When Survival Instinct Takes Over

There have been many stories about extraordinary acts performed by everyday people to survive a life-threatening situation.

What would you do to survive? I once read a story of a man whose leg got trapped by a boulder, so he used a pocket knife to amputate his leg to escape.


Or is it?

Animals also display a strong survival instinct.

If you don’t believe me, believe Thumper, whose brush with death revealed an uncanny bravery.

It was an unusually hot summer’s day in paradise. The 3 o’clock appointment was going well, as I began my monologue extolling the benefits of feeding a sound diet to a growing puppy.

Suddenly, the exam room door opened and I found myself being dragged into an adjacent room.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Mrs. Hammond was beside herself. Her every attempt to speak brought spasms of incomprehensible speech. Only after several deep breaths was Mrs. Hammond able to say in a wavering voice, “I came home to find Thumper like this.” She pointed, hand trembling, to the bloodied cage resting on the exam table.

In the cage was a very frightened rabbit huddled in the corner. Blood streaks stained the metal cage that bent in ways that poorly resembled its original shape. The source of the blood was difficult to determine, but I assumed that it was Thumper’s. I wanted to do a physical exam, but I feared that doing so would push Thumper over the edge.

Mrs. Hammond continued. “I had just gotten home from picking up the kids from school, when my son heard a commotion in the backyard.”

Tears slowly welled in Mrs. Hammond’s eyes.

“I rushed to the window and saw two large dogs biting and pouncing on Thumpers cage. I grabbed a broom and ran out to scare them away …” Choking with emotion, Mrs. Hammond begged to know if Thumper would live.

After handing Mrs. Hammond some tissue, Julie, our veterinary technician, slowly took Thumper from his metallic sanctuary. Within moments, it became obvious where the blood had come from. All four of Thumper’s paws had toes that were meticulously chewed off. All in all, there were eight toes either completely missing or partially amputated.

“Mrs. Hammond,” I started, “I don’t think that the traumatic wounds were caused by the dogs. These toes were chewed off with precision. A slobbering gaping maw could hardly do that. I believe that Thumper himself chewed off his toes in response to being trapped and tossed about in his cage. I’ve heard of rabbits chewing their feet off to escape a hunter’s trap. Well, Thumper’s survival instinct took over as he tried to escape his predicament.”

With Mrs. Hammond’s permission, we immediately took Thumper to surgery to salvage what we could. Closely examining the extent of his wounds, I only could imagine the stress that brought about the self-mutilation. Instead of being a victim of his fear, Thumper decided to do whatever he could to escape. Thumper was a survivor. His missing toes are a constant reminder of the day he stared down two angry dogs and lived. He survived, and now his story can be told.

Dr. John Kaya is the director of the Windward Community College veterinary technician program and associate veterinarian for VCA University Animal Hospital.