Reader photo: man bonds with rabbit

December 13, 2011 • 9:33 am

When I asked readers to send me photos they’d taken of animals (I’ll take plants, too!), I didn’t expect such a big response.  I have about seven really great emails with pictures, and will put up the photos in the next couple of weeks.  I wanted to show this one first because the story behind it is so touching. It’s about reader Dave Ricks and a cottontail rabbit (this is probably Sylvilagus floridanus, the Eastern cottontail).

Dave’s photo and backstory (click the photo to enlarge, click again to make it really big):

A few summers ago, I took this photo of a cottontail doe in my backyard. She was cleverly sunning herself under a hole in a hedge that let the sunlight through.

My camera was a little Sony DSC-T30 point-and-shoot shirt-pocket camera. Getting a good light level was tricky, since the camera meters automatically. My subject was patient while I figured out a way to do it. I set the camera to meter the light on the center of the image, and I swung the camera left and right, between the background being dark and her being bright. As this made the whole image get lighter and darker, I took a few photos to catch a decent overall level. She’s not exactly in the center of the photo because of that.

For me to be this close for this photo, I had built a relationship with her that spring and summer by spending time around her physically. I would talk to myself so she knew I wasn’t a predator stalking her, and I would keep my hips and shoulders pointed away from her. The afternoon when I moved this close for this photo, I could tell when she was feeling comfortable when she let her eyes squint for the sun and she let her body relax and her hips poke up through her fur. But she still has one ear rotated toward me, and her other ear rotated behind her.

This was the first cottontail I had a relationship with.  Sometimes she would walk right up to me,which would totally freak me out, so my photos of those encounters are off-center and blurry! By the way, I never fed her, so her attraction to me was purely social and playful.

I knew her for two years as an adult, so I imagine she lived three years total. She raised at least one litter, outside my bedroom window the spring after this summer photo.

I played trumpet for her once.  While she was facing me, I moved my trumpet to my face and played a single note softly, then I moved the trumpet away.  She stopped and paid attention. Then I played a simple scale of notes separated by me putting the trumpet to my face for each note and pulling the trumpet away after each note so she could see the sound she was hearing was me using the trumpet.  She didn’t get tense like it was scary, just a new experience.  When I was done, she went back to what she was doing.

In my experience, cottontails are social and curious, so they can feel attracted to us, and I believe they enjoy the sounds of our voices talking.  But their personalities vary, and of course they’re always being watchful about being cornered or caught, so I’ve only had one other relationship with a cottontail this trusting and friendly with me.

I feel lucky I knew her.  Our time together was an experience I can’t reproduce—I treasure it for what it was.

31 thoughts on “Reader photo: man bonds with rabbit

  1. I have cottontails in my back yard, which are fairly tolerant of my presence. But none let me touch until this spring. A very small baby rabbit, not much bigger than a hamster, let me pet it gently for a minute or so before it got spooked and hopped away. Probably dead by now. City rabbits don’t last long. If viruses don’t kill them, cars and cats will.

  2. A book that mines the same vein of inter-species friendship:

    “Raising the Peaceable Kingdom: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Social Origins of Tolerance and Friendship” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

  3. Interesting. Does the cottontail have consciousness? Is it possible to have a “friendship” with a non-conscious life-form? Or is this just a one-way projection of mental states?

      1. I think you have a much more relaxed definition of “consciousness and sentience”. A drosophila is sentient? Come on.

          1. I am with you on this. I rather think though that we project too much into human consciousness, rather than too little into that of animals or insects. Yes, it depends on what you mean though…

      1. I’ve always held that the no-name characters often used as placeholders should be called “John Buck” and “Jane Doe”.

  4. We awl noes dat Saturday iz Caturday. Y cant Monday be Bunday? We awl haet Monday anyways, so y not call it simefing kyoot?

    And yes, any hyooman who has eger lived wif a bunneh noes bunnehs can has consciousness.

  5. There is something humbling about making a connection with the animal kingdom. It is some kind of a reminder that we too are simply animals doing our best to survive. DV, I don’t think it is just a ‘one way projection of mental states’. I have known friendships, albeit of a limited nature, with a number of non-human animals.

  6. Here in Australia, rabbits are vermin because they destroy the native fauna. The only good rabbit is a dead rabbit with a 22 shot between the eyes.
    Each to their own, though, I do like bunnies myself and would never think of shooting them, vermin or not.

    1. These are a different genus of course, yours are the Mediterranean Oryctolagus cuniculus. Humans are also an invasive species in Australia BillyJoe!

      By the way, apparently “Taxonomy of lagomorphs remains weakly developed partly because of the morphological similarity among related species” doi:10.1016/j.mambio.2011.09.009

      1. Yeah, well, I wouldn’t shoot the humans either – though I’d be tempted if they went around shooting native fauna.

  7. She’s not exactly in the center of the photo because of that.

    I don’t know if this has been noted in the comments already; but dead center is rarely the best place for your main subject (from the standpoint of composition; the snowy owl shot from an earlier post is a good example)

    That said, nice shot! You did well to balance the exposure — that’s a very tough thing to do well with a P&S camera. Well done.

  8. For a few months, I have been watching a groundhog who lives under my backyard neighbor’s garage. This morning after watching Hitchens sing Monty Python’s Philosophers Song, I saw the groundhog out and thought of this post. I opened the back door a bit. The groundhog ran to his hole. I began to sing about Immanuel Kant. Groundhog cocked his head as if he was listening. I sang it again and he turned to face the music. After I stopped, he turned to enter the lair so I sang it again. He turned around, looked up and began to eat grass. Next time, I’m going to charge him for a ticket.

  9. Most of the scientific community accepts that complex animals at least are conscious beings. I don’t doubt that a rabbit or other mammals, or amniotes or vertebrates is conscious. In fact I don’t rule out the possibility of every living organism to have consciousness of some sort, though that latter cannot be scientifically proven. But the case for advanced animals such as most vertebrates and some invertebrates is quite strong. In the case of mammals, we can be quite certain as they display many emotions recognizable by us.
    As the owner of a female rabbit (Libo) for three years, I can attest to their intelligence and consciousness. They aren’t, of course, as intelligent as dogs and cats, but they aren’t completely dumb either. Most negative views of humans towards rabbits come from them seeing rabbits unfamiliar to them or wild ones for a short time, where the animals are apprehensive or shy and usually hiding or showing little behaivior. But when the rabbit bonds to you and accepts you as a member of its community, albeit a strange one, then it shows much of its complex behaivior. My rabbit for example responds to her name, but when she is really occupied like when digging a carpet or shreading paper will most times look at me, but not come to me. Usually though she comes to me, follows me out of my room, jumps on the bed when I am on it and down when I get down, and frequents places where I sit, probably with my scent, when I am temporarily away from her. She makesnoise with the cage bars when wanting to get out, even with the slightest indication of my presence in the area. She has learned the side home doors open, and usually scratches only that side when they are closed. In fact she has a very good spacial memory, remembering places for at least three months – that is the longest time she spent away from home -, and knowing that places inaccessible to her continue to exist. In this respect she is terribly persistent. If I block a corner or a place under furniture with things because she has done mischief in the past there, she will pull and push the items for minutes in order to get in again, and with time she figures out how to remove them, making me to rearrange the items. She can use her forelimbs in addition to her teeth for manipulating objects, though she isn’t very dextrous, as rabbits cannot pronate their hands. It seems for most of their skeletal structure to be a compromise between cursoriality and flexibility. She can also rais up on hind legs and draw out food with the forelimbs if I have it just above her. She doesn’t have good balance on hindlimbs alone though, and if she does it on the rim of its cage she usually fall back or manages to jump forwards to prevent the fall. One time I remember her having the forelimbs on me, and because she was a little uncomfortable away, made a small bipedal step with support. That is the only time I saw a rabbit move bipedally.
    Although she knows from memory that a place, an item or me continues to exist even if not in derect view, I don’t know if she has true object permanence, that is, the immediate inference that an item continues to exist when hidden. I tried once, when she was concentrated and not distracted by nothing, to throw a carot over an obstacle taller than her, and after a little time she jumped over it to find it. I repeted it sometimes. The carot was unscratched, so scent might not be her guide, because other times she doesn’t search if I have them hidden from her, but she will search for other, more scented hidden foods. Most times though she doesn’t bother to find food hidden from her, or alternatively she is too busy with something else at that moment to search. Most probably they have a rudimentary object permanence ability.
    Their working memory and attention span seems sometimes incredible for their small frontal cortex, as when trying to get somewhere they exert much effort, other times though they seem to lose interest very quickly. For example when my Libo has picked up a leaf and eats it, and then it falls from her mouth, she might pick it up again, but when many other leaves are around, usually she will look at it first and then either take it, or a random one. Other evidence of short-term memory is for example her continuing to groom her when I accidentally disturbe her from the place she was cleaning before, and not from the start again.
    Avoidance learning can happen in rabbits, despite of claims of some rabbit keepers who believe it cannot. You obviously must not hit, kick or generally abuse a rabbit for bad behaivior, as this is certainly inhumane for a small, defenceless mammal that trust you, and most probably, if not injured or killed by that, it will consider you as a predator and never bond to you. Instead you can discourage a rabbit from going to some places, and gradually it will frequent less and less that place. I don’t for example leave my rabbit to rome all of the house, some areas are forbidden. I chased her off from those places in the past, and now, if she happens to go there and sees me there, she will usually go straight back to her allowed place, though not 100% of the time, making many times a stomp with a hind foot. She will also stomp and make a mooing vocalization when frustrated, e.g. when a door or passage to a favorite place is closed or when annoyed by me. I have observed rabbits in their interactions also doing this if one feels annoyed by another, and this differs from the strong thump that signals danger. Although you can teach a rabbit to avoid some places, you cannot do it so easily for undesired activities, such as gnawing everywhere. I haven’t bothered to correct that, instead giving her more preferred materials to destroy.
    Rabbits seem also to be able to some extent to gage human emotions, as in nature, they are social animals. When for example I am relaxed, my doe behaives normal. When, though, I am hurried up for some reasonand want to put her back in her cage, she can recognize that I am tensed up and trying to move her back, so many times she becomes disobedient, hides, or manuvers quickly to get away from me. She has a very complex escape strategy, as she will go to corners where I can’t see her, or will jump over my hands and feet, or change direction midway to confuse me. These all apparently are remnants of a predator escape instinct. Although I try as much as I can to not act stressed in the presence of my rabbit, sometimes it is unavoidable, and in that case, I usually give her a compensation in the form of good food when in the cage, in order to not be angry towards me, because many times she is slightly grudgy for some time after I put her back. The most important thing about rabbits is that you should make them believe they are autonomous. Leave them for example to enter and exit the cage in their own accord, don’t force them, and try to work them gently. Rabbits in nature aren’t driven by other rabbits, only predators do this.
    Also she knows when I am looking at her or not, because when I amn looking her and she happens to do mischief in a forbidden area, she usually becomes apprehensive and waits to be sent back, but when I turn direction she might continue her activities or go elsewhere unhurried. Most of the times though she seeks my attention.
    When eating, she will will investigate food well, and try to pick the more tasty bits. She might take food from my hand and eat it there, or drag it elsewhere. When having hard food items, she usually presses them against a hard surface in order to crack them more easily.that behaivior appeared some months before in my rabbit and it was most probably learnt by trial and error.
    My rabbit also shows some hints of more complex thought processes, which supposedly occure only in the highly intelligent animals, such as conflicting thoughts. For example she might stand still and ponder between to things, before hesitantly choosing the one. She might be near her cage and looking inside it at food and then me, and suddenly chooses to go to me a little more. Or she one time had young and they shuffled in their nest, because they needed milk. She heard them and came close, but suddenly she went away from the nest, nibbled on some hey and returned.
    It would be very good if any other from here could post his experiences of pet rabbits. Right now my rabbit is out and sits near me and the computer. Overall I would put rabbits between pet rodents and cats in intelligence. Rats might be more intelligent though, as all the famous tests show, but after all there are not so many studies on rabbits, for bad or good.

    I, though, am puzzled by a thing, and I hope an evolutionary biologist from here could be able to give me an explanation. Although many animals can show much behaivioral flexibility in daily activities, their reproductive behaivior seems much more conserved. The way rabbits mate, make a nest, and raise their young didn’t seem to me to vary much, although admittedly it was not absolutely the same in all situations. For example my Libo for nest building she used mainly her mouth, and no forelimbs at all, or alternatively I was not watching when she used them a little in a moment. Also rabbits in general don’t have an instinct to retrieve lost young, because nests are burrows in nature which they cannot climb, but in captivity this is a problem. Even if they learn to figure out so many things, this cannot be learnt. Perhapse they not only cannot learn it, but they are anaware of the consequences. I have read somewhere that wild European rabbits take out dead pups from the nest, but I cannot find the reference.
    Speaking of small dead mammals, I have finally to make a sad remark. My little furry mammal happened sometimes to lose her litter from external factors. For two-three days after she acted depressed, she was more reserved, didn’t go out or eat so enthusiastically, and I remember her two times standing over her empty nest to suckle her small dead little mammals. She was also upset when older, then independent offspring where adopted. Again she searched for them, and in that times she seemed to me more distressed, as she made noise with the cage, frequented and sniffed places they where, and became a little aggressive. That is one of the reason I don’t want to breed her again, the other is that it is difficult now to find homes for the offspring, as anyone interested from my close circle has one.
    I hope I helped somewhat the conversation, or maybe I started a new one.

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