Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rescue mission

A rabbit at my home in Thunder Bay.
It was as I headed back along the edge of the highway, re-tracing my steps on the uneven ground, walking a little slower and yet on the verge of giving up, that I finally found the rabbit. It lay completely still and completely visible nestled in amongst tall grassy weeds and broken rock chips in the shallow ditch, not two feet from the edge of the busy road, and I wondered how I had missed it the first time I walked past.

I stood for a moment and stared at the tiny creature, the heavy heat of the day, the hot smell of tarmac, the slapping of a lazily choppy Lake Ontario against the rocks on the other side of the two-lane highway and the oddly cool metal of the guardrail beneath my hand all forgotten as my eyes focused on the rabbit and tried to convince my brain it was really there even though I had been certain just seconds before that it was long gone.

The rabbit lay so still, without so much as a twitch of a nose or a flick of a whisker that if it wasn’t for its eyes, black and shiny, and its head upright, ears pointed to the purple flowers growing from the rock face above, I would have thought it was dead.

I first spotted the rabbit as I drove along the stretch of road that follows the shoreline of Lake Ontario, past houses and parks, on my way to the small village where I had been visiting with my parents for a week and a half. The rabbit was sitting on the paved shoulder of the road while cars zipped past just inches away. It was clearly injured. It looked like its backend had been clipped by a car and during the first few seconds in which I saw the rabbit and realized it was very much alive, Max popped into my head.

The rabbit sat like Max used to, his front legs holding him upright and tall, his back legs limp and withered at his side. “What do I do?” I said to the empty car as I turned off the radio. “I can’t just leave it there.” But could I take it to my parents’ house? “Here mom and dad, here’s an injured rabbit you can nurse back to health.” And I was leaving in a couple of days.

When I returned to the spot 15 minutes later with a cardboard box lined with newspaper, my mom, and an address for a local wildlife rescue, the rabbit was gone. And as I scoured the narrow strip of weeds and rocks that lay between the road and a towering sheer rock face I tried to convince myself I had been mistaken. The rabbit had merely been stunned and, recovering after a few minutes, had hopped off on his merry way.

But there it was, lying in the weeds at my feet, trying desperately to be invisible. Okay, I thought, I need to stay calm. As soon as the rabbit realized I'd seen it though, it started to life and tried to get away, scrabbling anxiously at the weeds with its front legs, its back legs lying frustratingly useless behind him. I tried to quietly explain what I was doing as I placed the box on the sloping ground and donned a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of my dad’s work gloves.

As I knelt down beside it and looked into its startled black eyes like great round marbles I thought of Max again. The rabbit’s colouring, tall ears, wide black eyes and the way it lay on its side with its back legs unmoving reminded me so strongly of Max and I purposely thought of him as I reached down with my hands twice their size in the worn leather work gloves, trying to channel his gentle energy, as if somehow he could tell this rabbit not to be afraid, that I was there to help it.

I wrapped my hands around its tiny chest and waited for a moment until it stopped struggling. The only mark I could see on him was a red scrape on his left knee. There were no other obvious injuries so I tried to lift the rabbit smoothly into the box that my mom, who had appeared beside me, now held steady. We covered the box with my long-sleeved shirt and returned to the car.

I sat with the box on my lap while my mom drove to the next town almost half an hour away where the wildlife rescue is located, and I peered under the shirt every few minutes to make sure the rabbit was still alive. It lay completely motionless against one side of the box, frozen again in its defensive way, and I had to look very closely to see the tiniest movement of its chest to tell me it was still breathing.

It was late Friday afternoon and we had been unable to reach anyone on the phone at the Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre so we hoped there would be someone there when we showed up on the doorstep with the rabbit. We didn’t really have a backup plan.

As we pulled in to the cool shady driveway of the Centre, which is run out of a private residence on the edge of farm country and marked only by a small weather-worn wooden sign at the road, we were relieved to find a handful of cars, some dogs, and people milling about.

“What have you got there?” asked a woman with an armload of bags.

“A rabbit,” I said, somewhat apologetically for just showing up, yet hopeful that they could do something. She directed us to a tiny white building, on the outside of which was a large chicken-wire cage full of various birds.

Inside we handed over the rabbit to volunteers and as I removed the shirt from the top of the box the rabbit began scrabbling at the cardboard in an attempt to escape. I took that as a good sign.

After we filled out some paperwork, we thanked the people profusely for being there and doing what they do. We were told if the rabbit is rehabilitated, he will be returned to the area where he was found.

That night we toasted to the rabbit’s speedy recovery and hope that he will never find his way back to the road.

Safe travels little rabbit.

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