All the babies died.
Every last one.
I’d found six newborn bunnies, nude with eyes closed, writhing and squeaking toward an unknown destination in the open lawn. They were scattered in an area about 20 feet square, with no apparent injuries. Their arrangement made it look like the mother had given birth on the run, plopping one after another in a line. All but one were moving.
Toward what, I don’t know. The shade? Their mother? Their last gasp at survival?
Finding no nest, I did what I’d learned to do all those years ago on the farm. I left them alone.
Lord, it was hard. The mother in me wanted to scoop them all up and nurse them to viability.
But what do I know about that?
I emailed a vet friend for advice and waited. I debated whether to buy a tiny bottle and milk replacer. Could we care for a litter of bunnies?
They’d be ready to flee the nest in three weeks, according to a cursory Google search. But they’d never survive in our house, with two cats and a dog. They’d never make it in the garage, an incubator of Kansas humidity.
So the kids and I left them untouched, unmarked by our scent, in case mama cottontail came back.
But she didn’t. Not in time.
Twenty minutes later, we took another look. The bunnies had already breathed their last.
It turns out that I needn’t embrace my guilt. In Kansas, you can be fined up to $1,000 for picking up young wildlife. To keep a wild animal, you need a state or federal permit, depending on the species.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism answers frequently asked questions on the topic. Every answer seems aimed at persuading would-be Dr. Dolittles to stay out of the way. Here comes the gut punch:
“More than 75 percent of all rabbits die before they reach five months of age.”
Evolutionarily speaking, why wouldn’t they? A rabbit calculator by the University of Miami biology department says that, eliminating mortality, one rabbit and her female offspring could produce more than 184 billion — billion — bunnies in the matriarch’s seven-year lifespan.
Our little patch of earth couldn’t handle that.
We do what we can to foster wildlife. We avoid pesticides and herbicides, for the most part. We leave a few piles of leaves in the fall for those overwintering. We let mama finch use the ferns on the porch to raise her fledglings and delight in witnessing their inaugural flights.
But nature includes death. I couldn’t save all the barn kittens as a little girl. We couldn’t save all the bees when a neighborhood beekeeper tried to move them out of our catalpa tree. We couldn’t save the bunnies.
I have to learn this lesson over and over, and it hurts.
Follow freelance writer Lindsay Hanson Metcalf on Twitter: @hansonmetcalf