Cottontail

 

9-4-16-cottontailWe found a dead snake in the yard once, cut into three pieces. Now my husband sets the lawnmower blades too high to harm any creatures living in the meadow our front yard becomes between cuttings. This time the mower sweeps aside the top layer of a rabbit’s nest but deposits the cut grass back on top, and we don’t see. The old dog sees. This dog is only curious, entranced with the blind creatures that stir and cry out when he noses them. He doesn’t mean to harm the one on top of the jumble of baby rabbits, but it screams nonetheless, a piteous sound its mother, hidden somewhere nearby, surely hears and can do nothing about.

But I hear, too, and pull the old dog away. Squatting, I try to think of what might keep these babies safe. The hollering one is silent now, and I look it over. It seems fine, so I return it to what’s left of its nest in the crook between the raised roots of the maple tree. Immediately it burrows down among its brothers and sisters and sets them all to stirring, a squirming pile of impossibly soft fur and rooting mouths that generates more heat than seems possible.

It’s not true that a cottontail doe will abandon her babies if a human being touches it. Bird and mammal mothers of nearly every species will return to care for their young if given a chance, so I cup the nest and reshape it with my hands. The fur the mother rabbit has pulled from her belly to set on top of her babies beneath the grass—that warm, sheltering layer—is now wafting across the yard in the breeze. I tug some longer blades of grass around them, gather some pine straw to add on top. All day long I keep the old dog inside. All day long I fight the urge to push aside that straw aside and check on my babies.

They’re my babies now.

2When my husband gets home, we find some old fencing shoved behind the toolshed—it’s the wire barrier we built around the Christmas tree the year the old dog was a puppy—and fashion a fence around the rabbit’s nest. A few snips with a bolt-cutter, and now there’s a rabbit-sized hole, just big enough for the doe to get through but not big enough for the old dog’s shaggy head. I pull a chair onto the front stoop and wait in the gloaming, the rabbit hour, needing to know she’s returned. I hear the resident Great Horned owl. I hear the neighbor’s dog, and another neighbor’s answering dog. I see nothing at all. Not a single creature stirs in the failing light.

Later, in bed, I lie in the dark and worry. Will the doe come back? Can she reach her babies if she does come back? What about the rabbit fur now scattered across the yard—will it summon the kinds of predators no jury-rigged fence can hold back? Will it rain? Will the makeshift nest provide enough protection from rain?

In the morning I take a different route to the tree—careful not to follow the same path I took the day before, trying not to lay down a scent trail for predators—and stand well outside the fence. I study the nest, trying to determine whether the pine straw has been pushed aside and rearranged, looking for any sign that the mother rabbit has returned to feed her babies. I can’t tell. Yesterday I didn’t think to note the arrangement of straw, and now I can’t tell.

In the afternoon, the old dog is nosing something a few feet beyond the fence. He pushes it with his nose and waits. Pushes and waits. I walk over. It’s a dead baby rabbit, eyes still closed, lying stretched out on the ground. I walk around and around the tree, peer inside the fencing and out. There are no other dead rabbits. I pick it up and tuck it into the brush pile where something hungry will eat it.

Inside, I call wildlife rescue. Years ago I volunteered for a wildlife-rescue service, and I know there’s not much they can do over the phone, but I call anyway. I need to know what happened. I need to know if the baby rabbit crawled out of the nest to die. Did it die of internal injuries caused by the curious old dog? Was it starving, scratching its way through the fence because its mother couldn’t reach it?

The helpline volunteer tells me to wait till early morning, open the fence, reach past the pine straw, and pull out one of the baby rabbits. Check it quickly, she says, and then put it back. I know why she’s urging haste: rabbits can die of fright, nature’s way of making sure these creatures born to be eaten are also born to suffer only briefly. Check it quickly and put it back, she says. Check to make sure its belly is full—if its belly is full, there’s nothing more to worry about.

4That warm little belly is tight as a tick.