Having lagophthalmia means sleeping with your eyes open. My brother has it, and words cannot express how creepy it is. It’s like having a breathing corpse in the bed with you. Yuck! The term is based on the mistaken belief that lagomorphs — rabbits, hares and pikas — sleep with their eyes open.
In fact Bugs Bunny and his kin sleep with closed eyes just like the rest of us. Some guy in ancient Greece makes a fact-free statement and here we are, thousands of years later, still believing it. Like nobody can look at a sleeping rabbit for himself.
Ah well, the absence of change in the human brain is sort of comforting. We now have a whole industry on TV, radio and social media featuring bullet-headed hate-mongers who entertain by telling lies to excite our resentments and prejudices. And we throw common sense and what we see with our own eyes out the window.
But I digress. All I wanted was to introduce the lagomorphs, specifically the European rabbit with mention of the American rabbit and the jackrabbit. Australia had no lagomorphs when European colonists arrived in force in 1788. Surely some domesticated rabbits escaped but never established themselves in the wild. In 1859, one Thomas Austin, missing the thrill of shooting little bunnies back in jolly old home, had his brother back in Liverpool ship him a batch of wild rabbits, of which 13 survived to arrive Down Under. Note unlucky number.
Rabbits have up to six kittens in a litter, seven litters in a year, and the progeny mature to breed during that first year. That’s exponentially increase faster than the interest on a payday loan. In 1865, Mr. Austin killed 20,000 rabbits on his land and figured there were at least 10,000 left. By the 1870s, millions of acres had been affected.
Rabbits on the move were described as a gray blanket on the land, green before them becoming bare, red earth behind. Strychnine, arsenic, imported foxes and cats, plowing up community burrows all proved insufficient for control of the increasing rabbit population.
By 1907, 2,000 miles of fence — the longest stretch being 1,139 miles — were also not enough, again demonstrating the futility of fencing to confine determined living beings. Children would kill so many on the way to and from school that towns had to hire guys with carts to collect the corpses. Much of the 1 million rabbits commercially canned per year went to the military, probably making canned rabbit about as popular with Australia and New Zealand Anzac soldiers and sailors as Spam was with GIs.
In 1888, the government offered a $2 million prize for a rabbit control solution. The hundreds of respondents included Louis Pasteur himself, who left incensed, blaming German judges for the anti-French decision not to accept his chicken cholera as the answer. Actually, it didn’t kill rabbits that well and did kill some unintended animals, for instance, chickens. Nobody won the prize.
Myxomatosis is a viral disease limited to lagomorphs. In American species it’s little more than a bad mosquito bite. In European rabbits it has a four-day incubation period, a few days of eye inflammation and fever, then many bumps on the skin, increasing eye and nose discharge, increasing trouble breathing and a 99.4 to 100% death rate at eight to 12 days after exposure.
Discovered in 1898 and considered for rabbit control as early as 1918, field trials from 1927 to 1950 failed to demonstrate safety and efficacy. In 1951 a really year wet produced enough mosquitoes to facilitate transmission, and the disease reduced the rabbit population from 600 million to 100 million in only a few years.
Introduction of the European rabbit flea in 1966, especially the Spanish rabbit flea in the 1980s, and the addition of rabbit hemorrhagic fever in 1995, have produced the current level of (sort of) control.
Productivity of Australian agriculture still suffers a $200 million loss annually. Tree and grass damage contribute to soil erosion and surely to the flood control disaster currently in progress.
Predictably, hunters, canners and animal rights activists oppose rabbit population control measures.
There’s food for thought here, and I don’t mean just spam and canned rabbit. Trying to improve on Mother Nature is like telling your mother how to cook: unadvisable. Trying to correct things we have messed up by using biological control measures is maybe ethically okay but, at our present level of sophistication, akin to trying to change channels on your TV by slapping it. Maybe tearing up where we’re at, to make it look like where we’re from, should be replaced by some thought about fitting in instead. And so on.
We once spent several days in Ajo, Arizona, visiting nearby Organ Pipe National Monument and incidentally being able to see the Hale-Bopp comet clearly from just below the inside of the rim of the enormous abandoned copper mine there.
If you too want to visit Ajo, and need more rabbit nightmare material, watch “Night of the Lepus” filmed there. Lepus is the genus of the jackrabbit, but those rascals had to be way too unruly to fit in a script.
Appropriately for Easter, the monsters are giant domesticated bunnies, murderously destructive but still so cute!