It is doing what rabbits do.
It hops about, nibbles sticks and leaves, sniffs the afternoon breeze. Even by rabbit standards, the bunny is little: cup the palms of your hands together, and you could contain its entirety. Fuzzy and white, with black and tan spots, it looks as out of place among the wild brown rabbits that infest Lake Murray’s shores as would a penguin in the desert. And if the bunny minds that cyclists and the like are stopping along the jogging path to snap pictures like paparazzi, it doesn’t show.
“Wait till your mom sees this,” a man on a bike says to his children. He poses the kids on the trail with the bunny in the background. “She’s gonna love it.” But shortly after, the family loses interest and resumes pedaling. Others also move on. The bunny resumes nibbling ditch weeds.
It’s a pet gotten loose, my exercise companion concludes, and it needs rescuing. “Give me your hoodie,” she says. “I know how to do this.” She pounces, and the small white rabbit rockets into the trees.
“I’m sure the lake wardens know about it,” I say. “They’ll trap it somehow.” My friend is dubious. Who knows how long the bunny can survive out here? “Maybe it’ll stay hidden,” I say. I am secretly hoping we won’t see it again.
But after we jog the lake and return to our starting point, there is the spotted bunny, hopping about in roughly the same place. By now, the warm June afternoon is turning to dusk. I walk up the bank, alone, and sit near the bunny in the lengthening shadows. For the next half hour, I tell it mindless things about wild dogs and coyotes. The lights in the parking lot come on. Finally, the rabbit hops over and sniffs. My fingers sink gently into fur so plush I understand immediately why they make coats out of rabbits.
Later that night, tweezing bloody ticks from around the thing’s neck in the clinical glow of my halogen desk lamp, I see it: a word has been tattooed inside the rabbit’s left ear. “Stoopid.” Now we’re getting somewhere. A poor choice for a name, yes, but I am thinking that whoever commissioned the offensive tat likely misses their pet. The next day, I cover the floor of the guest bathroom in my La Mesa home with hay. I lock the bunny inside with water and rabbit pellets and drive back to the lake.
“Oh, it’s probably coyote poop by now,” the counter man at the bait shop tells me. “That’s what happens to rabbits that get turned loose out here. They keep the coyotes fed.” Well, not this time, I say. The counter man seems shocked that I’ve caught the animal. As if to explain his jaded attitude, he says, “People let rabbits go here all the time. They just dump any kind of animal off.” A short list of rejected pets includes turtles, goldfish, even frogs and snakes. “You see all those ducks?” He points out the window at a gaggle of large white birds with gold beaks. “Not a one of them is a native.” I ask for permission to post some lost-bunny flyers around the lake, and the counter man writes down my phone number.
Outside the bait shop, a painfully thin man holding several fishing rods approaches. “I overheard you in there,” he says quietly. “We run a rabbit rescue, my girlfriend and me.” He licks his chapped lips. “If you can’t find the owner, we’ll take it.” He licks his lips again. “Okay?” I write down his phone number. Meanwhile, can he spare a loaner cage? No, he cannot.
The receptionist at the Humane Society in Mission Valley politely informs me that La Mesa is not within their service area. I’m told to instead contact either the El Cajon or Bonita shelter to report the missing bunny. There is no room at the inn, otherwise; all three of the Humane Society’s locations are full-up with rabbits.
Calls to El Cajon and Bonita get the same answer: full to capacity, not accepting any rabbits at this time, but do check back. The receptionist at Bonita suggests I place an ad on Craigslist.
“My neighbor lost her bunny a couple of days ago,” says the first responder to my found-bunny-at-Lake-Murray posting. I’d purposely not mentioned the ear tattoo to separate opportunists from the real owner. I press the caller for a description. “It’s little and it’s white, and it has spots with black eyes,” he says. Close, but no cigar. The caller insists that the bunny belongs to his neighbor. He gives me her address. He wants me to show it to her. I do the map math: Does the caller realize that, from his neighbor’s house, the rabbit would’ve had to hop across eight lanes of freeway to get to the lake?
“Anything is possible,” he says.
Another Craigslist responder claims that he, too, saw a spotted rabbit. It had been hopping about his Lake Murray neighborhood during the last week or so. He fed it lettuce. According to the caller, the bunny was very friendly. Then, he says, it just sort of disappeared one day. I ask if it ever occurred to him to call Animal Control — or if pet bunnies simply roamed about loose in his neighborhood. He has no answer to this. Then he says, “I have a video of the bunny. Do you want to come over and watch it?”
An internet search produces a list of local independent rabbit shelters, including the Companion Rabbit Society and the House Rabbit Society (one and the same organization, it turns out). Like their civic counterparts, none of the shelters has room for rabbits, stray or otherwise. I’m told to check back. Meanwhile, why don’t I take the rabbit to a veterinarian to have it scanned? Possibly, whoever tattooed its ear also had it tagged with an identifying microchip.
I purchase a used animal carrier from a thrift store and drive the rabbit to a clinic in Rancho San Diego. A veterinary tech runs a small electronic wand over the bunny again and again, but no dice. “She’s not been chipped,” the tech says. I show her the ear tattoo and she is somewhat taken aback.