For those of us who grew up reading Richard Adams’ classic novel Watership Down, your worldview may have been significantly altered as to how you thought about the treatment of animals. The novel, told in a fable-rich format was the tale of a rabbit family’s struggles to survive in the face of adversity and threats from the cruelty of humans.
The Plight of Rabbits
Adams — another celebrity who sadly passed away in 2016 — proved himself to be a lifelong defender of animal rights dating back to his own childhood. Passing away at 96, one of his earliest memories involved seeing a cart full of dead rabbits being pushed along a street.
“It made me realize, in an instant, that rabbits were things and that it was only in a baby’s world that they were not,’ he explained.
Created after improvising the story with his children who were becoming bored during a long car ride, the tale meant so much to him, his family and friends, he had to write it down.
In it, a group of rabbits led by Hazel seek out a new home upon learning that their burrow was on the brink of destruction.
Initially the book received a dozen or so rejection letters from publishers. There were many reasons for its non-acceptance, but critics point to the fact that the violence and rabbit copulation — woven throughout the story — went against preconceived notions associated with rabbits as cuddly and cute creatures.
Nonetheless, the adventures of Hazel and Fiver went on to become a best-seller and the book is now considered a classic. It was also made into a successful box-office animated film and was awarded both the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Children’s Fiction Award.
Life's work . . .
Adams led a long career, as a prolific writer career and animal activist. He went on to write many other books, including the animal-themed Shardik, about a man’s pursuit of a bear-god, and The Plague Dogs, about abused canines that escape from a government research center, though none would ever have the same impact of Watership Down.
A landmark site dedicated to Watership Down announced Adams’ death with a passage taken from the book:
"It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses."
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be alright - and thousands like them.”
Richard Adams’ life and work is a reminder to all that animal cruelty of any kind can not be tolerated in this world. We share the planet with many species that are sentient creatures, and not any of our lives are more or less important than others.
RIP Mr. Adams. Job well done.