From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Maternal Instincts and Little Rabbits

The Rural Life... Another Trip Down Memory Lane... More About Birds and Animals...




About three years ago, Isaac and I went to a little house at Kelly, KY, and chose a kitten from a litter of five who were living in a big box in someone's living room.

We wanted a female so Happy, our old tom, wouldn't feel a need to fight it. There were only two female kittens in the litter; one trembled in fear when touched, and the other reached out a paw to Isaac and then bit him. We chose the biter and named her Skittles.

She's spayed now, but she had two litters of kittens when she was a mere adolescent. I forget whether the rabbit incidents happened during her first or second kitten episode.

At any rate, it happened this way. The kittens had grown too large for their box in the house, and the weather was warm, so I moved them to a large old wooden box on the carport.

I glanced into the box one afternoon and I was shocked to see a fuzzy little alien in there. The kittens were nursing and a baby rabbit was huddled against them. Obviously, Skittles had acquired the rabbit and she didn't seem interested in eating it, so I left it there. I didn't know if it would survive if I released it, and I hoped that maybe it would accept Skittles as its mother.

The next day I looked in the box and I was shocked to see that now there were two little rabbits. I can only surmise that in her condition of activated maternal hormones, Skittles thought the little wild rabbits were actually kittens who needed a home. Never mind that their ears were a bit long; obviously they needed her care.

I still wasn't sure what to do with the rabbits. They were so young that I was afraid they'd die if I turned them loose. Still, I wondered about leaving them with Skittles. She groomed them enthusiastically, just as she did her feline children but I didn't ever see the rabbits nursing. She wouldn't have minded, but they didn't seem interested.

After much pondering of the situation, I sought out a recipe for homemade milk-replacer for rabbits on the internet and bought some pet bottles so we could feed the little rabbits by hand. They were flighty, slippery little creatures, but they were hungry. Keely named them Abbot and Costello, and developed a method of wrapping them gently in a towel for feeding. That way, they could shrink into the towel rather than darting forward if they were startled.

Unfortunately, Abbot died, and then we had just Costello to nurse along. I read that rabbits have fragile bones and I became concerned about the kittens hurting him because they were much larger and they played roughly. We decided to move Costello to a nest of dry grass clippings in the bottom of a large round garbage can in the house.

Costello was terribly nervous whenever we handled him. He couldn't help it; that's the way rabbits are, especially wild ones. I guess he became about as tame as a little wild rabbit can be. Sometimes as he drank his bottle, he closed his little eyes and seemed to enjoy it and maybe even dozed a little as I sat very still and held him, bundled in his little feeding towel.

He developed sharp teeth that could sever a pet bottle nipple with a single chomp. I started giving his milk to him in a drinking bottle designed for hamster and rat cages. It had a long metal tube with a metal marble in the end of it. Costello quickly learned to push the marble up just enough that a trickle of milk flowed out of the tube into his mouth.

He grew rapidly. When he developed a hearty appetite for clover we picked from the lawn for him, I knew that he could probably survive on his own. One sunny day, I took him out to the hedgerow along the back fence where there's a thick cover of unmowed vegetation, and I said goodby to the little guy. After I released him, he sat still for a moment and then crept away into the tall grass. I couldn't help worrying about him!

Meanwhile, the kittens had grown too large for the wooden box, so we had moved them to a 6-foot round cattle tank that the kids had used as a pool when they were little. One day, I saw Skittles jump into the tank with a baby squirrel struggling in her mouth. Apparently she had an idea of adopting it like she had done with the rabbits.

The little squirrel was trying so hard to escape that Skittles was excited by it. She seemed a bit uncertain -- was it a baby or was it a game animal after all? I snatched the wild little thing away from her. It leaped from my hands in a flash, ran into the shrubbery and was never seen again. Skittles was momentarily puzzled where the strange baby had gone -- and then she nursed the kittens.

Last summer, when Costello would have been one year old, an unusually tame rabbit lived in our yard. He didn't come close to us, but he never ran away or froze in position like rabbits do when frightened. He was quite comfortable even at a 15-foot distance. The lawn mower didn't disturb him much; he just moved out of its way and enjoyed the freshly mowed greens. We saw him all summer long, placidly grazing on the clover in one spot or another. Of course we think it was Costello.

2 comments:

Trixie said...

What a neat story! That picture of Skittles almost looks like a painting.

Genevieve said...

She's in a sumac tree (or bush, if you prefer.)

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.