Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Carnegie's Rabbit Rescue (2004)


Marilyn and Jen Eigenbrode on roof top, Research Building

One morning in spring 2004, baby, domestic bunnies were found in a cardboard box on Carnegie’s campus on Broad Branch Road (BBR) in upper northwest Washington DC. Common wild animals—like deer and raccoons--from nearby Rock Creek Park often passed through the campus. Neighbors also walked their dogs on campus, but this was the first time such cute animals were left on our “doorstep”. As lab safety officer and general responsible adult, a group of postdocs and staff came to my office to report the news. They had four white and black-spotted rabbits and brought them inside where they left them up on the Penthouse floor of the Research Building. Andrew Steele’s postdoc Jake Maule and postdoc Jen Eigenbrode were in charge of the small group, who wanted to hold on to the bunnies until homes could be found for them. 


Jake Maule, Svalbard 2005



At that time, the BBR campus, which holds both the Geophysical Lab (GL) and DTM departments, was controlled authoritatively by DTM’s Director Sean Solomon and the BBR campus Facilities Manager Roy Dingus. Geophysical Lab’s Director Wes Huntress was often traveling. Sean is a detail person—smart as a whip, but somewhat of a control freak. Roy tried to rule his crew and the rest of the folks on campus with an iron fist by releasing edicts telling folks what they could or could not do. Steele [Steelie], staff member George Cody, Jake and I felt neither would support having baby bunnies on campus—not even very cute ones.


As a senior staff member I needed to obey the “rules” and act like an adult, but at times, I joined the postdoc crowd bending those rules slightly to have a bit of fun. Steelie, George, and I agreed to support the Rabbit Rescue effort as much as we could.


How could rabbits be kept in the building without alerting Sean and Roy? The Lab’s Penthouse floor is a jumbled mess of old instruments, forgotten rock samples, file cabinets with outdated references, along with the building’s fume hood motors and other important services. Staff member George Cody was “in charge” of the GL staff portion of the Penthouse for many years. George, a packrat himself, held a yearly survey of the lot and asked each of us if we’d like to hold on to the unused “valuables” up there. Sometimes, to make him happy, I’d agree to getting rid of an aging gas chromatograph or something similar. Maintenance staff passed through the Penthouse daily. We didn’t know what they’d think about sharing the space with some baby bunnies. If they knew about them and Roy found out, they could be in trouble.


George Cody, 2004

Jake had a plan—he’d keep the rabbits inside of a gymnasium that was on the rooftop just outside of the main Penthouse area. The Lab’s gym was created by concerned postdocs and meagerly funded by the Directors. There was a used tread mill, some floor mats, a set of free weights, and one rickety weight rig in the small, un-air-conditioned space. Two fans could be turned on and the door propped open if need be. Maintenance staff never went in.


Jake and Jen brought in straw for bedding and established a schedule of bringing in food. After a couple weeks they built a little pen outside the gym on the open roof top so the bunnies could hop around more and get some fresh air during the day. Many of the scientific staff knew about the Rabbit Rescue and a couple of the maintenance guys as well. Adoptions were being worked on and having pet bunnies on campus seemed to make people happy. Things went well until…they didn’t.


On the day that Carnegie planned a huge gala event to celebrate the selection of the Messenger Mission, Sean Solomon's signature achievement, someone reported that there was a bunny rabbit conspicuously in the gutter just above the main entrance of the research building.

Tents covered the campus knoll and tables were being set for a gala dinner with Trustees, retirees, and honored guests that evening. Director Solomon nervously bustled around campus making sure all was in order.


Rabbit Rescue had an emergency that required real teamwork.


Soon a small crowd gathered watching the little bunny peering over the edge.

Research Building, rabbits were in gutter over front door


We needed to work fast. Two of the maintenance staff were contacted—one of them knew all about the bunnies, the other probably did as well. Solomon’s assistant, Jan Dunlap, was alerted. She watched her boss and was tasked with stalling him if he started out the door towards the Research Building. Steelie and I ran inside and cornered George, a rock-climbing enthusiast, asking him to climb up and grab the bunnies. He agreed. 


When we got an “all clear” that Sean and Roy were nowhere near, the ladder went up, George ascended.  


George recalls: "We realized that Sean would be seriously freaked out that a bunny was totally obvious, 25 feet off the ground in a gutter above the research building.  Maintenance staff held the bottom of the ladder stably as I carefully made my way up to the gutter.  When I got there the bunny skittered away down the gutter.  There was no way to coax the bunny to me.  So I carefully climbed down and Jen Eigenbrode gave me lettuce and carrots.  I then climbed back up and coaxed the bunny with food to within reaching distance and nabbed it!"


“Ugh!” he shouted as the rabbit peed on him. He handed it down safely to Jen. The crowd had swelled to more than twenty people and we cheered George as he descended. The ladder was swiftly hustled away, and not 10 minutes later Sean emerged from his office in the Abelson Building to survey the knoll. Crisis averted.


Abelson Building, Directors office here

It was time for the rescue operation to end! Steelie and his family adopted two of the bunnies, naming them Perky and Pinky. The others found homes.


This is but one story about the every day happenings on a campus with 150 or so people devoted to discovery-based scientific research. I don't know if Sean or Roy learned about those bunnies living under their noses. Hopefully now, they’ll chuckle at a story with heroes and cute baby animals.




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