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Rabbit Roundup

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When I was a grad student, a colleague of mine told me about an interesting theory he had. He believed that as the population of jack rabbits declined during the late 1800s, the incidence of malaria cases in humans increased. He theorized that mosquitoes preferred to feast on rabbits rather than humans, so with the decrease in the rabbit population, more and more people were infected with malaria. My research led me to two interesting observations. First, the decline in the rabbit population can be attributed to a common occurrence in Kern County: the rabbit drive, where people would chase rabbits into a fenced in area and club them to death. The other observation was that within 25 years of the onset of rabbit drives in the area, the people of Kern County found it necessary to establish a mosquito control district.

Rabbit drives were not unique to Kern County. In fact, they were organized in communities all over the western United States. So what exactly is a rabbit drive and what was its purpose? In 1909, Theodore Sherman Palmer, writing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted that:

The damage done to crops by rabbits has been illustrated very forcibly during recent years by the losses sustained by farmers and orchardists in the arid regions of the West through the depredations of the large native hares, or jack rabbits. The introduction of irrigation and the cultivation of large tracts of land have favored the increase of rabbits in several states by furnishing a new source of food supply. To such an extent have their depredations increased that the extermination of jack rabbits has become a serious question in California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, and Utah.

While the rabbit drive became a necessity for farmers, it was a common practice for Native Americans. Rabbit drives originated with the Mission Indians of California where they perfected the art of capturing large numbers of jack rabbits with nets. They would surround their prey and drive them into a netted enclosure where the rabbits were clubbed to death. In 1839, Townsend’s Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains described this practice:

To do this, some one or two hundred Indians, men, women, and children, collect and inclose [sic] a large space with a slight net, about 5 feet wide, made of hemp; the net is kept in a vertical position by pointed sticks attached to it and driven into the ground. These sticks are placed about 5 or 6 feet apart, and at each one an Indian is stationed with a short club in his hand. After these arrangements are completed, a large number of Indians enter the circle, and beat the bushes in every direction. The frightened hares dart off toward the nets, and, in attempting to pass, are knocked on the head and secured.

After the hunt, the rabbits would be used for food and often their skins would be made into clothing.

The practice of rabbit drives appears to have been adopted by farmers in the San Joaquin Valley in 1882. Palmer observes that the Tulare County town of Tipton had a rabbit drive that year, however, they were not really popular until late 1887 which coincided with the population boom that brought more eastern settlers into the valley. Indeed, between 1890 and 1900 stories about rabbit drives appeared frequently in the Daily Californian. The practice was probably adopted because it was the most efficient means to control the rabbit population at the time.

Here in Kern County, rabbit drives were held from Delano to Weedpatch, and Rosedale to Caliente. In the December 31, 1895 edition of the Daily Californian an announcement read “The pony races, the rabbit drive down in the Weed Patch [sic] and a ball in the evening are the most prominent events for to-morrow [sic].” Most often these drives were held on Saturdays.

In 1891, a May event was announced in the Daily Californian inviting everyone to Delano for a rabbit drive and barbecue. Fifteen hundred pounds of beef was cooked. The Tulare Shotgun and Rifle Club made an appearance and a “large crowd from Bakersfield” was in attendance. Over in Rosedale Colony, two weeks later, a three-day rabbit drive was held. The event organizers acknowledged the possible inhuman act of “killing the harmless looking bunnies,” but reminded the people that it “is astonishing how quick pity subsides” when one witnesses the destruction the “bunny” hands down to a young orchard or vineyard. The event was viewed as a success as the death count of jack rabbits was 1,200. At any given rabbit drive, the number of exterminated could be anywhere from 500-1,200 rabbits.

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So this leaves the question of whether the decline in the rabbit population led to an increase in malaria cases in humans. This is very difficult to determine and I will leave that to the scientists. What I have found, however, is that by 1915, there was a push in Kern County to establish control over the mosquito population. By 1916, The Bakersfield Californian stressed how serious the mosquito problem really was. An editorial that ran in the April 10, 1916 edition noted that since the previous fall there had been a lot of “talk” from officials to cure “the mosquito evil.” It goes on to point out that “now the warm springtime is here, the breeding places of mosquitoes are undisturbed and already the air is alive with the pests.” The citizens of Kern County were tired of waiting.

This bureaucratic delay on the part of the County Board of Supervisors compelled Dr. C. A. Morris, the County Health Officer to see to it that a petition was circulated calling for the establishment of a Mosquito Abatement District. Dr. Morris announced in The Bakersfield Californian that it would be necessary to gather signatures of 10 percent of the voters before the petition would be given to the Board of Supervisors. Potential signatories were informed that the district would include forty-eight square miles but may be extended “from the river north of the bluffs west to the Standard Oil tanks on the state highway, thence south to near the Stine school and thence north to the river” (April 14, 1916). At the same time, Dr. Morris, along with George Voll of the Mosquito Abatement District Committee, went to the Bakersfield City Council seeking their participation in the district. The council passed a resolution to join the district and the following month Dr. Morris presented it to the Board of Supervisors.

It took Dr. Morris some time to get the required support for the petition, but on July 17, 1916, he presented 1,110 signatures to the Board of Supervisors. He also presented the resolution the Bakersfield City Council had just adopted. The Supervisors voted to include the city of Bakersfield in the district but the vote on the establishment of a district was put off until the next day. The Bakersfield Californian announced on Tuesday, July 18, that the Board of Supervisors “acted favorably” on establishing a mosquito control district. The Board also decided to name it “The Doctor Morris Mosquito Abatement District” because of his efforts to make the district a reality.

While the rabbit drives were successful in controlling the population, they did not totally eradicate them. There are two things particularly noteworthy about these drives. First, they were a practical solution for the time aiding farmers in protecting their crops which were extremely vital to the valley. They were also a vital component in maintaining a tight knit community, a characteristic still visible today. The establishment of the mosquito abatement district reinforces these observations and demonstrates how this community faces problems head on and answers them with practical solutions.

Article appeared in our 27-5 Issue - December 2010