Friday, May 25, 2018

The Time of the Great Slaughter: the Seneca Cliff of Rabbit Island

This is a new version of a story that I published in 2012. Those of you who have studied population biology will recognize it as a fictionalized version of the Lotka-Volterra (aka predator-prey) model

Little rabbits, little rabbits, come to me and hear this story. I can tell it to you because I am the oldest rabbit of all the island and I have heard it by rabbits older than me, who heard it from rabbits older than them. And so, this is the story of the island where we live, that we call Rabbit Island, and where our rabbit ancestors have been living for many, many years. So many that no rabbit ever could count them.

But, little rabbits, to tell you this story, I must tell you also about the foxes of Rabbit Island. And I know that you heard about the foxes. You know that foxes are evil creatures and that they eat rabbits. Yes, young rabbits, that’s what they do and that's an evil thing to do. But perhaps there is a reason why foxes exist and eat rabbits and maybe it is all part of the plan of the Rabbit God who knows best. So, listen to me, little rabbits and hear this old story.

The first rabbits came to Rabbit Island long, long ago. Some say that the first rabbit couple came here on a raft from a place beyond the horizon. But some say that rabbits were created here by the Rabbit God in his image as most perfect creatures. No matter how they arrived here, the rabbits found an island rich in grass, trees, and water. They reproduced and grew in numbers, obeying the command of grow and multiply that the Rabbit God had given to them.

But, one day, foxes came to the island. Some say that the first fox couple arrived on a raft from a place beyond the horizon. Others say, instead, that foxes were created here by the Fox-God, and that the Rabbit God allowed them to be created to challenge the faith of the rabbits, but this is not easy for me to say.

Whatever deity created them, or wherever they came from, the first fox couple found the Island rich in grass, trees, water, and many, many rabbits. And the foxes were smart and strong, and they grew by chasing rabbits and killing them in great numbers. And with so much food, the foxes grew in numbers and killed many more rabbits. Oh, children, that was a tough time for the rabbits of the islands; so tough that we remember it as the time of the great slaughter.

Now, young rabbits, there is a curious story that I can tell you. I heard it from a very old rabbit who said to have heard it from an even older rabbit who told him he had been alive at the time of the slaughter. And this rabbit who lived long ago must have been very brave, because he said that he spied the foxes as they convened in council, at that time, somewhere in the middle of the island. And I cannot say if this story is true or not, nor how it was that this rabbit of old could understand the language of the foxes, although I can imagine it was a gift bestowed on him by the Rabbit God. Anyway, he heard from afar what the foxes were telling to each other.

And so it was that the foxes were telling each other that rabbits had become difficult to find and that they had to trouble more and more to find food, and that some of them were starving. And some foxes were wondering why it was so. Then, an old fox who looked very wise came and she gathered the younger foxes around her and told them this, "Fellow foxes, the reason of the troubles you have is that we have been growing in numbers and that we have been killing many rabbits, and that there are not so many left and that makes it difficult for us to find food. And if we keep killing rabbits in such great numbers and keep having many foxlings, things will become even worse. We shouldn't kill so many rabbits, and we shouldn't have such large litters, either."

At that, the foxes were much troubled, and they started discussing what the old fox had told them. Some foxes said that the old fox was right and that they shouldn’t keep killing many rabbits and having so many foxlings. But some foxes said that there was no such a thing as too much killing of rabbits. They said that there were still many rabbits on the island, it was just a question of looking harder. If some young foxes were starving, they said, it was because they had become lazy. They had to be taught how to run faster and to be smarter. In this way, foxes would still be able to catch as many rabbits as they needed. In the end, the rabbit who had been spying the foxes said that the young foxes laughed at the old fox and said she was a fool, and that they would return to chasing rabbits.

Those were the times of the Great Slaughter. I have been telling this story many times and it still scares me, but I must tell you this story, young rabbits. And, believe me, it must have been a terrible time for the rabbits because the island was full of foxes. It is said that just a few rabbits could hide in the darkest places of the forest, in thornbushes, and in mazes of tree roots, praying the Rabbit-God that they could be spared from the fury of the foxes.

And the Rabbit-God must have heard their prayers because they were not found by the foxes. After some time, they dared to come out of their hideouts and they found that there was no fox to be seen alive anywhere on the island - only their bones were left, strewn all over the plains. Once, there were many, many more of these bones on the island, but you may have had a chance, young rabbits, to see some of the few that remain.

So, after the Great Slaughter was over, the foxes were gone and we rabbits had the Island all for ourselves. And we have had good grass to eat and good times to grow and multiply, which some say is what the Rabbit God told us to do. Yet, sometimes I think that this story may not have such a happy ending after all.

You know that there are now many, many rabbits living on the island; so many that fields seem at times to be white rather than green. And sometimes I think we shouldn't let our numbers grow so much because grass can't regrow fast enough to feed so many of us. But others have said that grass is not the problem. Young rabbits have become lazy, they say, and they only complain so much because they can't always find grass at paw length. That's not the way a good rabbit should be: they must learn to find their food, even at the cost of walking far away, where there is still plenty of grass.

It may be that there is still enough grass for all of us, somewhere. But what makes me afraid the most is what I have been hearing lately. You may have heard the same rumors: that some rabbits have disappeared and nothing was heard of them anymore - not even their bones could be found. And you may have heard of some who have been telling of gray shapes they saw hiding in the forest. And, at nightfall, some have been telling of bright, yellow eyes looking at them from the darkness. Could it be, the Rabbit God forbid, that the foxes are back?

Nobody can say if some foxes had survived the Great Die-Off, or if some of them came again on a raft from beyond the horizon. The only thing I can tell is that perhaps we should not have grown in numbers so much because rabbits make tasty food for foxes and some old rabbit folks had alerted us about that; long ago, but nobody listened to them.

I am an old rabbit now so I will not see what the future has in store for the rabbits of Rabbit Island; but you will, young rabbits. So, it is time for you to go to sleep. Sleep well, little rabbits, and don't look at the forest.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)