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Rabbits and Convicts

Rabbits and Convicts


Clinton Crockett Peters


     Before gunships, stolen children, ribbons, and sextants, Australia was the land of gnomes with giant feet that used to lie down and shade themselves with their ankles in the broiling heat of day. It was the home of dogmen, whales with fangs that ate frigates, and lithe, bare-breasted, shimmering mermaids. It was the twin city of Eden, where angels reclined in fields of spice and gold and sandalwood.

     The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela proposed terra australis in 50 CE, and Ptolemy later agreed, on the theory that without it, Earth would topple over into space.

     In this way, Australia has been a balance of heaven and hell as it is now, though home to a new succeeding legion of demons and angels. The plight of the Europeans and rabbits in Australia mirror each other in that they point up the myths we are trapped by and tell ourselves as we hop and wander the Earth.

     In 1688, Englishman William Dampier grounded on Australia’s northwest coast not knowing where he was. He was the first to record an encounter with Aborigines. Dampier found them sleeping on the open beach with no grain nor tools nor clothes, nor did they go hunting nor did they have anything to trade. He declared, confidently, redundantly, “The inhabitants of this country are the most miserablest people in the world.”

     But then came James Cook. The first to solve the scurvy mystery. The man for whom the Cook Islands are named. Who kidnapped native royalty. Who, at a time when most people were imprisoned by circumstance in their hamlets, had traveled across the world three times, landed on all seven continents, passed through the Bering Strait, the Antarctic Circle, and the Arctic Ocean before finally sailing to the warm waters of Hawaii where he tried to nab a native king, was stabbed to death on the shore, and himself, the Captain, cooked.

     Cook’s duty on his first transglobal voyage was tracing the arch of Venus across the sun at about 40 degrees latitude south, near Tahiti. This, it was thought, would reveal the Earth’s position in the solar system and the galaxy, our place in the order of things outside our horizons.

     After the measurements were taken (incorrectly, it turned out), Cook was assigned to discover terra australis, which he didn’t believe existed. He sailed the South Pacific and around all of New Zealand, before giving up and steering for home. On April 19, 1770, Cook struck terra incognita.

     The next 300 years of Australian history would be a familiar story to scientists who study invasiveness. When an introduced species (sometimes itself endangered) is brought to a place where it hasn’t lived before, it can, without warning, quickly force the other species to the edges of their habitat. Australians have done this with any number of flora and fauna. House cats were brought in and now carpet the country and tear apart families of song birds. Cane toads were imported to protect sugar plantations from insects and instead hopped to wetlands and took over. One million Arabian camels roam and munch in the outback, along with wild boar, feral goats, water buffalo, and, of course, rabbits.

     In his surrealist children’s book The Rabbits, illustrator Shaun Tan portrays Australia’s colonization. The arrival image is a crooked, colossal sail frigate piloted by English hares sporting tricorne hats elongated to fit their ears. Their ship’s foremast bears down on the expanse of Australian beach, while native marsupials cower. First the rabbits befriend and offer gifts to the marsupials. Then the book progresses through the Gonzo-esque images of conflict, assimilation, and finally the rabbits rounding up the marsupial children into Pink Floyd The Wall-type concentration camps. The last scene is a single, young marsupial befriending a young rabbit around a pool with the sun setting behind them. The native has managed to escape. It is fleeing for its life, and it is up to the baby hare to help him or hop away.

     Popular as pets around the world, rabbits have giant, illogical ears, tender twitching noses, jaggedless cheeks, lumpy, helpless bodies. For many of us, they represent not so much a rodent as a baby at the bosom we want to stroke and let suckle. We care for wide-eyed mammals as we do our own infants, an evolutionary feat that has allowed us to waste much of our time safekeeping creatures whose survival bares no interest on our own. But our love of rabbits and those like them—baby foxes, puppies, monkeys—is also our saving grace because it is the same instinct that initiates the beginnings of love for our own.

     Unless, that is, you’ve been in mortal combat with rabbits as many Australians have. For Aussies, rabbits are pack killers. They swarm. They are locust predators, invading a landscape like a tidal wave. If they could, they would eat you.

     Though their eyes resemble a human’s and are color blind, they can see movement over a hundred yards: distant eagles, fourteen-year-olds with BB guns, coyotes stalking. Their vision is an almost surreal 360 degrees. They can see both sides of themselves at the same time.

     In the spring, rabbits, especially males, will carry a white mark on their forehead or a torn ear, a bare spot of fur on their backside, usually from fighting, sometimes in the open. Rabbits, like people, like to sun bathe—hind legs stretched out, white belly up, eyes blinking in the noon light. Until a challenger patters forward.

     The ruling class rabbits enjoy the best food, the best grazing and territory and mates. The dominant rabbits are the last to starve. Lower-ranked hares are more likely to poach when a dominant male isn’t around. Weak rabbits are driven from their homes, sometimes for stealing, sometimes because they are just weak.

     When Cook went ashore and met the Aborigines, he trod unapologetically through their homes and was curious that they wouldn’t touch the ribbons he left on their beds. He found them living basically in the way William Dampier described them a hundred years prior only Cook wrote confidently in his journal that they were stoned happy. “They live,” he wrote, “in Tranquility which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition.” They were, by his reckoning, the leftover innocents from the Garden we had left behind.

     Around the time when Hawaiians were boiling the meat off Cook’s bones, Great Britain’s parliament met to discuss its crime. Viewed in public periodicals as a sinister mob bent on undermining British morality, criminals lived in neighborhoods that became known as “rookeries,” a word reserved in the sciences for nesting sites. One in eight Britons was suspected of being criminal. Many of them lived in London’s Covent Garden.

     They were called the “swinish multitudes” by Edmund Burke and the “excrementitious mass” by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

     One solution was to kill the problem. Between 1660 and 1819 there were 180 crimes in Britain for which the one and only punishment was death. These crimes included pickpocketing, swiping a blanket in the winter cold, or robbing a rabbit warren.

     Half the criminals were allowed a one-time pardon and were branded on the thumb with a hot poker so that wherever they went, people would know their crime.

     Great Britain’s population tripled from 1740 to 1851. For those petty criminals who could not cheat death or flee to America, there were mass graves called “Poor’s Holes,” where they lay, shoulder to shoulder, brown hair, blue lips, and yellow cheeks in the open air like autumn leaves in a compost.

     London was the worst smelling city in the world according to historian Robert Hughes.

     “Hell is a city much like London,” wrote Percy Shelley.

     Rather than continue to kill or mark new criminals, Parliament looked far east for the disposal of their problem. They decided to offer prisoners seven years in terra australis and not provide for a return voyage in exchange for their lives.

     Banishment is the oldest punishment. In the Bible, after the apple is bitten, the snake is first cast out, then Adam, then Eve, and later Cain to the land of Nod, east of Eden. God marks Cain so that no matter where he goes, everyone will know who he is and what he has done.

     In 1787, one thousand and thirty people aboard eleven ships, known in Australian lore as the First Fleet, landed on the continent. When the convicts and marines unloaded (effectively all prisoners then) there was one gardener in the manifest. No draft animals. No ploughs, no fertilizer and few tools.

     There was a seventy-year-old woman who had stolen twelve pounds of cheese and an eleven-year-old boy who had stolen ten yards of ribbons and a pair of silk stockings.

     There were a few prostitutes and highway robbers but not one murderer.

     The newcomers beheld an endless stretch of arid monotony: paperbark scrub, gray eucalyptus, loose soil that would not hold a vegetable. They were anchored in an unprotected bay with huge sea waves that would crash violently on the shallow ground and wreck their tents. They were also met by the “happy” aborigines who screamed “warra warra” in their language, which meant “go away.”

     Like the 100-years, worth of convicts that followed, Thomas Austin, a descendant of squatters in West Victoria, wanted rabbits in Australia. Rabbit meat had been a staple of the British and British Commonwealth’s diet for the 900 years since hares had been imported from France.

     Australia, as well as New Zealand, had government-financed assisted migration committees chartered with the goal of making the Southern Hemisphere look more like England. Sparrows and starlings were shipped in, along with insects, deer, trees and vegetables, useful or ornamental, and hundreds of other species. But unlike all the attempts since the First Fleet, Thomas Austin happened upon the idea of crossbreeding two different types of rabbits, wild-caught English gray hares that were shipped across the ocean with common hutch-bred domestics which couldn’t survive in the wild but were adjusted to the Australian climate.

     In 1859, Austin released twenty-four mongrels. The same year, Austin’s neighbor fined a thief ten pounds for bagging a hutch-bred rabbit on his property.

     Six years later there were 20,000 rabbits burrowing on Thomas Austin’s estate. In the final decade of the nineteenth century, the rabbits left Austin’s land and spread over Australia as fast as 100 kilometers per year. Austin’s neighbor was then shelling out 20,000 pounds each year for rabbit control.

     They carpeted the earth, creating field days for the working poor. Rabbit slaughter factories sprung up. Four million rabbit hides were exported from Victoria. Fifteen hundred tons of rabbit meat were shipped from Australian canneries each year in the 1890s.

     Due to competition for forage, the Australian sheep industry lost half of its animals. The already barren Victorian soil eroded. Sixteen species of native mammals became extinct or confined to tiny offshore islands, including four species of wallaby, two bandicoots, the lesser bilby, and the short-tailed hopping mouse. Another sixteen species would become endangered.


     Severe drought in the late 1890s, coupled with more and more rabbits and erosion (domestic cattle and sheep aiding the destruction) led to a Royal Commission meeting. In 1901, the commission decided the solution was building the world’s longest fence.

     They called it the “No. 1 Rabbit-Proof Fence,” and it took 400 men working in labor gangs to finish in three years. Two more fences were raised in 1904 and 1906, and in total 8,000 tons of material were used at a cost of $250 per kilometer over 3,256 kilometers across the Outback desert sea.

     These were the same fences Molly Kelly followed for a thousand miles in 1931. Known as part of the Stolen Generation, Kelly was taken from her mother when she was thirteen along with thousands of Aborigines like her who were kidnapped from their homes all the way until 1971. This was the government’s effort to corral them into modernity.

     Kelly and her sisters were placed in a school where officials planned to train them as servants, maids, and cooks. The three siblings soon escaped, and since Molly knew their home lay along one of the rabbit barriers, they followed the fences through the desert for nine weeks. With few provisions, they survived on wild bananas and sweet potatoes, forded a flooded river, crossed a dried salt lake, and hiked through endless-seeming, blinding, searing sand dunes.

     They slept in rabbit burrows.

     It only takes two rabbits on honeymoon to cross a fence and continue a plague. The founder of microbiology, Louis Pasteur, aware of the magnitude of the rabbit flood, experimented with animals in laboratories and suggested a disease called chicken cholera to stem the tide. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that a relatively unknown, harmless-to-human virus called myxoma was used, itself from Venezuela.

     When the Australian government released myxoma into the environment, tumor-like lesions began appearing on rabbits all across the Outback. The tumors could be so large they would cause the rabbits’ entire heads to swell. Tumored ears drooped to the ground, dragging in the dust.

     This was the mark of the unwanted.

     But the rabbits simply responded by evolving, continuing to struggle, to survive in the arid land where they’d been put down.

     Invasive species are thought of as pernicious. But a hundred years before, many Aussies thought of rabbits as home. Nine hundred years prior, they were French as, indeed, many English were then too.

     Now, in the dry place where the innocent were taken, where those already living were invaded, labels peeled off and applied again, where we try to overlay our two-dimensional maps of meaning onto a landscape where texture can’t show through, our very notions of heaven and hell and belonging are upended in a generation, people and plants and animals are trapped by the circumstances of where they are put down.

     Yet, we still try to draw boundaries, erect fences. We order because chaos is frightening. But where is history not reshaped to fit a fleeting image? We live in the moment, but the things that make up the fabric of our understanding are as transitory as bricks in a toppling wall.

     Myxomatosis spread over all of Australia and was effective in up to 99% of the rabbit population. It was carried by mosquitos, and remains an issue today for anyone who wants to own a pet rabbit in the country.

     Wild rabbit populations, however, have begun developing immunities the way bacteria respond to medications. To compensate, the government has developed and recommends other modern control methods, including bait poisoning, warren destruction with explosives, fumigation, shooting, trapping, minimal fencing and biological control with rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD).

     The favored method by private parties, however, is ripping: a tractor or a bulldozer fitted with multi-tinned “rippers,” which are then dragged over rabbit warrens, destroying the homes, killing the rabbits, it is thought, quickly.

     Still the hares multiply. There are perhaps 300 million rabbits alive now on the sixth continent. The Western Department of Agriculture’s website has available guides for rabbit-extermination techniques, but advises that anyone following them should exercise caution:

     “That all rabbits are removed humanely.”

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