Tuesday, 26 August 2014


“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” - W. Edwards Deming

Australia has had a perennial problem with rabbits ever since these exotic animals were introduced to our country by Englishman Thomas Austin in October 1859 on his property, Barwon Park (near Winchelsea in Victoria) for hunting. While he was a resident in England Austin dedicated many of his weekends to rabbit shooting. Upon arriving in Australia, which had no native rabbit population, Austin asked his nephew in England to send him 24 grey rabbits, five hares, 72 partridges and some sparrows so that he could continue his hobby in Australia by creating a local population of the species.

Rabbits are extremely prolific breeders, and spread rapidly across the southern parts of the continent. Australia had ideal conditions for a rabbit population explosion, reaching plague proportions in the early 20th century and devastating the local terrain, competing effectively with local species and causing widespread crop damage. That said, it is not surprising that most Australians do not regard rabbits with a great deal of sympathy.

Having said this, I am now going to talk about a book that has rabbits as its heroes and one of the enemies of the population described in the book is myxomatosis, the terrible viral disease that was introduced into Australia to curtail the rabbit population. The book is Richard Adams’ “Watership Down”. You may think that I am talking about a children’s book all about fluffy bunnies running around being cute, à-la-Beatrix Potter. However, this is very much a book that has a definite message and is directed as much towards adults as well as children, having several levels on which it can be engaged.

The rabbit is an animal well-beloved of children and many adults in Europe, and the English countryside in which the novel is set provides a perfect foil for this story. Adams in an interview once, described how he created rabbit stories to entertain his children, and from these stories, his novel was born. The author was a civil servant with the British Department of the Environment, and he was greatly interested in nature and concerned about environmental issues. These concerns are strongly apparent in the book, which tells the story of a group of rabbits who are forced from their home by a real estate development.

Adams wrote the novel unaware of the conventions of length, age range, level of difficulty and acceptable subject matter in the genre of juvenile publishing at that time. It was rejected by publishing houses seven times – the world of children’s book publishing was not prepared for a book of such originality and unconventional plot. It was first published by the small publishing firm of Rex Collings, who admired the manuscript because it did not fit the formula. Although only published in a first edition of 2,500 in 1972, it was initially hailed as a children’s classic and progressed to large sales.

When the book was published in the USA, it became an adult and world-wide bestseller, selling over a million copies in record time. In 1985 Penguin Books declared it second in their list of all time bestsellers with sales figures of 5 million, second only to “Animal Farm”, but ahead of “The Canterbury Tales” and “The Odyssey”. It transformed the way people regarded rabbits (“cuddly bunnies”), by presenting them as heroic warriors who fought savagely for dominance, and who were described with a degree of biological realism unheard of in children’s fiction. The animals defaecated (“passed hraka”), sought mates and conceived young. Even the rabbit equivalent of a miscarriage, the reabsorption of young, is described in the book.

In the 1970s there were violent riots and protests in the UK when myxomatosis, an almost always fatal and painful disease, was introduced to the English countryside to cull the number of rabbits, which farmers said were a pest to their crops. The disease is particularly inhumane as it causes an agonising blindness and dissolves parts of the brain and other organs and causes all manner of secondary effects, including pneumonia. All future re-introductions were banned when some of the ‘exterminators’ were killed by animal rights activists whilst trying to infest a rabbit warren. The book’s environmental concerns and sympathy for animal rights found a fertile ground in people’s growing “green consciousness”.

Adams went to write more books, “Shardik”, “The Plague Dogs”, “The Girl in a Swing”, “Maia” and “Traveller”, which have been major bestsellers in spite of hostile criticism by literary reviewers. “Watership Down” has continued to be a big favourite with the public, and in 2003, the BBC held a public vote for the top 100 books of all time, with “Watership Down” coming in the top 30. It is worth reading and it is a book that is quite memorable as an analogy of our human society, in the way that Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is, in a way.

The book was made into an animated feature film by Martin Rosen in 1978 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078480/).

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