Hopping for a Good Home : Want a Good Deal on a Rabbit? Or Maybe a Whole Horde of Rabbits?

I HAVE A PLAINTIVE LETTER from a Lancaster woman asking for my help in dealing with a problem that seems to have descended upon her through no fault of her own.

"I am a 76-year-old woman living alone here on the high desert," writes Nellie Bibbie. "This letter is selfish, but I thought I would take a chance on your understanding of humans and animals."

Naturally, I find it hard to resist an appeal of that kind.

About four years ago, she says, two rabbits came to her home. She doesn't say what kind of rabbits they were nor where they came from. Evidently they just showed up.

"The dogs carried away the male in the middle of the night. The female hid under a car in the field."

Mrs. Bibbie doesn't say how she knows the dogs carried off the male in the night (nor how she knew it was a male), but it's probably a sound presumption.

In any case, the inevitable happened. "Soon some cute little bunnies came hopping out from under the car, and I set out food and water. I now have about 100 rabbits."

I say "the inevitable" happened. We must assume that the female was already pregnant when the male was carried off, but female rabbits are almost always pregnant, so that is no problem.

One wonders, though, how the number of bunnies reached 100 in the absence of a male rabbit. Rabbits in a litter may number from two to eight, and a female may have several litters a year, the gestation period being only one month. However, each succeeding litter requires the cooperation of a male. So, I suspect, a new male has crept into Mrs. Bibbie's establishment, or the family is incestuous.

By the way, a curious biological mechanism is responsible for the rabbit's prolific reproduction rate. Copulation activates a process that causes the female to ovulate, almost guaranteeing pregnancy.

Mrs. Bibbie's problem, of course, is one of overpopulation. What she asks of me is some help in finding people who'd be willing to take some of her rabbits. (Bunnies quickly become rabbits.) Mrs. Bibbie does not want to sell her rabbits, and she does not want them to be caged or eaten. "They have never been in cages," she asserts.

Mrs. Bibbie appeals especially to us hillsiders who live with fire hazards. "I used to have to chop weeds for a firebreak," she says, "but now there is no fire danger. Not a blade of grass."

One wonders, though, how the rabbits could be trained to eat the bad grass and leave the good grass alone. I'm afraid my wife's gardens would be devastated.

And then there is always the problem of excessive reproduction. What has happened to Mrs. Bibbie would almost certainly happen to anyone who took a family of her rabbits. (She says a family is 13, though it seems to me that two would be quite enough.)

The unchecked proliferation of rabbits can be terrible. I remember newsreels of the 1930s showing mass rabbit drives in Australia, with hundreds of Aussies slaughtering rabbits with clubs.

Children like rabbits as pets, but there is always that danger of soon having more rabbits than one wants. My elder granddaughter once had a pet rabbit, but, like Mrs. Bibbie's male, it was carried off by the dogs. She was heartbroken.

If Mrs. Bibbie's rabbits are not in cages, I don't see how they escape predators, especially up there in the desert where there must be plenty of owls, snakes and coyotes. Our Los Angeles hills, too, are infested with wild animals looking for an easy meal. Although rabbits have been known to drive off raccoons and even bobcats with their strong hind legs, they are, in the long run, no match for their enemies.

As hideous as the prospect may be to Mrs. Bibbie and to me, one must expect surplus rabbits to end up on the dinner table. As far as I know, the only rabbit I have ever eaten was Welsh rabbit, which is not rabbit at all, but cheese; still, we cannot escape the fact that many people consider rabbit a delicacy.

In the "Good Housekeeping Cookbook," which I assume is owned and used by civilized people, I have found recipes for fried rabbit, rabbit supreme and hasenpfeffer , which my dictionary tells me is "a German dish of rabbit meat marinated in vinegar and stewed in the marinade."

The recipe for rabbit supreme calls for "two 2-pound ready-to-cook wild rabbits." Where does one get ready-to-cook wild rabbits? Surely they must be shot or trapped first and then skinned. I don't like it.

If anyone wants to adopt a family of rabbits, I'll be happy to put him or her in touch with Mrs. Bibbie. Otherwise, she will have to leave the rabbits to their enemies, and let nature take its course.

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