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Animal Instincts

Nonfiction, Kaleena Madruga

Filial cannibalism occurs when an adult animal species consumes all or part of its own offspring. Mammals and insects alike participate in this beastly act, but it is actually most common in fish. A few animals that have been known to eat their young are rats, chickens, lions, and chimps. Obviously, this doesn’t happen every single time, and the reasons the mothers (and fathers) have are ranging and specific. For example, chickens may eat their chicks if they are suffering from calcium deficiency, while male lions will kill and eat offspring they perceive to be future pack competition.

My mother once told me a story about a small, injured rabbit she found outside her home when she was a young girl. She nursed the rabbit back to health and it ended up producing a litter. A few nights later she was awoken by the sound of strange screams, the likes of which she’d never heard before. The rabbit had devoured all of her new babies, and the cage my mother had so carefully and tenderly crafted was covered in tufts of fur and blood.

If a mother rabbit eats their young, it is likely due to stress. Rabbits are extremely sensitive and easily frightened, and cannibalizing their kits can be seen as a coping mechanism for their anxiety.

A friend of mine with two children confided in me that she sought out individual therapy after her postpartum group sessions were too terrifying to continue. “All of the women there were talking about how they wanted to throw their kids out the window,” she said. “I was just crying every time my baby would cry. They were freaks.”

There are only four species of animals that live just long enough to birth their young: the octopus, the squid, the salmon, and the mayfly. Salmon can occasionally stay alive to guard their nest for a week or more, but most are so exhausted from their journey to lay and fertilize their eggs (sometimes swimming upstream up to 2,000 miles!!) that they are unable to do so.

It took my younger brother and me about two years to talk my parents into getting a dog. Ironically, we had a pet rabbit named Ruby at the time, who we liked well enough but was not providing ample entertainment for our young age. When my aunt's black lab became pregnant, my father finally conceded, but only if he got to pick and name the dog.

We arrived at my aunt's house and were welcomed by nine roly-poly jet-black puppies: eight males and one female. Of course, I wanted the petite, precious only girl, but my father quickly settled on the largest boy in the pack, whom everyone had been calling ‘Wolf’ due to his size and demeanor. My aunt seemed concerned about the rest of the puppies finding a new home, and quickly, as the mother was starting to become hostile toward them. Indeed, she had been kept in a separate boarded-off room during the entirety of our visit and I never saw her.

Like a rabbit, I am extremely sensitive to my environment and I have long struggled with stress, anxiety, and destabilizing fear. I recall a stomach ache in the back seat on the ride home as our new puppy whined and whimpered. I tried to understand why the mom hated her babies now, and if our dog understood this shift or perhaps had some awareness that he would never see her again and that’s why he was crying.

A vast majority of new (human) mothers suffer from intrusive thoughts related to their baby, and around fifty percent of postpartum people have thoughts of intentionally harming the baby themselves. While upsetting, it is believed by some professionals that these thoughts are evolutionary as a response to protect our young, perhaps even, in the worst of cases, from ourselves.

I don’t desire to discredit my parents, who were relatively young when their first child (me) was born. But it is perhaps possible that the feelings and fears that lived inside my tiny body were not ones that my parents were capable of aiding on their own. Once, during what I felt to be a particularly upsetting scene during a child’s film at the movie theater, I ran out in tears, struggling to breathe. I hyperventilated in the cold and the dark, wanting so badly to explain what was happening to me, but unable to come up with any adequate words.

Eastern cottontail rabbits have between one and seven litters every year. Litters can contain up to twelve babies, but the average is five. Female rabbits can get pregnant almost immediately after giving birth.

It was my mother who was the most affected by our rabbit’s death. Ruby lived a quiet life in a small outdoor cage that my father had built for her. Occasionally she was let out to hop around the backyard, but she was soon surpassed by pets we continued to acquire, including an ant farm, as well as the installation of a below-ground pool. We awoke one morning to find her limp body in the shade of her cage, no longer breathing. It appeared that she had simply died in her sleep. My father put her in a box and we all wrote kind messages on the lid. Through tears and full-body sobs, my mom walked with us down to the river behind our house, where we buried our pet rabbit. She was inconsolable for the rest of the day, perhaps even longer. My brother and I, on the other hand, recovered quickly, and my dad dismantled Ruby’s home, seemingly pleased with the additional space now present in the backyard.

This essay is not necessarily about my father, but I will say here that this is one memory of him I have that is not marked by his frustration, anger, and competition. Burdened by an immensely abusive childhood, my dad had a tendency to yell at me for crying, angrily telling me to pull it together, to go to sleep, and to stop worrying so much. Sometimes, when I was especially overwhelmed, I would yank strands of hair from my head and suck on them or even eat them. Though my father did not behave unkindly or angrily on the day of Ruby’s death (I was not crying, however), he did end up cutting all my hair off after being disgusted by the sucked-on and missing pieces. I have never grown my hair long again.

Male rabbits are not known to kill their young, but they can act hostile toward them. Similar to lions, this is usually because the male rabbit feels threatened by the presence of the babies. recommends separating your baby rabbits from the male if he starts to act aggressively.

As a young child, I’d rub my nose if I was particularly excited. My mom used to call me her little bunny whenever I’d do this. Rabbits will wiggle their noises when they are relaxed. And if they are happy, they will jump in the air and land back on the ground. This is known as a dead bunny flop.

One sunny teenage afternoon I was lounging outside by our pool when the black lab, who had been renamed Jake, bounded up to me with his mouth full. He opened his jaw to reveal an infant rabbit, slick and gooey and hairless in its newness and innocence. The creature, still breathing, writhed on the hot concrete while my dog looked at me, his tongue wet and flopping with pride. I yanked him by the collar inside and tearfully grabbed my father’s shovel. Coward that I am, I struggled to rock the tiny baby onto the shovel to move it. I could not, or would not, grab it with my hands. I kept accidentally knocking the dying bunny around, making it bleed and release sounds of pitiful pain.

As I sobbed, pleaded with god or something, and apologized to this little soul, I finally saw the helpless bunny’s body tumble onto the center of the shovel. I tossed it quickly over our back fence, toward the river where we had buried Ruby so many years prior. The ravine was home to a host of creatures like hawks, coyotes, predators and prey. I hoped that a bird would swoop down and bring the rabbit to her family for food. Or maybe a young girl, a braver one than me, would take it home and care for it. But I never saw anything or anyone come.

When I am particularly lost in grief, I find myself comforted by one of the most simultaneously immature and reassuring phrases my therapist once during a challenging session: “We didn’t ask to be born.”

That day, as my mother did before me, I allowed myself to weep. Perhaps I was crying about nature - about the brief but terrible pain it and I caused. Somewhere from within me cried for the continuous and misunderstood pain my parents have caused me. Maybe I was sobbing for the mother rabbit, hiding and worrying somewhere, wondering where her new baby had gone. As I think about it now, I hold back tears for my mother, who is constantly walking a tightrope of agony and anger as her first caregiver slips away into dementia.

Whatever it was, or whatever it is, I stayed outside for hours, losing time, letting my tender shoulders burn as I mourned yet another dead rabbit that I barely even knew.


Kaleena Madruga received her BA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and her MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University. Her work has been featured in MAKE Literary Magazine, Swamp Pink, and the Conium Review, amongst others. Kaleena's fiction was short-listed for CRAFT's Amelia Gray 2K contest and her collection of personal essays was published by FollyXO Press in June 2022. She has a dog named Pickle and lives in Chicago.


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