It's not uncommon to hear Kokopelli's barks resonating in the background. A 12 month old Yorkshire Terrier, she is as spunky and vocal as any other sub 20 pound dog. So, I didn't really think much of it when she kept on for five minutes straight. Afraid the neighbors would take offense to her yapping, I went outside in an attempt to usher her back into the house. She's still young and, as such, is quite strong willed and not exceptionally keen at coming to the door when called on. Pre-coffee and puffy eyed, I slid into a T-shirt, slipped my flip-flops on and headed out the backyard, completely unaware of what lied ahead.
It seems that young "Pelli", as we often like to call her, had dug up a den of mice that were cuddled together in a tight ball the size of my fist. In her infinite wisdom, defying centuries of maternal instinct, their mother had placed them against the exterior wall of our house, right in our garden. From the sunroom I could see what all the fuss was about. One of the poor bastards had managed to crawl outside of the nest in a feeble attempt to escape what must have been the loudest sound he'd heard in his few days on earth. Pelli was six inches away, her derrière and tail pointed to the sky, nose to the ground, barking as loud as she could muster at the motionless pest. She didn't intend to harm the tiny creature, only to play with it. However, the mouse, who was not privy to this fact, was understandably terrified.
I hurried to free the small rodent from his personal hell and ushered Kokopelli out of the garden before inspecting the little guy. I scooped him up into the palm of my hand and gave him a once over. Shaken but otherwise unscathed he had successfully endured his first encounter with a predator. Lucky for him it was Pelli and not Ninja (our "adult" Yorkie) who would have produced a much different, and far more morbid outcome.
Having passed a quick visual inspection, he joined his three siblings in their den. I did my best to reconstruct the damaged exterior of their home and brought the dogs back inside. I had noticed a ton of ants traveling in a row across the wall above the den so I took care of them before returning inside as well. I'd check the mice again later on.
That evening, just before the sun dipped below the horizon, I returned to the tiny den for a head count. It was hard to tell at first as they were sleeping in a pile (reminiscent of Where the Wild Things Are), but there were four little heads packed tight and soundly sleeping -I breathed a sigh of relief, they were all accounted for. A closer look at the brown fur balls revealed a black stripe across their eyes. These weren't mice! They were chipmunks! I took some quick pics with the old iPhone and headed inside to post them on Facebook.
It didn't take long for the internet to correct my follie. As it turns out, I had neither mice nor chipmunks, but rather baby bunnies on my hands! This, of course, elated my wife and daughter who couldn't wait to meet the fuzzy stowaways. They would have to wait though, Gwen was on night call and Victoria was still in 9 hours Beaufort, SC. They would have to settle for a few pics and a short iPhone video until they could get here.
I worried that they wouldn't be safe or warm with their nest in such disarray. I decided to craft them a crude bunny hutch. Making my way to the garage, I gathered some scrap plywood from the teardrop camper project and fashioned the pieces into a rudimentary shelter.
The next morning I left for Beaufort to pick up Victoria. It's a nine hour drive so I set out early. Before hitting the road I took one last peek. All four babies were still inside the hutch and appeared to be doing well. A few hours after I left, Gwen arrived home. Apparently, she had done quite a bit of research online the night before and learned a ton about baby bunnies. She decided that it would be best to place the bunnies back into their nest and covered them with grass clippings, similar to how their mother would. Gwen found that the mortality rate for bunnies whose mother's abandon them is 80%. As it turns out, they depend on their mother's milk to provide the necessary gut bacteria to remain healthy. The alternative would be mixing kitten formula with some of momma's rabbit poo to help infuse them with this bacteria. Needless to say, were weren't excited about this prospect and crossed our fingers that their mother would return soon.
Victoria and I came in late that night and we were both too tired for bunny duty. The next morning I couldn't wait to check on them. I was pleased to report that they were doing quite well, but there was no sign that their mother had returned. We decided to give her one more night just to be safe. The next morning we went out to check on them and fresh green grass clippings mixed in with a little rabbit fur had replaced the faded clippings Gwen had placed a few days earlier. This was a much welcomed sign as it meant their mother had returned. Rabbits feed their young twice a day, five minutes each time. Once at night just after the sun sets, and then again before sun up. For the next week we checked on them once a day. Each morning, we would carefully push the top of the nest to the side so that we could inspect each bunny individually. We made sure their tummies felt full and that the ants hadn't returned, and that none had wandered off. Then they were placed back into their nest and the top was as carefully replaced as it was removed. After a few days their eyes opened and, if it were possible, they were even cuter.
After that first week, they grew fearful of us, so we made the difficult (but necessary) decision to leave them be, but to continue to keep an eye on things. So as not to disturb them, I would place a few grass clippings over the top of their nest in the shape of an asterisk. That way we would know when they were dug up for feeding. Each morning when I took the dogs out, I took the opportunity to check on them. By the end of week two, they had either left the nest, or it had been moved. It would be two more weeks after that before we would see them again, nearly fully grown. Occasionally, I catch a glimpse of them feeding at the end of our yard. I'm happy to report that they are healthy and, most importantly, afraid of humans.
We were excited to have such a rewarding experience, but it could have ended much differently. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel the need to care for feral bunnies yourself (dogs dug them up, lawnmower destroyed the nest, etc.) be sure to do a ton of reading. These little guys are as fragile as they are cute and the odds are stacked against them that they will survive without their mother. The best thing to do is to put them back into their nest and let nature take its course. Mother's will return each night for a week to search for her young. Use your best judgement.