Thursday, February 20, 2014

a horrific story with a happy ending

2-week old baby New Zealand White rabbit

If you are squeamish or reading this aloud to a young child, you might want to skip this post.

We have a fairly new litter of bunnies in our colony.  They were born on 2/4, right on schedule (31 days after the doe, Athena and buck, Atlas, had their, ahem, date).

When I checked the nest box during morning chores I found a small pile of dried off babies in the back of the nest box, and 4 more just born near the entrance.

I knew from reading a variety of resources that babies can get cold very quickly and die, and also that sometimes mamas have some in one place and some in another and they all need to be together to conserve heat.

Every resource I've read agreed - contrary to popular belief, you should move the babies if they are not together in one pile.  Mama will not abandon her nest, especially if she knows you and your scent already.  And this mama doe knows me - she is the tamest of the colony, following me around the barn begging to be pet.

I also knew that even though our barn stays above zero most days, the next box in the back corner of the barn was near a cement wall that had frost coming through the cracks in white blobs, and our temps at night were still sub-zero.  That corner of the barn would not be nearly as warm as the front.

So I moved the new pile of babies to the back of the box as carefully and quickly as I could.  Then I put the top back on the nest box and left it alone for the rest of the day.

I tend to only check babies once a day, as I hate to let cold into the nest box by opening the top and also don't want to stress the mama doe.  So the next morning after checking on the poultry, chickens, sheep and alpacas, I once again peeked into the nest box.

The pile of babies had decreased in number, and one was half eaten.

{i think i threw up in my mouth at this point}

Being the only one in the barn at the time, I had no choice but to remove the dead, mutilated baby myself.

{more throw up}

Over the course of the next several days, the remaining pile of babies dwindled to four. Although I never got a decent count on the first day, I estimated 7 or 8 babies where in the box the first day.

I did not find any more partially eaten remains, so I assumed mama had eaten the others entirely.

The last one to disappear did seem to me to be rather runtish, smaller and weaker than the rest.  Perhaps she knew she could only support a certain number and culled the weak ones herself.

Sometimes mother nature is violent and brutal.

If any of you reading this are aching to move out to a little farm of your own, envisioning yourself romping throught he wildflowers surrounded by puppies and kittens, where all the days are summertime-sunny and all the critters are always happy and healthy, stop the daydream.

Yes, there are days like that on the farm. That is what entices us to our own a piece of land.  That is what sustains us through the bad times.

But there is also the flip side.

The day you walk out to the paddock to find your favorite bantam Silkie chicken has drowned in the water bucket.

Or the day you move the rabbit pens and find one baby has slipped through the cracks and is dead in a patch of clover.

Or the day you walk out to the paddock to find your favorite fawn alpaca has tangled and wrapped himself so tightly in the portable net fence you're not sure if he is even alive. And three agonizing weeks later, he dies of his injuries.

Or the day you come home from Christmas vacation and on your first round of barn checks, find your favorite cria quietly cushed in the spot where she and her mama always rest together.  But her eyes don't see you anymore, and she is not breathing.  She is still warm.  She died as you were hauling your luggage to the house.

Of course there are more good days than bad, or none of us would survive all of the heartbreak.

But still, we must get through the bad days somehow.

And so with a heavy heart I lift the lifeless body - be it chicken or bunny or alpaca - and carry it away. And hope that there won't be another for a long, long time.

Yesterday was one of those heart-heavy days.

After my usual round of chores I checked the rabbit nest box on my way out of the barn. There had been four fat, happy babies the day before, just starting to open their eyes.

I checked the pile and found only three.

I searched the rest of the box, which is always packed tight with hay in the opening (by mama) so it seemed unlikely one had escaped.

There was a clump of rabbit fur between the entrance stuffed with hay and the pile of babies.  Mama does pull out their own belly fur right before she kindles (gives birth), in order to line the nest.  The pile of fur seemed heavy and matted together. I lifted it out of the box.  It was too heavy to be just fur and hay and it smelled putrid.

I didn't investigate further.  There was something dead in it.  I just took it from the barn and burned it in the burning barrel.

One more dead baby.


Did mama kill it?  Is it because now that they're eyes are opening we've starting holding them a little bit and that's stressing out the mama?  Is it because of the colony?  This is the first litter born in the colony.  Is she just a bad mama?  This is her second litter and we don't lose a single one of her first litter.  Am I just a bad caregiver?

All of these questions weighed heavily on my mind and heart, so I grabbed my snowshoes and pruner and machete and headed out to the back of the property to cut brambles.

Physical labor is always a welcome relief when the mind and heart are heavy.  The tougher the task, the better at taking my mind off of dwelling on unanswerable questions.

Gypsy accompanied me of course, eagerly waiting for me to set down my tools and throw her stick for the millionth time. And whenever I paused to do this, I had to smile and laugh watching her bound through the deep snow and pounce on the stick whenever she found it. I've never known a dog to smile as much as she does.  Or have as much energy.  Or want to play such endless games of fetch.

When I returned to the house an hour and a half later, I was physically and mentally tired and that felt good.

New Zealand White doe

This morning I enter the barn with trepidation.  I do all of my chores - open the pop-hole for the turkeys and chickens, check the nest boxes for eggs (finding three turkeys and one chicken all sharing the dog kennel I use for the turkey nest box) top off the feeders.  I feed the rabbits, top their water, check the babies in the nest box.

Three fat babies are still in there, thank goodness.

I am about to head out of the barn for the last time when something tiny and white catches my eye.

It is a baby rabbit hopping across the barn.

Now that their eyes are open apparently one made it past the packed hay in the end of the nest box.  I assume it is one of the three remaining so I catch it and put it back in the nest box.

To my surprise, there are still three in there!  This is number four!  It must have gotten out yesterday and escaped my notice during both morning and evening chores.


Which means the pile of fur and rot that I took out the day before had been from the week they were disappearing, not from yesterday.

So, Athena did not kill her 2-week old baby.

And I did not kill her baby by holding it.

She is still a good mama.

And I am still a good caregiver.

There will be more losses in the future, of that I am sure.

But today, I give thanks for one tiny baby bunny hopping through the barn.

Cheers -
Gypsy Farmgirl heartache and happiness


Sydney and Partner said...

This post perfectly sums up what it is like to live on a farm. Perhaps the hardest part of caring for animals is losing them. I can say that I've lost plenty myself. Despite the heartache that comes with losing them, the joy they bring while they are with us is worth it. Thank you for this post.

Victoria Strauser said...

Thank you Sydney! Yes the joy makes it all worth it!!

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