I went for a walk this morning, and ended up finding a whole bunch of seemingly blind rabbits. They weren’t the first ones I’d seen in the area, actually. It was down by the Rhine, near the paper factory a couple weeks ago that I first saw one near the road. I rode my bike past it as it grazed on some grass near the road, and I noticed that it did not seem fussed by my passing. I also noticed that its eyes seemed weirdly puffy and mostly closed, so I doubled back to have a look at it. It turned out that this was the case, but it retreated into the cover of the bushes before I could really scrutinize it.
I had meant to go see if I could find it again, but completely forgot about it until this morning, when I saw another one. Actually, my first thought was that I had found the same one, since I was only a hundred yards or so from the first location, and I didn’t think that an old, blind rabbit would be terribly common. Almost immediately, though, I noticed that there was another blind rabbit just a few feet away from that one, which piqued my curiosity. I only got more curious about it as I saw more and more blind rabbits, finding a total of six this morning. All together, I saw six blind rabbits, three sighted ones, and two dead rabbits. I also saw one dead crab, which seemed unusual given that it was a field near a freshwater river, and some ways from the ocean (though perhaps not as far as I think).
Of course, it’s more likely that I would see the blind rabbits, in a sense. The sighted ones would spot me from further away, and dart away earlier and quicker, so it seems very possible that there were a great many more that saw me and turned tail before I even noticed them, possibly while I was in the process of sneaking up on a blind one. It definitely wasn’t a scientific wildlife survey or anything, just casual observation.
The site, as I mentioned, is very close to a paper factory, and even when I saw the first one in isolation, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps it had run afoul of some sort of chemical contamination. I’m not altogether certain what goes into the production of paper, but I’m sure at some point it involves vats of something that is probably bad for any organism, human or rabbit, to ingest. Perhaps these rabbits were manifesting some sort of accumulated contamination from being so near the factory? Additionally, the entire field area I was in was a former brickyard, and if there is an industrial by-product to blame, perhaps it is something that has been residing in the soil for decades. The paper mill, after all, is probably being held to more stringent, and certainly more contemporary safety regulations. I’m not sure when the brick factory officially closed, but it’s hey-day was likely a time when “safe disposal” just meant dumping things in a place you wouldn’t step in it.
Then again, perhaps these blind rabbits are just old rabbits. I know essentially nothing about the details of the lives of rabbits, particularly european rabbits. Given the lack of predators in the area, and the seeming abundance of food in the field, perhaps the rabbits lived rich, full, rabbity lives, and were still able to survive even while blind, because the only predator they had to worry about was hawks, and the occasional house cat. The blind rabbits all seemed to move slower and generally seem a little frumpier than the other rabbits, so maybe they were just really really old, and blindness was a common fate for old rabbits.
I did some research when I got back to the house, and discovered that perhaps they were not simply old, blind rabbits, but they were diseased rabbits. It turns out that blindness in rabbits is commonly associated with a condition in rabbits known as myxomatosis. You can read about it at the link, but basically it’s a virus (the Myxoma virus) that affects rabbits, and has a particularly strong virulence in European rabbits (that is, the European rabbit as a species: Oryctolagus cuniculus, not just rabbits located in Europe). The wikipedia page isn’t super detailed, but evidently blindness is sometimes the first indication that a rabbit has the disease. It sounds like death is a common eventuality, particularly in populations without a natural resistance to the virus. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, it sounds like it works pretty quick, too: “In typical cases where the rabbit has no resistance death may take place rapidly, often in as little as 48 hours. Death usually occurs within 14 days.” That quote might seem a little self-contradicting, but I interpret it to mean that if it’s really bad, it will take two days for the infection to be fatal– but more typically takes two weeks.
That sounds grim for the Rabbits of the Renkum Rhine Riverside. Did I just witness the visible effects of a plague among the rabbits of the area? Or were they just elderly rabbits, rendered blind with age? I don’t really know, and someone would actually have to conduct some sort of study to be sure, because this is all just based on my own, non-scientific observations. The puffy, closed eyes certainly didn’t look healthy, though, so a virus or infection certainly seems like the most likely theory at this point. The proximity of the paper factory, and the industrial history of the site seem to just be coincidences, which is very reassuring… or at least as reassuring as it can be when there seems to be a lot of diseased animals hopping around an otherwise pastoral backdrop.
I’m not from around here, of course, so I have no idea whether or not this sort of thing is common, but I suspect it is. Myxomatosis seems to have had some pretty catastrophic effects on the British population of rabbits in the last fifty or so years, but I’m not sure how the rabbits of the continent on the whole are doing. It’s probably one of those things that comes and goes from time to time, probably following population booms, I suspect.
In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye out for more of them in other areas around here, and see if I observe as many blind rabbits (or “myxie rabbits”, as they’re apparently called) in the three weeks or so that we have remaining here in the Netherlands.
(as accessed November 9th, 2011)
Encylopedia of Life: European Rabbit
(as accessed November 9th, 2011)