Dances with Rabbits – Walker Thomas

Effie the cottontail, examined by a chipmunk. Author photograph

I stood under the alligator juniper that shaded my tent in the oak woods. Effie squatted between my feet. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade called his receptionist Effie. But the Effie at my feet was no lady. I called her F. E. Cottontail in my journals. Cottontails are coprophagous – literally, Fecal Eating.

That made sense in Effie’s world. She ate the same grass and leaf diet as the ruminants: the cows, sheep, goats, deer, and the giraffes munching treetops. Ruminants have four-chambered stomachs to break down cellulose. Grass and leaves form a bolus – the homologous mass we call the cow’s cud – in the first chamber. It’s regurgitated, rechewed and swallowed again. And again. And again. A long, bovine contemplation and worrying of the green, frothy bolus between tooth and tongue. After that, it marinates in the juices of the other three chambers before it’s allowed to pass to the small intestine to be absorbed.

Effie’s high-cellulose diet yielded little the first time through her simple stomach. Then it fermented in the cecum and formed nutrition-packed cecotropes, or night feces, to be re-eaten. Cottontail diets also lack vitamin K, a blood-clotting factor, so Effie supplemented her feces with those of other species. By happy coincidence, she included mine. And soon, she seemed to find mine the finest of all.

When I started to live on that Sonoran sky island, my porta-john was a garden trowel. I filled the holes back in and foot-tamped the earth flat over my deposit. I found my toilets dug up the next day. Biodegradable toilet paper hung in the bushes. After talking with E. Lendell Cockrum, a University of Arizona mammologist, I guessed that it was kicked up by Effie’s strong hind legs.

I abandoned the trowel. I had cottontail plumbing. All I needed was a surface on which to display my culinary offering. I established two permanent toilets on hard ground brushed clean. The site fifty meters above the tent had a fallen tree with forked limbs of just the right curvature and height off the ground, the one fifty meters below, a pair of smooth, round-topped rocks. In that search I gained more respect for the subtle engineering of the toilet seat. Thickets – one of hackberry, the other manzanita – backed each site and ensured Effie’s safe approach and peace of mind. I alternated sites and packed used toilet paper out in Zip-Loc bags. On extended stays, I found each site clean in time for alternate visits.

Cottontail plumbing brought added benefits. The male black bear that overwintered on the slopes above used those sites to measure the radius of the territory he accepted as mine. I’d find his signs on warmer winter days, when, at that latitude, bears took breaks from their hibernation to forage for a snack. The bear’s digs and scrapes, overturned boulders and tree stumps torn-apart, the clumps of fur from infrequent meat meals, and piles of horse-apple-size droppings of acorn and manzanita came right up to that fifty-meter radius, but not a step within.

And Effie’s services encouraged a healthy diet. She only let me down once, after I ate too many cookies and she refused a chocolate-darkened offering.

Effie watches from across the clearing. Author photograph

I might attribute Effie’s warmth solely to the intimacy of our shared meals. But sometimes she looked like a chipmunk with one cheek pouch full, a symptom of rabbit fever – tularemia – a distressing malady that recurs in winter and spring. It may have been what made her hesitate to venture so far from camp that she couldn’t arrive whenever I scattered nuts and seeds for birds.

As our friendship developed, Gloria sealed the deal.

I found Gloria beside the road when I bicycled back from town. Car-struck, the young cottontail’s back sagged and it dragged its hind legs. I could leave it for the coyotes, or give it shelter until it healed, though paralyzed and unable to return to the wild. I got an Equidyne at the ranch where I parked my bicycle. In tiny bits, the horse pill would ease the pain of a smaller animal. I’d give a fatal dose if she seemed in unbearable pain.

I christened her Gloria, since Gloria Steinem also saw hard times as a cottontail. Her thoughtfully balanced feminist writing didn’t take off until she wrote about her experiences as a Playboy Bunny. I made Gloria a nest in a woolen sweater on top of my backpack for the long walk home.

She developed a wary trust at camp. If she survived the week, I’d jury-rig a roller skate wheelchair under her hindquarters for movement in a friend’s shady and fenced yard.

Effie slept beside the tent while Gloria convalesced within. I felt a thump, thump, thump on the nylon near my head when Effie scratched an ear.

By day, Gloria nibbled grass in the shade of a tree, dragging her hind legs along with no signs of distress.

I avoided being a constant, maybe threatening presence. But, too long alone one day, she crawled into hot sunlight. I found her in an intense seizure. With no way to administer the pill as I watched her twist in death’s grip, I killed her quickly with a stone.

I looked around. My predatory behavior had passed unnoticed.

Later, Effie dashed into the clearing and invited me to dance. She zigzagged between rocks and trees, leapt straight up in front of me and flicked her feet to one side. She rebounded into the air to flick her feet to the other side.

When I failed to join in – to dash under her leaps and leap back over her in a traditional mating dance – she ran off into the woods, but soon returned by quiet hops to nibble grass nearby.

I referred to Effie and Gloria as she for the aesthetics of our relationships, but I never checked either for gender. Cottontail males initiate the mating dance. I’d been courted. Effie was as unaware of my human gender as I was of his.

*

Walker Thomas planned to spend a summer in desert mountain wilderness.  He stayed eight years, reflecting on the life that led him to live alone in a cave.  Excerpts from his memoir manuscript have appeared in a Porridge essay from October 2020, other magazines and small-college anthologies.  Links to and texts of his published articles are collected at walkerthomas.net.

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