Steinbeck and the Baby Bunny



The dog drops into a play-bow, a fuzzy toy in his mouth. He leaps up, pounces, energy high, eyes sparkling with fun. Boy, he really loves that toy, I think, curious which of the thousand has sparked his imagination. My husband, always more alert than I, stops in the doorway.

“What’s he got?”

“Just one of his—oh my god!” I have caught a glimpse of what he is tossing, and like the dumb ingenue in the cast of every horror film, I shriek, “It’s a creature!

A baby bunny, to be precise. Now cowering under my desk, eyes black with fear. There follows a military exercise, with me isolating the bemused dog and fetching gloves, a small cardboard box, and a flashlight. Andrew crawls under the desk and sweet-talks the bunny into his hands.

When he gently sets the bunny down outside, she (or he? I refuse “it”) is still frozen with shock. Worried about nighttime predators, Andrew adds a soft blanket to the box, puts the bunny back inside, and tucks it under a bench on our porch, the box on its side so the bunny can leave the makeshift shelter if she chooses. I worry that she will not be warm enough—blankets and brandy are all I know of shock, and though I have an eyedropper, brandy seems a bit too potent.

As I fuss, a cold truth cuts in: a cardboard box is all many humans have to protect themselves. They, too, face predators, and weather far colder than this balmy spring night. Last week I spotted a sign at the foundation of the old barn next to the town library, explaining that the hollowed-out spot is now where the library cat lives, a feral creature now fed, housed, and loved. That sign makes it seem so simple, this act we cannot manage for our own species.

Back inside, my husband glares at the dog. “Okay, Bruno,” he says, “you only need eighteen more kills.” He is referring to the World War I flying ace in The Blue Max, who is aiming for twenty kills to receive Germany’s highest medal for valor.

All I can think of is Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

“He didn’t mean to hurt the bunny,” I exclaim, shifting from ingenue to kindergartener. Helplessness has a way of eroding maturity. “And if you’re counting that poor little bird, Willie just swiped at it with his paw the way he does when he wants to play. The bird was already injured, or it would have flown away.”

Andrew gives me a look that says one, he is not convinced, and two, he pities my naivete. But the rationalizations are coming fast now, relentless as a salesman’s patter. “The bunny didn’t have a mark—no broken skin, no blood,” I point out. “If Willie had a fierce prey drive, that bunny would be dead already.”

Instead, the bunny probably suffered a little bunny heart attack, tossed about in the air by a black giant with weird ears. Deep down, I am as horrified as my husband. Nature is red in tooth and claw, I mutter to myself. But how could our gentle dog be so cruel?

Real writers face the natural world’s cruelties head-on. Thirty years later, I still remember Annie Dillard’s brave, clear-eyed description of a weasel “killing more bodies than he can eat warm, and often dragging the carcasses home. Obedient to instinct, he bites his prey at the neck, either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull.” But Willie was not hunting in that primal, weaselly way. No, not Willie. He brought the bunny inside, like a pirate returning to his ship with a bag of gold. A new plaything, one he caught himself! Warm and breathing, so all the more fun.

This is a dog who leans hard against me and stays put when I am sad, who alters his usual bounce when someone seems frail, whose brow furrows with worry when we raise our voices in high emotion—yet he cannot tell that he is scaring a baby bunny? Or does not care about causing that fear? Dogs are famously sensitive to human emotions. Are they incapable of generalizing that ability? Is the atavistic drive that deeply wired?

Aloud, I continue defending him, staunch as any mother who senses an attack on her child’s honor or danger to the family’s harmony. I do not want the man I love to blame the dog I love. I am beginning to understand (viscerally, not as an intellectual sop to my values) how mothers stand by sons who are serial killers. “He’s still my baby,” they say between sobs. “He had a rough time of it.”

Ah, but life has not been rough for our standard poodle. Nor is he stupid. Even as I remind Andrew that the bunny was just the size and furry texture of Willie’s favorite toys and—here I pale—might have squeaked like the toys do, I am secretly wondering how the hell this smart civilized dog could have mistaken a live bunny for a stuffed one. Because it froze in terror?

Or because he is a sociopath, a stone-cold killer. Or because most living beings feel entitled to toy with beings far smaller than they are. Is it revenge, because others made them feel small and batted them about? That might be the human condition. We are like flies to the gods, tossed around by a malevolent universe or a sadistic creator. We are like baby bunnies to a poodle.

Nervous as it makes me to think that our dog has prey drive, I think I would prefer it if Willie had killed the bunny and tried to eat it. Granted, we feed him better fare. But this bringing of treasure, this playing? I try joking along with Andrew, calling the dog “The Bunnykiller,” but it leaves me queasy. This is normal canine behavior. I know: I googled it. A friend tells me her dog dropped a live baby bunny at her feet and, while she was rushing to tend to it, he went back to the nest and brought another, and as she yelled at his retreating back, went to fetch a third.

Two of those three bunnies died. So did ours, stiff by morning, still in her box. Andrew buried her by the stand of tall grasses the rabbits love best. Did she have siblings somewhere, I wondered. Willie was officially grounded, but would the neighborhood’s feral cat hunt them?

Resenting prey drive is indeed naïve. Hunters select for that kind of drive. And standard poodles were used as hunting dogs for centuries, retrieving shot-down waterfowl with their soft mouths (not a mark on that bunny). If I like the other traits Willie inherited—the ability to think for himself, the attunement to us, the sense of partnership—then I have to accept the whole package. Still, when Andrew calls him Bruno again, I snap, “You can’t condemn him if you’re gonna eat steak and chicken—you’re no better.”

He grins. “I never claimed to be consistent.” Nor is our dog. But accepting his instinctive, sadistic—what? play drive?— is hard for me. Just as it is hard to listen when my husband talks about the lengths he would go if someone ever tried to hurt me or…er…Bruno. I love Andrew’s protectiveness, his courage, his willingness to do anything to keep us safe. But all violence makes me nervous. The Old Testament appalls me—a harsh and punitive God demanding sacrifice and playing favorites and smiting enemies? I was not raised that way, and I had no intention of worshiping a divine power meaner than my own mother. Theodicy—the inexplicable fact of human suffering in a world ostensibly created by a loving God—tripped me up from the start.

Process theology, which I guess is out of fashion now, makes more sense, because it posits a God who is not all-powerful, who is vulnerable and evolving along with us. A force of love and connection that cannot erase cruelty or ward off suffering, but can help us heal. A bright energy that, with and through us, is co-creating the world. Except…the world does not seem to be getting less violent. Entire countries toy with one another, hunt, kill. We are far worse than the poodles.

I am recoiling from a mirror.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.