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Old News: September 2002

Wild in the City

September 1, 2002

Yesterday I saw a baby rabbit in my front yard. Today I saw him again, dashing to the shelter of a shrub when I pushed the electric lawn mower near the overgrown grass in which he'd been hiding.

Rabbits hang out in my yard often, which doesn't seem strange until you think about how urban my neighborhood is. I live in a small city of about 25,000 people, with cement sidewalks, kids walking to and from school, and ambulances zooming up the street to the hospital two blocks away.

Despite the civilized setting, my yard is perfect for wildlife. Foundation shrubs planted when the house was new, forty-some years ago, have grown out of control and make excellent lodgings for bird and rabbits. Dandelions and clover have taken over the yard, providing food even during this dry summer. Several large bushes grow berries that cardinals and other birds seem to love.

I see wild creatures in my yard almost daily, but the baby rabbit yesterday was unusual in that he let me get close enough to touch him. I was trying to remove a massive weed that had grown through a crack near the front step when I noticed the rabbit sitting very still, tucked into the grass just beside me. I thought at first that he must be hurt or maybe dead: what healthy rabbit, even a small one, doesn't take off running when a person walks up?

I reached out, expecting him to jump away. He didn't, so I picked him up. I could feel his heart beating. He seemed healthy, unhurt. His eyes were very black, shiny and alert. His fur was soft and speckled brown and black on his back, white on his belly. On the center of his forehead was a small white patch, like a star. He didn't struggle, but rather lay still in my hand while I petted his head. Only his nose and eyes moved.

I felt thrilled to hold something wild in my hands. I have felt the same way a few times: picking up little ribbon snakes on a bike path and moving them to safety, catching a panicked bird that had flown into my parents' garage and couldn't find his way out. As a kid I would catch chipmunks in wire traps, just to study them. I was continually amazed at the life force their small bodies held, the perfection of their small legs and heads, the energy with which they raced around. You can't keep a force like that—you'd kill it if you tried—but it's a wonder to be near it even for a short while.

I wanted to show the rabbit to someone, anyone. I thought of my cats, who are of course fascinated by rabbits and all other prey-type animals. Immediately I realized that that was a bad idea; the poor little guy would probably die of fright, and the cats would be mad at me for showing them the world's best toy but not letting them play with it.

I put the rabbit back down by the step, and when I stood up he jumped away into the shrubbery.

Afterward I worried that my touching him might have given him a human smell, which would make him an outcast among other rabbits. Or does that rule apply only to baby birds that fall from their nests? I wasn't sure, but I worried.

I was relieved to see the baby rabbit again today. He'd at least survived the night, so my interference hadn't been fatal.

I'll probably never be so close to the rabbit again. All the same, I like the thought that he's out there, protected by shrubs, part of my wild kingdom in the city.