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30 january 2014

Part of my walk to work lies along an aging suburban street of small bungalows and unfenced yards. Early one morning last year I spotted a stocky concrete rabbit crouching in one of the front yards, almost two feet high: dark in the twilight, ears cocked. How cute! Then the ears twitched and the rabbit bent down to eat something out of the grass.

The next day, there were two huge rabbits grazing placidly side by side in the same yard, and the day after, three rabbits scrambling from lot to lot while a couple of indifferent cats traipsed back and forth among them. I'm obviously hallucinating, but as my partner points out, why would I hallucinate on the same street at the same time every morning?

I'd never seen rabbit behavior like this before (assuming it's real), but as Victoria Dickenson points out in her thorough and informative Rabbit (for the Reaktion Animal series), rabbit behavior is manifold and malleable. "An animal both wild and feral," Dickenson puts it (7), rabbits are found in every phase of relation to humans along a continuum from complete freedom to household pet. Depending on how they're considered, rabbits resemble cats, chickens, ducks, pigeons – which is to say, I guess, that they are themselves, occupying a unique part of the biocultural landscape that intersects on each side with dissimilar creatures.

Rabbits share with cats a kind of unconcern about humans: they are willing enough to be around people and eat what's on offer, but they will wander off and do their own thing: still, they also develop deep attachments to individual humans. (Dickenson writes eloquently about rabbits she's known and loved.) That deep attachment is at the root of another cultural aspect of rabbits that Dickenson explores in some death: their sometimes eldritch associations with and magic, and their role as witches' familiars. It's all very catlike, down to the deep blankness of the rabbit's eyes, which often become crazily anthropomorphic in art both sacred and profane.

But then, unlike cats, rabbits are excellent eating. I can't think of another animal that is both so cuddly as a pet and so delicious sautéd. When I was a kid, my great-grandparents lived next to a rabbitry. I'd go over to the fence that separated their lawn from the hutches and commune with the little guys. Then we'd go home with one of them, butchered, skinned, crammed into a half-gallon milk carton, and frozen. Tasted like chicken.

Like chickens and pigeons, rabbits have fanciers who breed them into ungainly shapes. Left alone, though, they head quickly back to an all-purpose "agouti" coloration after a couple of generations: the original digital camo of the animal kingdom. Dickenson explains that the counterintuitive cottontail complements rabbit camouflage nicely. At rest, their agouti coats blend into the terrain. On the hop, the rabbit's tail moving every which way disorients predators.

From Dickenson, I learned that rabbits hop in three dimensions. (The ones on my route to work bounce left and right, but they are too massive to get many ups.) The propensity of the rabbit to go vertical facilitates the sport of rabbit show jumping – kind of like otter hunting, something that at first I thought couldn't be real. But evidently rabbit jumping (lepestrian?) events are popular in Germany and Denmark. Seriously, who knew.

Dickenson charts rabbits both reviled and revered in folklore and art from around the world. A couple of notable American cultural manifestations of the rabbit got left out, though. She notes the occasional rumors, myths, or outright jokes about killer rabbits, and notes that rabbits are excellent swimmers. Omitted, though, is the most famous of all aquatic killer rabbits, the one that pursued Jimmy Carter down a bayou and ended his hopes of being taken seriously as President.

While reading Rabbit, I kept singing Allan Sherman's parody of "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," which played constantly on the family phonograph when I was growing up. I don't think I ever heard the original, a minor pop standard, till I was an adult. For me, the lyrics were always

Though you once were the best Bunny
At the Playboy Club,
You're getting to be a rabbit with me. …

I noticed your tail was attached permanently.
So I keep you in the backyard in a wooden hutch,
'Cause you're getting to be a little too much.
Now, that's just silly. But Dickenson does print a photograph of a warren of Playboy Bunnies (142): "part rabbit, part woman, a hybrid creature that evidently aroused in men" the same desire that a buck rabbit feels for a doe (143).

One of my favorite paintings is a St. Anthony Abbot by (or by the school of) the Quattrocento Sienese master Sassetta.

St. Anthony, no stranger to beasts of the wilderness, seems to have gotten past a stag and then a hyena (or is it just a doe?) – and then flings up his arms in terror at a bunny rabbit. I had always assumed that this little bunny meant the things of the flesh – not arbitrarily are breeding rabbits associated in the West with concupiscence. But Dickenson suggests (though without reference to Sassetta) that such a rabbit may be entirely good. In one exegetical tradition, Moses (a type of Christ) is "the little rabbit of the Lord" (148); in another, the running rabbit represents "the righteous [who] when fleeing temptation might ascend to God" (149). Which rabbit confronts St. Anthony? Iconography can't have it both ways. Or maybe iconography is precisely the art that always has things both ways.

Dickenson, Victoria. Rabbit. London: Reaktion, 2014.