogs would hurt a rabbit – when my father-in-law died, the dwarf rabbit he’d purchased as a love token for his twenty-year-old ladyfriend came to live with us (they’d broken up a few days before his stroke, which is why she didn’t want to adopt the rabbit), and when our dogs dug up a rabbit’s nest two years ago, they gently carried a newborn bunny around the yard (we returned it to the nest and it survived until it was old enough to hop away).

I didn’t want for the dogs to carry the dead rabbit around our yard, though.  Or hide it somewhere for the kids to find.

So I walked over to the HVAC unit, ready to explain to the dogs not to bother it.  But the rabbit was gone.  The sock blanket was still there, but no corpse.

We don’t live in a particularly rural area – we’re in Bloomington, about half a mile south of the Indiana University campus.  Our backyard is shared with a sixty-unit apartment complex.  And yet.  Even here, the natural world is bustling enough that a dead thing can disappear within twenty minutes.  I’ve seen hawks, vultures, crows, raccoons, possums, skunks.  Many deer, and a groundhog, although they wouldn’t eat a rabbit.  One semi-feral cat.  I’ve seen foxes down the street from us, in fields a half mile away, but never in our yard.

And, it’s strange.  The dead rabbit lay in our yard for less than twenty minutes.  If we had been listening to music over dinner – which we often do – I wouldn’t have heard his cries through the glass windowpane.

Scientists often pride ourselves on our powers of observations.  But noticing, this time, only made me sad.  If I hadn’t heard that faint sound, I never would have realized that anything untoward had happened in our yard.  And I could have remained blissfully ignorant of the ruthless violence that rabbits apparently inflict upon young children.

The natural world is not a peaceful place.

Still.  I would rather know.  Understanding the pervasive violence that surrounds us helps me to remember how important it is – since we have a choice – to choose to do better.

On the naming of rabbits.

On the naming of rabbits.

I’m fond of animals, but I’m perfectly happy being fond of them from a distance — I managed many years as an adult without adopting pets.  I do my at-home typing in front of a large window, occasionally glancing up to watch squirrels chase each other through our yard.  If I’m midway through a particularly arduous pdf, that glance might stretch on to fill half an hour or more (my “to read” folder currently has papers from The George Washington Law Review, The National Bureau of Economic Research, and Philosophical Quarterly, so I imagine at least one will zonk me).

Watching squirrels through the window, and taking my daughter to look at frogs in the lotus pond, and saying “hello” to dogs on our way to the park, felt like a good amount of animal interaction for me.  With three full-time residents plus our drop-by guests, our house felt chaotic enough.

Now our house is more chaotic.  We’ve been joined by Uncle Max, a seventy pound pitbull, and Kichirou, a three pound dwarf rabbit.

max and kichirou edit

Uncle Max arrived already knowing his name.  The “uncle” bit actually infuriated K for a while, until she realized it’s hilarious.  Uncle Max was her father’s dog, which in her father’s eyes meant that she and the dog were siblings. When K announced that she was pregnant, he started referring to his dog Max as Uncle Max.  Plus, like most pitbulls, Uncle Max is rather scary looking — he’s strong, with a cudgel head, and sufficiently exuberant that he’ll tug on leashes until he cuts off his air and his eyes flush bloodshot red — but framing affects how people see the world.  Hearing someone refer to a dog as “Uncle Max,” a ridiculous name, makes him seem less threatening.  Or so it’s seemed on the times I’ve walked him.

(Looking scary was an essential part of Uncle Max’s initial job description. Back when K’s father was living in upstate New York, his roommate decided to grow marijuana, and, worse, brag to everyone he knew that he was growing marijuana. Shortly thereafter, a bunch of dudes broke into their house, pistol-whipped K’s father in the face, and stole a bunch of tomato plants. The tomatoes were found the next morning in the middle of the road, as though a driver had shouted “You idiots! That’s not marijuana!” and the dudes simply dropped them and got in the car and drove away. That’s when K’s father’s roommate decided he needed a dog. Within a few months, he died. The roommate, that is. In bed, straddled by an overnight guest. Which meant that K’s father was homeless… and that he had a dog. A few months later K & I were able to drive out to New York and move both K’s father and Uncle Max to Bloomington.)

Kichirou also arrived with a name, but he’d only been living with K’s father for a week or so, and his name was not ideal, so we rechristened him.  Kichirou was welcomed into my father-in-law’s home during his final romantic fling, bought as a wooing / moving-in present for the lady friend.

Capture(Note: if you would like to live with an animal, please stop by your local shelter!  For pet stores to always have cute young animals ready to go home with you, subject to the temporal vagaries of consumer whims, they have to overproduce … which is an economicsy-sounding way of saying that some animals will go un-purchased and un-loved.)

As it happened, the romance ended a few days before my father-in-law passed.  When the ladyfriend moved out, K told her father that the rabbit should leave too.  K & I were already sponsoring Uncle Max, among sundry other aspects of her father’s life — his money situation was not ideal, he’d been on Medicaid but was booted when the Affordable Care Act went into effect, trapped in the coverage gap — and we didn’t think we could afford for him to keep another pet.  But the ex-ladyfriend was broke, too — she’d had a few hours per week at Big Boy’s, but lost them — so rumor had it that she was selling the rabbit to someone who was gonna fatten him up and eat him.

A grim fate — born in a pet store breeding center, brought to an apartment where the inhabitants barely had enough money to feed themselves, let alone a rabbit, then doomed to somebody’s dinner pot.


Yet somehow, when N’s Auntie Ferret (human) and I went to collect Uncle Max after K’s father’s stroke, the rabbit was there.  Auntie Ferret walked across the gravel drive and broken glass parking lot to the house where Uncle Max had been whimpering for the past hour, I stood on the stoop talking to the neighbor Tequila, then suddenly she told me, “Oh, he’s got a rabbit in there.”

I’m glad she told me.  Our plan was to collect Uncle Max, hop back in the car, return to the hospital.  We wouldn’t have cleaned out the apartment for a few days, and I doubt Kichirou could’ve survived with nothing to eat but the balled-up newspaper in the bottom of his cage.

0b0275bfe3edc06d092fab8e619179b6I feel like Kichirou earned his name, Japanese for “lucky son.”  At this point it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know how he ended up back in K’s father’s apartment, and even that almost wasn’t enough to save him.  And the name needed to be Japanese — the samurai actually respected rabbits.  A few years ago we saw the samurai weaponry exhibit at the Louisville armament museum and I was puzzled by all the rabbit imagery.  I thought it might allude to the moon; here’s Wendy Doniger’s summary of moon imagery from the introduction to The Hindus: An Alternate History:

Another metaphor for this sort of double vision is the dark shape visible on the moon: many Americans and Europeans (for convenience, let us call them Euro-Americans) see the face of a man in the moon (whom some Jewish traditions identify as Cain, cursed to wander), and other cultures see a woman, a moose, a buffalo, a frog, and so forth.  But most Hindus (as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Aztecs) see a rabbit.

Still, why would a samurai want to evoke the moon?  Did they want to be seen as space creatures?  Were moon men endowed with special powers?  I speculated rampantly until K finally poked me in the side and said, “Why don’t you read the placard?”

47b794410367ceb32bfd935cb11af8b7I learned that the traits associated with rabbits are very different in U.S. versus Japanese culture.  Here, we think of rabbits as being easily frightened & prodigious breeders.  Whereas one of the placards at the samurai weaponry exhibit included the phrase “dash into battle like a rabbit.”  Rabbits have further virtues, as well; here’s an excerpt from Trever Absolon and David Thatcher’s Watanabe Art Museum Samurai Armour Collection:

Traditional Japanese artistic design and the elite world of the warrior class often combined in a way that from a conventional Western way of thinking produced many highly improbable and sometimes even illogical designs.  … one needs to understand that to feudal-period Japanese, the rabbit was seen as a selfless and noble creature, whose speed and agility was to be admired and whom legend stated could live for a thousand years.  It was these abilities and virtues to which the samurai were paying homage, and perhaps privately hoping to harness, when they chose to commission items in such shapes.

Given that, it seemed clear that only a Japanese name would do for Kichirou.  He’s not a skittish sex-fiend!  He’s a noble creature with speed & agility, ready at any moment to dash into battle!

I think the name has helped.  For the first two days in our house, Kirchirou was reluctant to venture outside his cage.  But now the three-pound rabbit seems dominant to the seventy-pound pitbull.