No, I was not pregnant. I was 19 and working as the head of maintenance for the summer camp for the Peoria Southside Mission. The camp was located 20 miles outside of Peoria, on 380 acres of wooded land. It seems that when you’re raised an MK, there are a lot of assumptions made about your skills–assumptions you yourself embrace. Who doesn’t want to be considered a renaissance woman? a Jill-of-all-trades?
That summer I fixed fences, door frames, and roofs. I plunged toilets, mowed lawns, painted, planted trees, you name it–I even learned to drive a bulldozer.
The camp had a petting zoo of sorts–all donated animals who were found to be misfits in their former homes. We had three horses, two miniature goats, three very large goats, a flock of geese, several dogs and puppies, and there were always kittens around. Half my day was spent tending to the animals–either simply feeding or grooming them–the other half was spent (it seems) chasing them down and repairing fences. I have been known to walk two miles with a full-grown goose tucked under each arm, green goose shit running down each pant leg. Sigh. But I digress. The point I was making is: these animals were misfits. On any given day, someone would drive up with a dog who was pregnant, and not wanting to terminate the pregnancy, decide to ‘donate’ the dog to the mission. And we took in anything that wasn’t sick and didn’t bite. We’d seen how therapeutic it was for our inner city kids to spend time with the animals, learning to care for them and grow attachments in healing and healthy ways, we were pleased to take the strays in.
One day I received a phone call that someone would like to donate some domestic rabbits. Could he bring them over right away? Knowing our policy of accepting pretty much any healthy donation, I said “Sure! Bring the bunnies over! The kids will love them.” I set the phone down and began to scramble to figure out what type of cage I could quickly assemble for these rabbits.
I should have asked more questions. Really. Within half an hour of the phone call a pick up truck drove up in the hot July sun with a large wooden crate in the back–the crate literally filled the truck bed. The donor walked across the yard and asked where he could set the crate, and I cast about for a suitable temporary spot and pointed to a spot telling him it would be fine to ‘put it there, under those trees in the shade.” To my surprise (and subsequent panic) he and his buddy unloaded that huge crate FULL of rabbits. “I reckon there are about 100 of them.” I filled out the tax deduction form for them and quickly as they came, the gentlemen were on their way.
Good grief! I was building a pen for a few rabbits–I’d been thinking 5 or 6. Now I had 100 to deal with! I set about anew, trying to figure out not only how to contain these animals, but where I could put such a large brood! I phoned my boss in the city, and he suggested a temporary run on the grass, where we could then build up a proper hutch/shelter. He was excited about the number and had visions of inner city children quietly holding and stroking these gentle lapin.
It took me about an hour to gather the posts and fencing and wire to create the ‘run’ on the grass and locate a suitable site which would provide shelter and shade as well as some bright sunny spots. As usual, I had about 20 kids watching my every move. I set to work. It took an additional hour to get the pen set up in a satisfactory fashion: I needed the rabbits to stay in, and the local raccoon and coyotes to stay out. As I was finishing up, my boss arrived from the city. He inspected the pen and was pleased with my progress. He then asked to see the rabbits.
It turns out that the shady spot I’d picked out for the donor to set the crate in remained shady for only a few minutes. As the day progressed (unbeknownst to me, as I was frantically building a rabbit pen) the shade shifted until the majority of the wooden crate was exposed to the hot July sun. My boss began yelling…
I came running with a crow bar to open the crate. The rabbits had gotten so hot they were huddled all on one end of the crate, trying to get into the shade. They were piled on top of each other. Those on top were sweaty and panting. I ran for a hose, while my boss began sorting them out. We hosed the lot of them down in an attempt to cool them quickly. My boss suddenly stopped what he was doing and laid into me with a barrage of blame. “These animals were in your care and you neglected them! You’ve killed them! This is your fault!” The barrage went on for a good ten minutes or longer. The kids who’d gathered round began crying. I was crying. My boss was crying and continuing to scream. He finally assaulted me with a “This is on your head!” before storming off.
Sobbing, I kept sorting the animals. The ones on the bottom were wet and stiff. The ones still living were placed in a box in the shade–I think there were maybe twelve still living. The rest I threw into the back of a truck and headed off to the dump. All the while I had kids from the city watching… and some of the older ones rode with me to dispose of the lapin bodies. I backed the truck up to the edge of the dump and the kids made a game out of tossing the 90 or so rabbits into the ravine. I then covered them with the bulldozer: picture the college girl in tears behind the controls of that land mover.
The kids talked about it as one of the most fun days of their whole camp experience. I, however, went back to my cabin and sobbed. And can still end up crying when I think about it for long. I know that it was an impossible situation, exacerbated by a boss whose crass display of frustration only compounded the guilt I felt. But I felt responsible: all around responsible–for the deaths of the rabbits, for the experience of the kids who watched–for it all. I caused the deaths.
The next morning I got up before anyone else and released the remaining rabbits. I couldn’t bear to face them. My boss cornered me that evening and asked if I was the culprit. When I affirmed, he stared at me grimly and told me they’d likely not survive in the wild. “You’ve killed them all.”