Posted in Lessons Learned

Our animal nature

I’ve been following the story of the wayward humpback whales who left the Pacific for an ill-advised sidetrip up the Sacramento River for two weeks, where they were injured and their health grew increasingly worse. As I write this, it seems they may have found their way back out the Golden Gate and are headed to Alaska as they should be.

I have no particular love for whales, but I do have a general love of all critters, and I didn’t want them to die. It seems a terrible price to pay for a wrong turn. Every year at camp, the grey whales are making the same trip from Mexico to Alaska, and all the campers come back to dinner with reports of sightings. Some are lucky enough to see the whales themselves; so far, I’ve only seen the spray from their blowholes, but even that was thrilling.

What has amazed me as I’ve followed the story is how the welfare of these two confused whales has transfixed the world. People all over the globe followed their progress and were rooting for them, including a gal living in a desert. In a world where the general assumption is apathy, selfishness, short-sightedness, and disregard for the environment, that people cared about these two whales was a ray of hope in what so often seems a sky overcast with negativity. People in a couple articles I read described the journey as a significant spiritual experience.

And I wondered whence came this global focus and outpouring of concern for two whole weeks for a couple of wild animals when the latest tragedy in the world barely merits column inches and international attention past the third day. It isn’t a criticism; I think it a marvel.

I think most of us have soft spot for animals (and I don’t really trust folks who don’t like animals), particularly wild ones, because they are symbols of an innocence we human beings feel too far removed from to ever return to. If you met my dogs, you would know that innocence is a myth, but unquestionably there is never any malice in their motivations, and perhaps that’s close enough to innocence for us. Certainly, I think we’d all appreciate a little less malice in the world. And for that we can count on critters if we cannot look to each other. And because of that, we are willing to go to great lengths as a species to help some whales get out of a jam.

I think people were glad to have a common goal that doesn’t involve bombing the hell out of someone, or retaliating for same, something that everyone can be on the same side of for a change. Music and whale sounds and banging pipes and firehoses, anything to save the whales! Thousands of people wrote e-mails to make suggestions. And the world held its breath, hoping for a happy ending. It seems we will get it, this time.

Last weekend, a similar saga played out at Casa Cunningham, though the ending wasn’t quite as happy. It started at 10 o’clock Friday, the last potty outing of the night, when the puppies discovered a hole of extreme interest at the foot of one of our backyard mesquites. Their attention attracted Monte’s, and pretty soon I had 3 dogs glued to a spot in the roots of the tree. Living in the desert as we do, there could be any number of dog-injuring critters in a given hole: snakes, Colorado River toads, scorpions, tarantulas, or even an angry rabid squirrel. One never knows, particularly if one is standing in the dark, the only light that from the quarter moon. But I couldn’t see any obvious threat, so I did what I any desert dweller would do to protect her children: I covered the hole with rocks, figuring I’d investigate during daylight. The dogs still kept sniffing around the spot, and I had to drag them back in the house.

I was awakened at two-something in the morning by restless canines who wanted to go out. As we were out in the Arizona room, not-really-sleeping on the sofa bed (my parents were in town and in ours), it was no great hardship to get up and take them out. I slipped on some flip-flops, and out we went, a dog at a time, puppies first.

Monte was out last and made a beeline to the spot beneath the tree. I wasn’t worried, because of the rocks I put down, and the big one Scott put down to reinforce the pile before we went to bed. I wasn’t worried until I heard a high-pitched crying sound, two distinct voices, coming from the cairn, which Monte had largely dismantled by the time I crossed the yard.

I dragged him into the house, and informed a half-asleep Scott that whoever was in the hole, they were crying, but they stopped after I pulled Monte away. At this point, he woke up and decided to get a flashlight and investigate further.

“Do you want me to come with?”

“Only if you want to.”

“Okay…I don’t want to…in case you find something bad.” (You’ll remember that we piled rocks on that hole earlier in the story.)

When he came back, he had the answer. This is what was in the hole:

Two baby bunnies, thankfully uncrushed by rocks, but in a tiny pocket of earth that would only be called a “nest” by the most generous.

We determined to supervise the dogs carefully, planned to research what to do about the bunnies in the morning, and went back to sleep. We were vigilant and kept the dogs away from the babies while checking them out ourselves, and taking pictures, of course. Saturday neither had their eyes open, but they were furry and cute. Scott learned that we should leave them be, and that the mother would only come back to them to nurse maybe 15 minutes a day, late at night, so as not to attract predators to the nest. We couldn’t help but wonder why putting a nest in a yard with 3 dogs seemed like a good idea to her, especially when one of them is a ratter. And we hoped that she would come take the babies that night, once she discovered that the nest had been disturbed and that the whole area smelled of dogs and people.

Sunday morning, they were still there, and one of the bunnies had its eyes open now. We had no problems that morning as we sat outside with the dogs. And then the puppies, my folks, and I went into the house while Scott stayed outside doing yardwork with Monte at his side.

Not long after he came running into the house, announcing that Monte had gotten one of the bunnies. He asked me to get a box, and went back outside. I came out with a roll of paper towel, a cardboard box, and a package of rubber gloves.

I made a sling out of the paper towel and he placed the bunny in it, telling me to put pressure on the wounds, while he went in to call one of the wildlife rescue places he’d found doing research the day before.

The bunny cradled in my hand was so sweet, so perfect, but for the red fur matted with blood around the two bite marks I could see. Tiny little ears. Feet too cute to be believed, and crossed behind him daintily. Further examination found a third wound. He seemed calm, his heartbeat was steady and not too fast, and his eyes were still closed, though he stretched when I let up on the pressure. I held him gently, but firmly, hoping maybe the wounds were just in the muscle, and that he could be saved, but one of the wounds kept seeping blood, and I knew his chances weren’t good. He was so little. He never had a chance.

I sat on the bench with him in my hand and cried, and pondered the meaning of being presented with yet another lesson on death. It seemed gratuitous.

I went in the house with him to see what Scott had learned, stopping to show the bunny to my parents. He came out with a local vet’s address who worked with the wildlife rehab center and told me they said we should bring both bunnies, so I passed the injured bunny to my dad and went to get the other one.

The remaining baby bunny, the one with his eyes open, made a concerted effort to evade my capture, smooshing himself deeper into the hole. I pulled the dirt around him away and prodded around him with a stick. When he put his legs and backside out to try to burrow deeper, I grasped him, putting him in a separate box Scott had brought out. I didn’t know what kind of stress the smell of his own sibling’s blood would put on him, and the situation was no doubt stressful enough. For all of us.

With both bunnies in their boxes on my lap, we speeded to the vet. The injured one was growing ever more still, though he would open his mouth if you pet him, but by the time we arrived and passed him over to the gal at the desk, I had no idea if he was still alive. She told us they would look at him and see if he could be saved, and if not, they would put him down and save him further pain. I filled out a form for the wildlife shelter, and gave them $15, and hoped maybe the bunny was just in shock and could be saved. I will probably never know, and maybe that’s okay. I checked the box saying I would like to be contacted when they were released into the wild; it would be enough to know that one made it that far.

We saved one. But it was the one we didn’t protect well enough that was on our minds all day and night. It was an accident of location that the mama bunny decided to make our patch of gravel her own, but once she did, we felt responsible for the babies she left there, and would no doubt be looking for that night. We were sad for her, too. And we are sad for the quail families that start out with a line of a half dozen chicks and end up with only a few. But that seems to be the way of things, and we cannot save all of them. We were never intended to.

Maybe that’s another lesson that animals provide for us, be they whales or baby bunnies or rat terriers, which is that animals will do what they will do, and there’s not much you can do about it. We do what we can, and hope for the best, but ultimately, more is out of our control than is within it. That lesson applies to so many things in life, so many that one wonders if perhaps it is the only lesson.



I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.