Our plan for this week was to follow up on the children’s different kinds of rabbit interactions and engagements with a visit to the Rabbits in Australia exhibit at the National Museum of Australia (NMA). It’s an easy walk from the Centre – or so we thought. As we set off, we were buffeted by cold, wet, westerly winds. There was fresh snow on the mountains overnight, and we could feel it in the wind gusts. So much for the spring weather we’ve been enjoying recently. If felt like winter had returned with vengeance.
Heads down and braced against the wind, we’d only made it as far as the first road crossing when we stumbled across a sodden rabbit head. Even though the children have become quite accustomed to finding dead rabbits, it was a bizarre find, and seemed like an eerie sign. We continued on, but the discovery of the severed rabbit head prompted the children to break out into a nervous rhythmic chant: ‘dead bunny head, dead bunny head’.
It was a relief to get to the museum, out of the elements and into the warmth of the foyer. We made our way down to the ‘People and Environment’ gallery, which houses the ‘Rabbits in Australia’ exhibit.
In line with the theme of this particular gallery, it explores the diversity of relationships that different Australians have had with European wild rabbits, since they were introduced by setters in the mid 19th century. These include some Indigenous people’s incorporation of wild rabbits within their narratives and cultural artefacts, rural settlers’ reliance on rabbits as a free source of food during the depression years, and the sale of rabbit pelts for a livelihood.
Predominantly though, the exhibit features the wide range of tactics used by farmers and government authorities to try and halt the spread of rabbits and to reduce their numbers. This information is conveyed through film footage of fumigating and ripping burrows, accounts of the release of the rabbit calisivirus, and displayed artefacts like sections of the Western Australian rabbit-proof fence, old rusty traps, and a .22 rifle.
The children were clearly taken aback by all this emphasis on killing rabbits, but their reactions were also mixed. They were openly curious about the technologies of rabbit hunting. Many kept asking how the rabbit traps worked, and didn’t seem that impressed with the explanation. They struggled to understand why so many rabbits needed to be killed, and how they were harming the environment.
When they watched the large neon map of Australia up on the wall light up in red to show the rapid spread of rabbits across the continent, it did seem to help them apprehend the scale of the rabbit problem, with comments like: ‘There’s a lot of rabbits in Australia, yeah’ and ‘Woah. Rabbits all along Australia’.
However, most of all they expressed a great sympathy for the rabbits. As they clustered around a small screen to watch a documentary ominously entitled ‘Menace of the Rabbit’, they were aghast at the sight of so many rabbits being slaughtered and skinned. ‘Poor bunnies’ they kept repeating, and ‘that’s so horrible’; ‘that’s not fair for the rabbits’.
Back in the big open space of the main foyer they seemed to have recovered from the shock of these images. Setting aside the heaviness of the newly dawning realisation about the significance of invasive rabbit populations and the cruelty of human retaliation, they quickly fell back into the comfort of their customary rabbit play.
Laughing and scrambling across a long lounge with holes in the back at each end, they called out gleefully: ‘we’re rabbits and we’re going down into the rabbit hole’.