Rabbit Redux


Havre de Grace.--From what I read, Ross Perot has a thing about rabbits. Back when what he said was deemed important, he used to refer to them frequently, and usually pejoratively, as: "We're liberty-loving American citizens, not rabbits."

One cartoonist went so far as to draw Mr. Perot shouting "Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!" at George Bush. Obviously the little billionaire had his presidents mixed up. It was former President Jimmy Carter who, while fishing, had a historic confrontation with a swimming rabbit. The rabbit lost. It was a rare victory for poor Mr. Carter.

I don't know what Ross Perot has against rabbits, which are really quite engaging creatures. He should spend some time with my daughter Sarah Jay, age 8, who raises them and would be glad to explain their strong points. Rabbits raised by Ms. Jay, a 4-H member, recently won assorted ribbons at the 1992 Harford County Farm Fair.

The Jay family got into the rabbit business about eighteen months ago. It isn't entirely clear to me why. As is often the case with rabbits, it just seemed to happen. First there was one rabbit, and then there were eight more, and before long here's the third generation coming to maturity before their owner has even begun the fourth grade.

All this may have been pre-ordained, however. Certainly we shouldn't have been surprised by it, because Sarah comes by this particular interest naturally. I don't mean to sound boastful, but I'm not exactly a rookie when it comes to rabbits.

When I was in the Peace Corps in the Peruvian Andes I found that the local folks were traditionally fond of guinea pigs. (Please come back. This is not a digression.) Most country kitchens had several of them scurrying around the floor, adding, if not to the hygiene of the surroundings, at least to the ambience.

Guinea pigs were, and I imagine still are, a staple on the tables of the Andean altiplano. They were served in various ways, usually in some combination with potatoes and the hot peppers known as aji, and provided an infusion of needed protein into the campesino diet.

A Cornell University anthropologist I knew persuaded me that the protein problem was serious, and that rabbits would be an improvement on the guinea pigs. They're bigger, they don't take much more food to raise, and they reproduce faster. (A rabbit's gestation period is about 31 days. With guinea pigs it takes three months.)

So I bought three does, borrowed a buck, and started raising rabbits. Unfortunately, the Peruvians made it clear they weren't about to give up their guinea pigs because of some gringo theory about Third World nutrition, so most of the rabbits I raised were consumed by Peace Corps volunteers. It was a small contribution to my country's welfare, but I like to think it a worthy one.

In any event, when many years later my daughter decided to raise rabbits, I felt a rush of nostalgia. We went out and bought a two-month old New Zealand White doe, whom Sarah named Vanilla. Vanilla eventually begat Smoky, who in turn -- making Sarah sort of a great-grandmother -- begat the group that went to the fair this year.

Astute readers will be wondering about the fathers involved in this venture. (Finding a mate for your doe is called rabbit-husbandry, I believe.) The first one we found through the media. We placed a sort of Personals ad explaining that a female rabbit we represented was looking for a mate.

A little apprehensively, hoping that we wouldn't run afoul of any civil-rights laws, we said in the ad that a non-white applicant would be preferred. Eventually a spotted rabbit living in Fountain Green responded, by proxy. Vanilla went away for the weekend and the deed was done. Later, Smoky followed a similar routine.

So now here we are with three generations of rabbits under one roof. Vanilla, the matriarch, has developed a jowly look and an air of wise detachment. Smoky, her family weaned, has moved into the hutch with her mom. The youngsters, back from the fair with their ribbons, are waiting to move on to careers of their own. Sarah hopes they will become pets -- and not hasenpfeffer.

We have all found Sarah's rabbits rewarding and, in small ways, even inspirational. They're clean and friendly, and they respond well to attentive care. They demand very little beside a roof over their heads and enough to eat. The mothers are loving and nurturing to their children.

It's perplexing why Ross Perot should be so irrationally anti-rabbit. Now that he has so much more time on his hands, he ought to try raising a few of his own. Sarah would be glad to let him have a little doe to get started.

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