The West African Fighting Rabbit (cuniculus mors mortis) first came to the attention of Europeans following Captain James Spiff's misguided 1878 expedition through the southern Sahara in search of the fabled city of Adelaide. Spiff's party included a number of scientific observers, including Dr Julius Lippy, the infamous "naturist naturalist" whose frequent nudity caused great tension amongst the fashionably prudish exploration party.
One afternoon, while sunning his flanks on a dune, Dr Lippy was startled by a persistent screeching noise, which he compared in his diary to "bats in the throes of passion, or perhaps Katherine [Lippy's wife] squeezing forth yet another unwanted whelp". Searching for the origins of the noise, Dr Lippy crested a dune and was confronted by "a most singular scene":
"There were at least twenty of the brutes, gathered in a circle. They appeared to be rabbits or some sort of hare, although exceeding by many degrees the size we in Europe are accustomed to in such species. At intervals, each would lift his snout and let forth the screeching noise which had first altered me to their presence. There was something peculiarly ritualistic about the scene, and I found myself creeping closer, despite my fear, in order to better grasp what was happening.
"Soon, two particularly large specimens appeared from the dunes and entered the circle. The screeching became intolerable as the new arrivals squared off. All of a sudden, the two creatures ran at one another, and a fight began, the likes of which I have never dreamed of even during my darkest nights. Blood, fur, teeth, all contributed to a cloud of gore that all but excluded the combatants from view. I know not why these animals should behave in such a way, but they were not fighting according to Queensbury rules, that is for certain."
A few days later, Spiff's party met a band of nomads, with whom they exchanged greetings and goods. Dr Lippy asked them about the strange fighting rabbits he had seen. His diary entry for that day is as follows:
"The black told me that his people fear the rabbits (for I am convinced that is what they are). There have been cases where livestock and even children have fallen victim to the brutes, and they are held to have demonic powers that enable them to see at night as though it were day. The fellow then told me to put some pants on, so I ran him through with my machette. Dinner: mutton washed down with hock. Everybody in good spirits."
Sometime in the next day or two, the party came under attack and were slaughtered. Their partially-devoured bodies were discovered by traders several days later. Discarded carrot tops nearby led to speculation that Lippy's rabbits had perpetrated the attack, but the evidence was never conclusive. Still, Victorian England's imagination had been fired, and the so-called "Death Bunnies" became a cause celebre.
As is the way with such things, however, some new fad quickly took the place of Lippy's rabbits in the public consciousness, and it was sixty-four years before the animals were rediscovered by Westerners. In 1942, an American fighter pilot crash-landed in southern Morrocco and stumbled upon a burrow of the rabbits. They took him in, and by the time he was rescued, the young man had assimilated to such a degree that he was participating in many of the rabbit's rituals, including the gladiatorial combat described in Lippy's diary. The unfortunate pilot was committed to a military psychiatric hospital, and remained there until 1957 when he managed to gnaw through his cell wall and escape.
The US army was quick to see the military applications of such formidably tough animals. West African Fighting Rabbits, as they became known, were used extensively to guard military installations, and to accompany specially-trained infantry squads. Although the Allied tanks are often credited with forcing back the Germans following D-Day, the Fighting Rabbits also played a key role, slipping through the Nazi defenses, sabotaging communication equipment, and eating the Wehrmacht's stock of fresh vegetables.
Since the war, West African Fighting Rabbits have become popular with those seeking exotic domestic companions. The problems inherent in this trend are obvious. For one thing, the average WAFR is around the same size as a Labrador, with front teeth some four inches long, and jaws capable of crushing human bone. Without strict training, the rabbit's natural aggression can lead to disaster, as in the recent case where an elderly gent was literally eaten alive by his WAFR when he failed to admit it to the backyard for its morning pee. In some parts of the United States, the feral WAFR problem has become so serious that residents are advised to carry bags of carrots to appease any hungry rabbits they might encounter. This fascinating animal is now viewed as a threat, and instead of being studied is hunted down and killed. We might pause to wonder what Dr Julius Lippy would think of that. Although, since he would probably applaud it, perhaps we might do better not to wonder at all.