Winter Rabbit Kill – a short story by Judith Anketell
Judith Anketell of Ardross, Western Australia, contributed this short story to the National Museum’s 1992 ‘Grey Invasion’ rabbit research project. Judith’s story considers both dark and light in the relationship between humans and rabbits: a farmer’s pleasure at the brutal efficiency of poisoned baits sits uncomfortably against the writer’s fond memories of Beatrix Potter’s endearing characters in the Peter Rabbit books.
The farm was in the S[outh] W[est] of West Australia. In hilly country, with a high rainfall it was suitable for dairying and potato-growing. Most of my school holidays were spent there in the mid-thirties. This friendship between the two families – mine a country town one – began in the Depression. My family lost everything when the Bank my father was manager of, went bust. The farm family saw what a difficult time we were having , so offered to have me for the holidays to help us manage and also to be a friend to their three children.
I liked the farm and the family. Except the farmer. I was scared of him but I never said anything about this to anyone. So one May holidays, as a shy 9 years old, I was again there amongst the hills and cows… and the rabbits. They’d always been there but this time it was pointed out to me how many more of them there were, after a good summer and autumn. At dusk you could see them sitting still or scurrying about the paddocks as you stood on the verandah of the house. Once the farmer went to the town and bought some poison (strychnine). Then he and the farm labourer, with help from his 10 year old son Ted, cut up hundreds of apples kept from last season’s crop in their home orchard. They mixed the poison and apples and set out with the tractor that afternoon. A trail of poison apple was laid all over the hilly paddocks one after the other and especially near the burrows. Down by the creeks and in the gullies there grew a lot of bracken with fascinating bright green curled-up fronds. After dinner we were all told to go to bed as we had to be up early to get the rabbits. I had no idea what this involved but was happy to be part of the plan.
At 5a.m. I was woken and told to get dressed in warm clothes and come to the kitchen. There I was given a mug of hot cocoa and a size too big wellington boots. We set off them, he farmer, his wife, his eldest son and daughter, the little boy and the farm labourer. There was an air of excitement amongst us and for me mystery, as with hurricane lanterns we made our way in the dark to the milking sheds. Here we seven divided into 3 parties. The farmer, Ted and me were together. I knew I wouldn’t like that much. The farmer was taciturn and unfriendly and I knew I’d have to do my best or be humiliated.
The sun was just rising. Our breath made ‘smoke’ as we breathed out. It was very cold and there’d been a heavy dew so the grass and stubble was soaking wet. When through the first gate I was told to ‘pick ‘em up and carry ‘em to the pit’. The other two set off. At first I couldn’t see anything , but I picked up the apple trail and followed it expecting to see rabbits. Soon I was shouted at ‘Look over there can’t you, PICK ‘EM UP’. The rabbits died away from the trail as they made off to their burrows, so it was no good sticking to that. You had to veer off to right and left looking for the bodies. I found them. Stiff, cold and wet or warm and newly dead. I was shocked at the sight and the job. The poor things, they were only living rabbit lives. All this slaughter around me was awful. My sensibilities were jarred. Had I not been brought up on ‘Peter Rabbit’? Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail too and their Mother? Such charming whimsical creatures.
There was not time for reflection though or of nursing any feelings. There was a grim job to be done – alone. I picked up the first rabbit by the back legs as I saw others do. I was surprised at how heavy it was. Then a couple more small ones and that’s all one hand could carry. So I got 2 or 3 more in the other hand and set off with my six dead, wet rabbits for the deep pit where they were to be thrown. I tramped up the bare paddock in my large wellies with my unusual burden. Then down the other side to the pit. Everywhere were rabbits, hundreds of them, stretched out in all kinds of positions as death struck them. Paws up in the air [,] on their backs or sides, eyes open or closed, white powder-puff tails, now matted, and sometimes blood oozed from their noses. I started again near the pit, and this was in the bracken area. Some of the fronds were nearly as high as me. As I searched underneath for bodies, the fronds dripped on me and the fur was wetter. Another load was soon picked up and taken to the pit. A trip in the other direction now. More bracken, I searched diligently carrying 4 bodies, when the gruff voice of the farmer called out ‘Look what you’re doing. You’ve missed that BIG BUCK.’ I meekly went to where he was standing pointing furiously. I stared at it transfixed by its size. ‘PICK IT UP’. I did so murmuring ‘Sorry, I didn’t see it’. I felt small and demeaned, I’d tried so hard. My next dilemma was, could I carry a sixth rabbit as well as 4 and the big buck? I decided I’d better or I’d get what-for again. It was a real struggle to make the pit that time. Ted seemed to be having no trouble – well, I supposed that was because he was a boy. Probably the bare paddock, I thought, rather than the gully would be my best bet. The rabbits were easier to see. They still had to be picked up and then woulnd’t the farmer see I was doing my utmost? More forays, more wetness, my hands were frozen. I tripped over stones because the [boot] toes were not where my toes were. Once I tripped over and fell on my load of rabbits. Oh, how horrible. They were so soft and wet, and I felt it indecent to fall on them. Repulsive too, I was covered in blood and mud. The sun rose higher, and my clothes began to steam. How many more were there, when would we stop, who would milk the waiting cows? Or was this holocaust collection more important than anything else? Nobody spoke. Where was the farmers wife, she was more friendly, I wished I could see her.
Sometimes Ted or the farmer found a live rabbit, or kittens who’d left the burrow to seek their mother. Then they took them to a tree and holding them by the hind legs, bashed their heads against it. Their necks were broken with a sickening crack. I couldn’t look after the first time. Soon I forgot about being sorry for the rabbits as I was feeling increasingly sorry for myself. How long were we to do this – all day? What about breakfast? My arms ached, I was cold and miserable. Dimly I wondered how I came to be doing this awful job in what were supposed to be happy holidays. I was aware though that the whole thing was necessary for the survival of the farm and its dependents.
At last the call was made to stop. As I looked in the pit for the last time, that mass grave of furry bodies, hundreds of them, is a sight I will never forget. Breakfast thankfully was a fairly cheerful affair (as long as we children behaved). But at least the farmer had a grim smile on his face., as he estimated we’d picked up between 800-900 rabbits. He felt successful.
The warm food and a change of clothes soon made my childish spirits rise. I was too young to realise the why of this murderous morning. But anyhow no one had attempted to explain it to me. I learned about rabbits, and I learned about the human pecking order. A most unpleasant experience.
Do you have a story to tell about rabbits? Let us know your rabbit memories through the fields below, or follow our People & Environment blog to join our conversation about Australians' relationships with rabbits and other animals in Australia.