My Cottontail Teacher: How Making Friends With A Rabbit Changed My Life
When the pandemic left us uncertain and alone, at least I had my little bunny friend.
In the summer of 2020, I fell in love with a rabbit that refused to love me back. It was July, the height of the second wave of the pandemic, and I found myself living in my childhood home with my parents and my brother for the first time in ten years. For a myriad of unimportant reasons, my wife couldn’t join me in pandemic suburbia, so there I was, spending every moment of every day under the same roof as my immediate family, sleeping alone in my childhood bed like I had never left for college.
Of course, some things were different. For one, there was a pandemic forcing us to stay very much close-to-home at all costs, for another, I had a 9-to-5 remote job that required eight hours of screen-staring time a day. So by the time 5 p.m. (or 6 or 7, depending on the day) rolled around, I was desperate for fresh air and solitude. The first week or so, I tried to go for masked walks around my parents’ neighbourhood, but the pandemic-induced agoraphobia was real, so eventually those walks turned into sitting outside on my parents’ lawn with nothing but a White Claw and my thoughts. And that is how I met the wild rabbit that would change my life.
She was a small Eastern Cottontail rabbit; she had light brown fur, a bright white tail that did, in fact, look like a puff of cotton, and a red stripe down her back. Based on her size and the time of year, the internet helped me estimate that she was probably no more than two or three months old when we met. While I don’t actually know my rabbit’s gender, I started using she/her pronouns to refer to her, and it stuck. That first day I saw her, she sat on the other side of the lawn chomping on grass for five minutes before she spotted me and ran away. The second day, she sat in the same shaded spot — what I’d already come to think of as “her” spot — and stayed for ten minutes before I moved a little too much, and — you guessed it — she ran away. On the third day, I named her Lisa.
Loving Lisa, and desperately trying to get her to love me back, became the thing that replaced real world social interactions and filled my metaphorical cup with joy. She anchored me to nature, giving me something to which I could feel connected in a time of such isolation. I started googling what cottontail rabbits liked to eat (kale, lettuce, various other greens, carrots, and the occasional banana, berry, or peach) and whether or not they would ever let me touch them (lol, absolutely not). I learned that, as prey animals, their only survival instinct is to be constantly anxious; I could relate. I also learned that they can get pregnant multiple times a year; I could not relate. At one point, in the deepest part of my I’m-28-and-live-with-my-parents-during-a-pandemic darkness, I googled the phrase: “How do I get a cottontail rabbit to love me?” Google didn’t have an answer.
A week or so into my relationship with Lisa, I found myself sitting with her on my parents’ lawn three or four times a day, usually for 10 minutes max, although sometimes in the evening she would let me read a book near her for a long stretch. I started to bring her food to try to entice her to get closer to me, but that mostly didn’t work. Sometimes, Lisa would come with a much larger rabbit. I named him Paul; he was much more wary of me than Lisa was. In fact, she seemed to be warming up to me. Occasionally, she would even get within two or three feet of me, and I would hold my breath, filled with unexplainable glee, as she chewed away at the overgrown grass. One time, I brought her a plate of peaches and she actually ate one. I honestly count that as one of my greatest accomplishments.
It wasn’t long before my love of Lisa left the backyard and began to infiltrate all aspects of my life. Before COVID, I was an avid Instagram Stories poster, mostly because I did cool things and went to cool events and had a generally cool NYC life. In July 2020, my entire Stories history became photos and videos of Lisa. And my followers got invested. I started a Lisa story highlight. Friends started sending me rabbit tips and suggestions for getting her to come closer to me. My cousin got me a mug adorned with Lisa pictures she’d taken from my Instagram. People I barely knew started sending me videos of “their” cottontail rabbits. I thought about starting a TikTok, à la those TikTokers that try to get hummingbirds to eat from their hands (thankfully, for everyone, I did not). Eventually, it got to a point where I had two or three new rabbit videos a day in my DMs, every single one of them was named Lisa.
As July turned into August, I was deeply obsessed with my relationship with Lisa, but also fully disappointed. Yes, she had gotten me through a very dark time, giving me a weird sense of hope and forcing me to spend time outside. But also, Lisa left me feeling constantly disappointed and wanting more. Despite my best efforts, I never got within petting distance of her, and she never deigned to approach me. The best I ever got was indifference. I had My Octopus Teacher dreams, but in reality I was just another Planet Earth knock-off, posting shaky zoomed in videos on Instagram.
Maybe it was for the best, then, that at the end of August, I had to abruptly say goodbye to Lisa. A family medical emergency had me rushing back to NYC, and I spent the next month sitting in hospital waiting rooms… in the middle of a pandemic… 0/10 do not recommend. My brother sent me photos of Lisa when he saw her out the window, but for the most part, my preoccupation with Lisa took a backseat to more pressing matters. By the time I came up for air, it was mid-October, and I knew I wouldn’t see Lisa again for a very long time.
It was at this point that I googled the one question I had been avoiding: How long do cottontail rabbits live? I grew up outside of Boston and have seen enough dead squirrels to know there was no way any similarly small and vulnerable mammal’s lifespan could be that long, so I was relieved when the internet told me about a quarter of cottontails lived for up to two years (with the average living for about 15 months) — there was a chance I would see her again. In my heart of hearts, I knew this was naive — after all, how did I even know that Lisa was only one rabbit to begin with? But, suspending my disbelief was what got me through that summer, and so I allowed myself to dream.
And maybe my dreams weren’t just fantasies.I have since talked to a cottontail rabbit expert, Randall Tracy, PhD, of Worcester State University, who assured me that Lisa very probably was just one rabbit. Dr. Tracy also told me that Lisa definitely could have gotten used to me hanging around and therefore stopped perceiving me as a threat. Unfortunately, despite my insistent desire, she probably didn’t have the capacity to love me back. (Basically, Lisa is a fuckboy.)
The winter was tough. Somewhere between seasonal depression, excessive burnout, and some unresolved trauma, I was the kind of low that worried even me. I did a lot of EMDR therapy, which has always been a lifesaver for me. When my therapist asked me to close my eyes and picture a happy place, the place I had always pictured before suddenly changed. Now, all I dreamed of was sitting on my parents’ lawn with Lisa close enough to touch. That’s right, this dumb little cottontail had infiltrated my brain so much that I was using her for trauma therapy. And, it worked. Now, when I’m having a bad moment, my therapist tells me to visualize Lisa and it usually calms me down.
I returned to my parents’ house in the late spring of 2021, and was immediately greeted by a Lisa sighting. Just like the prior year had profoundly changed me, it had also changed Lisa: She was bigger — fully grown — with that same burnt orange stripe down her back, and just as cute as ever. Lisa spent most of her time on my parents’ lawn alone until one day she emerged from under a bush with five smaller rabbits behind her. I watched in awe as they bounced around, stopping occasionally to nibble a leaf or two. Eventually they ran across the street to some conservation land and I thought that would be the last time I would ever see Lisa. But a few days later, I was once again blessed with a dusk visit — Lisa and Hannah, the unlikely duo, were together again.
With a week left of my visit at my parents’ house, I found myself spending as much time as possible with Lisa. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I knew, deep down, that even if this rabbit was somehow the same rabbit I had seen every day for the last year, there was a very slim chance that she would survive to see another summer. (Cottontail expert, Randall Tracy, did assure me that 2021 Lisa definitely could have been the same rabbit as 2020 Lisa — he gave it a 50/50 chance.) I had done my research, I knew she had roughly 15 months to live, maybe a few more if she was lucky. And that’s when I saw the large bump on her chin. About half the size of her head and clearly irritated, the internet told me it was an abscess most likely caused by a parasite and that without surgery (which obviously this wild rabbit was not going to get), the infection inside would most definitely spread throughout her body. This was the end.
I watched her scratch at the abscess every day for the rest of the week. It both filled me with immense sorrow and immense joy — that abscess gave her a unique marking and that, coupled with her size, meant she was probably the same rabbit, and now I’d seen her at several different stages of her life. Maybe it was delusional to think that this wild cottontail rabbit cared about any human sack of flesh, let alone my human sack of flesh, but it was also deeply calming to believe that we’d had a relationship of sorts, and I could be with her until the end.
When I left my parents’ house in early August, I knew I would never see Lisa again, but I also knew her spirit would live on. She would always exist in my Instagram DMs and highway sightings. She would always sit on my favourite coffee mug. I started planning my Lisa tattoo the moment we got on the train back to NYC. Lisa, the Eastern cottontail rabbit that lived in my parents’ backyard during a global pandemic may have eaten her last blades of grass, but Lisa the collective wild cottontail will live forever.