Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits

"Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits": A Unit Study,
Part the Second, June 2016. (Part 1, see March 1)
I have a friend who maintains that all of human history can be reduced to two questions: "What could possibly go wrong?" and "How was I to know"? In 1859, an Englishman by the name of Thomas Austin released twenty-four English rabbits into the wilds of Australia, saying as he watched the twenty-four cute, fluffy little tails hop merrily off into the sunset, "The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” If pressed, I’m sure he would have added, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Quite a lot, Mr. Austin, quite a lot

Invite the children to attempt to outthink Mr. Austin. What dangers can they foresee that Mr. Austin could not? (Hint: hybrid vigor; rapid proliferation; few predators; ideal climate; farming vital to the economy.)
For starters, he failed to realize that bringing 24 of England’s finest rabbits to interbreed with the Australian locals would, thanks to hybrid vigor, produce a veritable SuperBunny   Not only were rabbits perfectly suited to the climate, whose mild winters meant they could breed year round, but farmers who ploughed up vast areas of scrub and woodland unwittingly left behind them ideal conditions for warrens. What followed was the fastest spread ever recorded of any mammal anywhere in the world. Within ten years, rabbits were so numerous that over two million could be shot or trapped annually without making a dent in the population. In less than 30 years, so great was the damage inflicted on farmers’ crops, that the government of New South Wales offered a £25,000 reward for  "any method of success not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits." (Just for fun, estimate how much  £25,000  would be worth today.) On an outline map, http://www.kidzone.ws/geography/australia/map-australia.htm have the children draw in the three “rabbit proof” fences. What kinds of animals were used to help in the building? In the maintenance of the wall?

Is anyone talking of building a wall today?

MATH The reproductive potential of a female rabbit is truly phenomenal.  A single female can, in seven years, become the matriarch of 184,597,433,860 offspring.  That’s almost two billion cute little fluffy tails, from one female and her female descendants. http://www.bio.miami.edu/hare/scary.html
For a different take on a similar mathematical phenomenon, read
One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi

For the younger children, read The Muddle-headed Wombat by Ruth Park, Australia’s delightful answer to Winnie the Pooh
Investigate marsupials; also
 Egg-laying mammals that are only found in Australia: duck-billed platypus, echidna.

DRAMA and HISTORY: They say, “it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good”; during the Depression meat was extremely hard to come by – except, that is, for rabbits. Who might have spoken our opening line? Make up, and act out, a short scene featuring a family during the Depression who have not a morsel of meat in the house, and precious little else to eat. An unexpected guest knocks at the door, bearing a gift from her mother: you guessed it – rabbits for dinner! And as they wait for the bunnies to cook, they join in singing, “Waltzing Matilda”. I’m quite sure they knew what all the words meant, and after singing along with this, so will you!


  1. Fun, fun, FUN! I want to go to school with YOU!

  2. Alison...it's Susan, the kindred spirit that sat next to you on a short plane ride in California several years ago. I'm in Atlanta and have thought of you often over the years. I used to get your newsletter but haven't the last couple of years. Do you remember me?