Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Rabbits of Roissy

Flying into Roissy-Charles de Gaulle
I had heard about them, of course. But I had never actually seen them. The rabbits.
     Rabbits? What’s the big deal, you ask. Everybody’s seen rabbits.
     Sure, but not grazing peacefully at their warren door only ten feet off the wing of a jumbo jet revving its engines to roar down the runway.
     Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris opened almost forty years ago. So it's been around a while. And it has a problem. Aside from airline strikes on the ground, flight saturation in the air and stale croissants at the cafeteria. A structural problem.
     Safe from the fear of predators such as wolves or even foxes - all killed off by the previous farmers to protect their livestock before the airport expropriated them in the Seventies - these rabbits have had all the leisure they needed to breed like... well, like rabbits. Hunting is authorized in certain outlying areas of the airfield to try to hold the population down. But the rabbits have dug such an extensive network of burrows and tunnels crisscrossing under the entire airport that some runways have had to be reinforced to prevent subsidence. Nothing like a little underlying rabbit warren to weaken the concrete when tons of airplane touch down. You’d think those bunnies wouldn’t appreciate all that noisy weight coming thudding down on their ceiling, even if it is cement.
     I thought they were just some kind of urban myth. Over the years I had looked for them on the distant horizon with every take-off and landing. Nothing. Then suddenly there they were, those cute little brown bunnies hopping between the runways, sitting up on their haunches, looking tiny in comparison to my Boeing, and totally oblivious to the din just a few feet away. It seems that they have grown deaf, which I guess is the only way to survive if you live under a runway. Still, you’d think the vibrations would be enough to scare them off. But no, these French rabbits are plucky little devils.

     One thing that might have helped me spot them was the snow. Paris had just lived through what passes for a blizzard on their books. Five centimeters of snow! Imagine! That comes out to about an inch and a half. Seeing as I had just fled Michigan’s Blizzard of ‘99, with its knee-high snowfall, it all seemed a bit of a joke to me. But those five centimeters actually brought the whole metropolitan area to a standstill. On the bright side, there were children sledding down the hill in front of Montmartre’s Sacré Coeur, as they always do, borrowing trays from home or begging a piece of cardboard from a store. On the dark side, there was 20 miles of traffic stranded overnight on a main highway south of the city, just from gridlock, with people sleeping in their cars all night in below freezing temperatures, including one woman seven months pregnant, who wasn’t at all amused when interviewed at 3 a.m. No ice. No accident. Just a little snow.
     And that’s why I saw them. The rabbits. They had come out to search for something to eat. Maybe some stale croissant crumbs. They sat on their haunches, silhouetted against the dusting of powdered- sugar snow that had brought one of Europe’s mightiest capitals to a standstill for a brief moment.
     The rabbits of Roissy.
Twelve years later, I roll down one of those runways again, in the opposite direction. This time I see no rabbits - they blend in too well without snow. But I do see a cat stalking around the grass between the runways, which seems every bit as improbable as the rabbits once did.

As I said above, I hadn't seen the rabbits seen in a long time, but on my flight back to the States this past Wednesday I was talking to the lady next to me as we taxied to the end of the runway and... there he (she?) was, hopping over the field and then disappearing down a rabbit hole.  And no, it wasn't a white rabbit with a big fob watch.  Just an ordinary little brown bunny like the one above.

Silly that this should matter to me, but I like the idea that they have endured, as Faulkner would say.

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