Monday, September 23, 2019

RIP Winibelle: A Tribute to Rabbits

Here are two fun facts about rabbits.

They actually really do love carrots, and carrots are actually not very good for them.

Carrots have a lot of carbs and about half of those carbs are sugar.  In fact, one big carrot has three grams of sugar, which is a lot, compared to grass, which is what most rabbits eat.

My rabbit, Winibelle, loved carrots.  She wasn't supposed to eat them because she, an organic-fed vegan, was morbidly obese.  This wasn't really Winibelle's fault.  Her mother was a Flemish Giant and her father was a Rhinelander, so she was "destined for chonk," as my husband liked to say.

He often lovingly compared her to Big Chungus.

Winibelle was born September 12th, 2012 and she passed September 21st, 2019, making her seven years old.  This may not sound like a lot (dwarf rabbits can live 10 - 12 years) but for a Flemish/Rhinelander rabbit (life expectancy: 5 - 8 years) this was entirely normal.  We saw it coming; Winibelle had begun to lose some of her ample weight.

 Day 1: Winibelle is on the far right.  Her original name was "Goliath" due to her size. 

 Winibelle years later, as a chonky bunny.

(A curious side note about Rhinelanders: a breed developed in the early 1900s, they quickly became ragingly popular but then fell out of vogue post-WWII, nearly disappearing between the '30s and '70s.  Though the breed re-emerged, it is now considered relatively rare.  Yet another terrible, terrible consequence of war.)

It was, in fact, Winibelle's eating habits that tipped us off to her passing.  I asked Andrew to give her some pellets; he responded that she already had pellets from the morning in her hopper.  "Is she dead?" I asked.  I said it partially joking.  But deep down, we knew.  Winibelle had passed as most "small" animals do: quickly, quietly, and relatively peacefully, curled up in a bed of hay in the bottom of her hutch.
Winibelle on a walk, circa 2013. 

 Winibelle on a carry, circa 2016.

I will not be getting another rabbit.  To be clear, I liked Winibelle.  She was cool, for a rabbit.  But I don't really see the appeal of rabbits as a whole.  They do not emote and they're not enormous fans of cuddling or being held.  They poop about 300 times a day.  They require a lot of space (a hutch and, if they are as big as Winibelle, room to run around, or, in Winibelle's case, ooze into a motionless puddle).  The reward/cost ratio for a rabbit is not at all comparable to a dog, or a cat, unless you plan to eat them or make gloves out of their very soft fur.  A rabbit is, in my opinion, not a very practical pet.

Yet rabbits have been domesticated for thousands, or perhaps even tens of thousands, of years ago.  Genetic data shows that domestic rabbit lines diverged from wild rabbit lines around the same time as sheep, cattle, pigs, and cats, making them one of the oldest domestic animals.  Of course, apocryphal tales state that rabbits were domesticated in 600 AD by French monks, but this is likely bullshit.  Stories of rabbits, especially religious ones, abound like so many wild hares.

The rabbit has a surprisingly strong foothold in the mythology of countless cultures, and today I'd like to explore a couple in Winibelle's honor.  The rabbit is easily dismissed as a dumb prey animal, a "common" and somewhat boring mammal best known for ruining vegetable gardens, but rabbits have a surprising depth of character that is echoed throughout human history.

"Hey, pal, my ears are up here." - sexy rabbit statue by Beth Cavener

If there are two themes that seem pervasive, it's that rabbits are fertile, and that rabbits are tricksters.

As far as fertility goes, it's sort of a gimme.  Rabbits are notorious for breeding.  As prey animals, they operate by quantity, not quality; it's not a surprise that we have phrases in various languages equating sexual promiscuity or virility with rabbits.  (In English, we have, "fuck like rabbits," and in Spanish, "coneja" is impolite slang for a woman with many children.)  In Pagan mythology, Eostre, a fertility goddess, was associated with rabbits.  In Greece, Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, and fertility was associated with rabbits.  In Rome, rabbits were also associated with fertility, and gifting a woman a rabbit or rabbit meat was a way to wish fertility upon her. Pliny the Elder recommended rabbit meat as a cure for sterility as well as a virility enhancement. Across the sea, the Aztecs had a pentheon of 400 rabbit gods collectively called the Centzon Tōtōchtin, who reigned over fertility and threw crazy, drunken rabbit parties.  The Norse goddess Freya, associated with femininity and fertility was served by rabbit attendants.

"Sorry 'bout your infertility.  Have a rabbit." - people in Athens, 480 BC

Curiously, many people also equate rabbits with the moon.  This isn't too surprising if you think about it.  Rabbits are more easily seen at night by the light of the moon, and also, the moon has traditionally also been associated with femininity and fertility.  (This is most likely due to menstrual cycles lining up neatly with lunar cycles, which are 28 days long.)  In Japan, they see "the rabbit in the moon," aka the Jade Rabbit.  (In America, we see the craters on the full moon as a face, aka, "The Man in the Moon.")  Rabbits were tied to the moon in Egyptian myth; Eostre, the aforementioned Anglo-Saxon Pagan goddess, was a moon goddess.  In China, Japan, and Korea, rabbits were associated with the moon and with lunar new years.  Kaltes, a moon goddess of western Siberia, could transform into a rabbit, and she wasn't the only one.  In many myths, people transform by the light of the moon to rabbits or back.  (In Egypt it was thought rabbits switched sex on the full moon, at the risk of getting kicked out of the American military.)

Because so many cultures associated moonlight with feminine mystery, perhaps this is why rabbits were also seen as "tricksters."  This makes less sense to me than the fertility thing.  But to give credit where it's due, rabbits, sporting virtually no real defense against their bountiful predators, must be tricky, in the sense that they're really good at getting away.  (Trickiness is commonly associated with hunted animals: for example, foxes, and raccoons.)  Examples of the rabbit as a trickster character include Nanabozho the Great Hare in Algonquin lore, the self-named Rabbit of Panchatantra Indian fairy tales, and West African fables of clever or sneaky hares, which would later give rise to the African-American folktales of "Br'er Rabbit," not to be confused with his Cajun cousin, Compair Lapin.  And don't get me started on Bugs Bunny!

 Not to be confused with his chubster cousin, Big Chungus. 

Perhaps because of the whole fertility thing, rabbit heraldry wormed its way into Christianity, too.  The "three hare" symbol has been equated with the Trinity, with rabbits representing Jesus's supposed virgin birth.  (Like the ancient Egyptians, early Christian scholars thought the rabbit was hermaphroditic and could conceive without loss of its virginity.)  Then again, there's evidence that the three hare symbol found carved into churches and drawn into illuminated manuscripts was derived from Buddhist or Chinese origin, as monuments bearing it along the Silk Road would indicate.  No one really knows.  It's simply too ancient of a symbol.  Curiously, the rabbit is not considered a kosher animal to eat, and its use in Celtic Pagan divination made it, early on, something of a boogeyman for Christians.  That was before they discovered the three hare symbol, though, which I imagine was like a "cool S" back in the 1300s.

Considering its lack of emoting and the whole eating-its-own-poop thing, the rabbit as an animal has truly been elevated in nearly every human culture, and it's no wonder that, today, people continue to keep them as pets.

Winibelle was a decent enough pet.  She was not a dog, or a cat.  But she had her charms.  She favored attention over treats, and would usually emerge from the bottom part of her hutch when people passed by to stick her head out and get her face rubbed.  If you ran a finger down her cheek bone, the corresponding ear would tilt hilariously forward.  If you grabbed both ears, you could pretend to be operating a forklift, and she would patiently tolerate this, which is really the most you can ask of any pet who you are pretending is a forklift.

She will be missed, but I won't deny the benefits.  One less pet to take care of before the baby comes is probably a good thing, in the long run, and Winibelle was a ferocious shedder who kicked up a lot of dust and dander in the house.  She passed at a very convenient time, having lived a full life and then graciously making room when it was most needed.

Winibelle playing with a toy, circa 2015.

And here is, perhaps, the craziest rabbit anecdote of them all.  Back in 1931, it was discovered that you could accurately predict whether or not a woman was pregnant by injecting a rabbit with her urine.  A rabbit whose ovaries swelled indicated a positive pregnancy test with about 98% accuracy.  Of course, this required you to kill and dissect the rabbit.  The "rabbit test" was one of countless examples of the noble rabbit quietly and demurely being used in laboratory testing to further human knowledge of mammalian biology, and it was used for decades.  The confused public thought that the rabbit dying from the injection meant a positive result, giving rise to a common euphemism for positive pregnancy tests: "The rabbit died."

RIP, Winibelle.

The ironic timing of your death with my pregnancy was truly your greatest trick.

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