When the vicious, decapitating Rabbit of Caerbannog appeared in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, most people thought it was humorous. If Napoleon Bonaparte and Jimmy Carter had watched the film, it’s doubtful they would have been laughing. They could tell you stories about their own brushes with the long-eared, cotton-tailed harbingers of death.
Napoleon was in a festive mood in July 1807. He had just signed the Treaties of Tilsit, ending the war between the French Empire and Imperial Russia. For some lighthearted frivolity, Napoleon ordered Chief of Staff Alexandre Berthier to prepare a rabbit hunt. Invitations were sent out to dignitaries and military leaders. Following an outdoor luncheon, the imperial party made their way to the hunting grounds.
Berthier had been busy. Some reports say he collected as many as 3,000 rabbits in preparation for the hunt. They were in cages, awaiting the word that the hunt was to begin. At last, Napoleon gave the signal, the cages were opened, and everyone prepared for a hunt.
There was only one problem: the rabbits had a different idea.
Instead of fleeing from the hunters, the rabbits went on the offensive. While Napoleon and the others watched — at first with amusement, but then with growing alarm — the cute, cuddly, timid creatures ganged up and attacked their hunters. The most powerful man on earth suddenly found himself defending against hundreds of rabbits that overwhelmed the imperial guards and began to throw themselves at the emperor, climbing up his legs, biting and scratching.
Napoleon, much to his chagrin, was forced to flee to his carriage. His coachmen attempted to ward off the attacking hippity-hops with bullwhips and sticks, but the onslaught continued. Left with no choice, Napoleon ordered the retreat.
And once again, he underestimated his attackers. According to historian David Chandler, “with a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach.”
History may record Waterloo as Napoleon’s biggest defeat, but he might well tell you that it was more humiliating to be conquered by a bunch of vengeful rabbits.
175 years later, another rabbit attack was launched against the world’s most powerful leader. It happened on April 20, 1979, when Jimmy Carter was President of the United States.
Carter was enjoying a few days of vacation near his home in Plains, Georgia. One day, while out on a solo fishing excursion, he noticed something speeding toward his boat with missile-like precision. Upon closer look, the President discovered, to his horror, that he was under attack by a rabbit.
In his 1986 book The Other Side of the Story, Press Secretary Jody Powell recounted the story as follows:
Upon closer inspection, the animal turned out to be a rabbit. Not one of your cutesy, Easter Bunny-type rabbits, but one of those big splay-footed things that we called swamp rabbits when I was growing up.
The animal was clearly in distress, or perhaps berserk. The President confessed to having had limited experience with enraged rabbits. He was unable to reach a definite conclusion about its state of mind. What was obvious, however, was that this large, wet animal, making strange hissing noises and gnashing its teeth, was intent upon climbing into the Presidential boat.
Carter, determined not to suffer the same fate as Napoleon, splashed water on the rabbit to fend off the attack. Later, as the word got out, the incident became fodder for those who viewed Carter’s presidency as weak and ineffective.
Tom Paxton immortalized the incident with his song, “I Don’t Want a Bunny Wunny” with lyrics that include such gems as:
Look at him swimming
Look at him fly
Ears laid back and a gleam in his eye
Hissing through his front teeth
Swimming like a seal
If you were the President
How would you feel
You’d probably say
I don’t want a bunny wunny
In my widdle wow boat
In my widdle wow boat in the pond
For the bunny might be crazy
And he’ll bite me in the froat
In my widdle wow boat in the pond
Carter retold the story 31 years later, and you can see his account of it here.