As a child, growing up on a farm, there was always that annual dilemma of allowing the Easter Bunny to romp through the paddocks and into excited dreams, to deliver a bounty of treats on Easter Sunday. The rigours of Lenten observance, meatless Fridays and committed attendance at Holy Week church services, gave way to a celebration of the Resurrection, in the best possible way – a feasting on eggs of a every size and description, all made of chocolate.
The amnesty granted to the Easter Bunny, sat uneasily with the year-round pursuit of his more recognisable cousins, who were trapped, shot and poisoned in great numbers in the fifties and sixties. Good wool prices firmly established sheep as the preferred grazing medium, in direct competition with the voracious, pasture destroying rabbits. I learned how to set a trap as soon as my weight could push down on the handle, my hands were strong enough to prise open the steel jaws and my reflexes were sharp enough to avoid getting fingers caught. It was an essential skill and one which produced reasonable results. Laying the trap properly in the soil, anchoring the chain, setting the jaws, covering the plate with newspaper and then disguising it all with a light dusting of dirt, usually ensured a catch, unless the foxes got there first in the pre-dawn light.
So you can imagine how this practical background knowledge of rabbits, was completely useless to me, when I first started my farm animal display business in the early nineties. My school visits, educational services and exhibitions had to include rabbits ….right? Rabbits contribute to a valid and valuable agricultural industry, where we farm special breeds to provide meat, fibre and skins for a range of products. My displays centred on teaching consumers about the various aspects of farming, so there was no place for cute, little, pet bunnies in our “Farm To You” programmes, we needed the real thing.
Over the ensuing years we bred a variety of rabbits and amongst their number, were quite a few characters, who we remember fondly. It was however, a constant battle, with the business located on a working farm, to stay ahead of myxomatosis and calici virus –two effective biological measures introduced to control the wild pest population, once trapping became illegal, and as an alternative to poisoning.
Enter stage right – Thumper. He was a New Zealand White, a large breed of rabbit developed to service the growing market for lean, easily digested protein. The meat from these docile, fast-growing animals is much sought after by consumers, and has an important place in the diets of the elderly, given its excellent qualities and reasonable price.
When Thumper joined the team, he was a wonderful addition right from the start, much loved by children and an excellent ambassador for his breed, even among genuinely interested, adult visitors to our displays. Whenever you wanted to take a small team of animals to a Special Needs School, visit a childcare centre or pre-school, this gentle, white giant was our go-to bunny. He gained quite a following, and as he was vaccinated, seemed to avoid the problems each autumn when calici virus was at its most potent. By far his biggest fan, his most ardent supporter, his daily visitor, was my 3yr old granddaughter Molly, and although she could barely lift him, Thumper tolerated the uncomfortable nursing and cuddling, with patient understanding and a genuine affection for his young carer.
We lost Thumper at the Crookwell Show… he had been listless and off his feed during the day and when his cage was checked early on the Sunday morning, he had departed this world and gone to the great bunny heaven in the skies. What to tell Molly? Now don’t be under any concern that our “littlest farmer” didn’t understand the whole life, death scenario, it was just that we thought Thumper deserved some sort of upmarket farewell, rather than just digging a hole for him in the orchard. But it was February, we were miles from the farm, the temperature was nudging 38 degrees and Molly was not due home till the Tuesday, so an appropriate funeral for her much-love rabbit was going to need careful planning.
Step one, Thumper went into the esky, and then into the freezer when we got home.
Molly arrived early on the Tuesday morning, fully prepped by her mother, and ready to officiate at a ceremony with full military honours. She had drawings, ribbons, little cards, glitter and one of her small soft toys. She was quite matter of fact, and not only chose the spot in my garden for his grave, but supervised the digging, carefully placed rocks around the sides and then set off to collect the flowers. “Nan. He needs lots of flowers, we don’t want him to smell”. Meanwhile, Thumper is on the verandah table, slowly defrosting, as the February sun unleashed its early heat.
“Can you do a movie, Nan?” Why did I say yes, why did I video the solemnity of the ceremony, why did I forget that the camera was still recording? When replayed later, it shows the hole filled with flowers, the family dog in attendance, and Molly making last minute adjustments to the site. In harmony with birds singing in the background, an adult voice can be heard quite clearly urging, “Molly, I think you are going to have to hurry up, Thumper is starting to melt”.
That’s not the end of the Thumper story. While his burial and wake were the major feature of that Tuesday at Nan’s, none of us were prepared for what unfolded the next day. On her way up to drop Molly off the following morning, her mother noticed scatterings of white feathers in the paddock below my cottage, and alerted me to the likelihood that a fox had got into the henhouse during the night. I had checked the chooks earlier and nothing was amiss, and we both suddenly realised that the “feathers” were in fact white fur, and under the cover of darkness, a grave-robbing Reynard had been into the garden and exhumed Thumper, the soft toy, the flowers, and the cards. Frantically distracting the senior mourner from the previous day, (thanks Playschool), we filled in the grave, smoothed it over, and put back the little pebbles, before adding a jar as a vase and a large rock ….. “he deserved a tombstone”. Molly was none the wiser, and happily picked another bunch of flowers, while down the paddock and out of sight, her mother gathered up the white snowflakes that were Thumper’s mortal remains.