You’ve probably noticed that Southern California is currently on fire. Footage of apocalyptic-looking hills are juxtaposed with heated debate as to whether climate change exacerbated the wildfires.
Providing a brief moment of hope during an otherwise dark time, footage shared on social media accounts appeared to show a man in Santa Barbara County rescuing a wild rabbit from the flames. Many applauded the actions of this impromptu hero, but an article over at Live Science suggests that he may have been doing the wrong thing.
Yes, he may have saved the rabbit, but there’s a chance the rabbit was rushing toward the flames to rescue its offspring. If true, this means that the rabbit may have lived, but its young could have been flambéed – so was the man in question a hero or accidental villain?
The thrust of the original article is based around two primary arguments.
The first is that small mammals and other wild animals have lived through wildfires before, which in certain regions are semi-regular occurrences. As noted by a 2000 US Forest Service report, many of them live through them. Some even require forest fires in order to nest, feed, and migrate.
The animal, as per Live Science, was likely a desert cottontail rabbit. The report highlights that burrowing mammals, including this type of rabbit, are extremely good at surviving wildfires underground. So it’s possible that we were anthropomorphizing the situation, and that in reality, the rabbit knew what it was doing, and would have been fine.
However, it’s fair to point out that firefighters and biologists dealing with wildfires have seen rabbits get trapped and burned in similar scenarios, and rescuing individuals might not be a bad thing in certain situations. Plenty of other animals left unattended have indeed perished in the fire.
In this case, the man made a not-unreasonable assumption that the rabbit might have met with a similarly grim fate unless he stepped in.
The second argument in the original article explains that rats have been observed rescuing their young from similar wildfires in the past, which suggests rabbits might do the same during similar situations. Making such an implication using two very different species based on what is essentially anecdotal evidence, however, is a tough sell – particularly as rabbits haven’t been observed doing this on any occasion.
As aforementioned, burrowing rabbits have high survival rates. If the rabbit did have a litter, then as long as the man released the rabbit nearby in a place of safety, it's likely that it returned to the populated burrow when it could, and all would be well.
Incidentally, it cannot be confirmed at present that this was actually a rabbit; it could have been a hare. Unlike rabbits, hares don’t have burrows, and studies have shown that wildfires do kill them. If the animal in the video was a hare, then perhaps he did save its life.
In any case, experts suggest that, in general, when it comes to most wild animals, they should be left alone regardless.
“Fire is something animals have to deal with constantly,” California Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Peter Tira tells SFGate. “Fire or no fire, just let the animals be.”
An article on Slate opines that saving the life of one wild rabbit wasn’t worth it because it put the man’s own life in danger. The rescuer may or may not have done a good deed, but perhaps it’s irresponsible to encourage others to endanger themselves in the same way.
At the very least, though, it is harsh to lambast a solitary individual who put an animal's welfare above his own.