Weading Wabbits Hop Into Hill Library

Allan Appel Photo Take an Iowa farm boy, train him to be a children’s librarian, and it’s only a matter of time before he starts to bring animals to work.

The cuddly, nose-twitching evidence — and educational fun — were on display Thursday afternoon at the Wilson Branch Library in the Hill. Branch LIbrarian John Jessen brought Melodie and Marissa, two 17-week old female bunnies, to hang out with the library’s young patrons and to promote reading.

The rabbits are Jessen’s, part of a herd Jessen keeps in his backyard in Westville and has been bringing in for “Read to Rabbits” day at the Wilson Branch Library over the past year.

As a dozen kids gathered round a nook in the corner of the library’s sun-lit second floor, Jessen cupped his hands over his ears. He asked the kids to do the same, to demonstrate how well rabbits can hear, likely their best defense against those who would do them harm.

The rabbits are good for libraries and for promoting reading because “they have big ears, they’re quiet, they like it calm, and they love to be read to. You read to your bunny, and it’ll fall asleep,” Jessen explained.

Sure enough, after some getting-to-know-you hopping around, the bunnies settled in with a rotating group of admiring kids, like Amane Kumamota, an East Rock School 6-year-old who quickly got the hang of supporting the rabbit’s feet.

“Kids love the animal programs, but it’s sometimes hard to get beyond holding them,” said Jessen, ever patient in showing the kids how to be quiet and supportive around the bunnies.

Amane got the idea quickly. She went to the shelves to pick something to read to Melodie ... or maybe it was Marissa.

When a reporter asked Amane which book she chose, she gave him a withering look: Of course, a book about bunnies!

Then she sat down and read Big Bad Bunny by Franny Billingsley.

After engaging with the rabbits for a few minutes, Amane said, “They just looked at it.” She added that when you read to a rabbit you have to do more explaining to them than to a human. Conclusion: “I’d read more books if I had a rabbit.”

Jessen dispelled some myths for the kids, including the one that rabbits, like Bugs Bunny, prefer carrots. Jessen recommended feeding them mainly grass. He praised the animals as great pets, although if they live inside your house they’ll eat up all your electronic wires and cabling and probably your oldest and most valued book.

Take it from a librarian: You don’t want your books eaten.

Jessen keeps his animals in a lovingly built warren in the backyard. Thursday was the third time he has brought in Melodie and Marisa.

It was clear that the animals were not just for the kids. As Zaira Reyes’s dad, Giovanni, confessed, “I’m being greedy with the rabbit.”

When he relinquished Marisa — or was it Melodie? — 9-year-old Katie Booth got her chance to read to the bunny. She got only as far as the title of the book, Everything Goes, by Brian Biggs. But she liked the idea because in general, she said, she does not like to read aloud with people around. Reading to a rabbit would be different. She noted that the rabbit responded by twisting her nose.

The attendees Thursday included kids beginning public school, home-schooled kids like Caleb Fernandez, and kids from religious families. They all took their turns with Melodie and Marissa, petting their fur, watching them clean themselves as cats do, and, when properly supported, just hanging out among the books and the kids, as Jessen had promised.

To the adults Jessen explained how rabbits have two sets of Fallopian tubes and could deliver litters of six, two sets of them, every month, if allowed.

“They’re lowest on the food chain,” said Jessen, who started raising rabbits a few years ago. He’d been around cows all his life. He also has chickens — but no cows — on his Westville property. He keeps the boy and girl rabbits separate, so the population remains small.

As a youngster he’d help cows give birth. It was a sometimes difficult task. He would tie rope to the legs of the calf a-borning and pull it out.

The rabbits have no such trouble. The babies just arrive and arrive, no problem.

By the end of an hour, the rabbit cuddling continued, as did Jessen’s animal husbandry lesson. How were Melodie and Marisa holding up?

Jessen interpreted for them: “We’re thinking we’ve been here before, oh twice before, and still no grass to eat in sight. Mmmm, the crowds are big. I’m so exhausted. I’m worried my mother will wonder where I am.”

Jessen went back to the busy main desk of the branch to attend to some non-rabbit matters. The cage in which the animals had been transported sat prominently among the returned books and DVDs.

Meanwhile, over by the rabbit corner, kids and their parents continued playing quietly with the bunnies, and even doing a little reading together.

Jessen said he got the idea to bring the rabbits in from programs at the Fair Haven Branch library, where therapy dogs had paid several visits to read with the children over the last few years.

“I just might keep a bunny here” at Wilson he added.

The next Read to Rabbit program at the Wilson Branch will be on Sept. 22, between 4 and 6 p.m. No word yet on whether Melodie and Marisa or some of their brothers and sisters will be appearing.

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