What in the World is a Water Rabbit? Plus – Your Pet Rabbit Does NOT Want to Go Swimming!

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

When I was told it was the year of the water rabbit in the Chinese zodiac, I was a tad miffed. What was wrong with the regular rabbit I’ve examined on countless red-and-white paper placemats in the Chinatown restaurants of New York? Would having a water rabbit instead of a regular rabbit change the way the year of the rabbit went?

Not to worry. The rabbit is the same as always, but the Chinese zodiac is more complicated than we think. It is governed by ideas and forces, some of them deeply embedded in Chinese philosophy, that beg for further study. The forces that characterize the twelve zodiac animals, however, are pretty straightforward.

The Yin and the Yang

First, each animal has either a “yin” or a “yang” identity. Yin and yang, if you’re not familiar with them, are the polarities of energy that together shape existence. Yin energies are considered to be feminine, intuitive, and receptive, while yang energies are masculine, logical, and giving. Everything has both yin and yang, and yin and yang work together, but one type of energy will be dominant.

The rabbit, along with the rooster, the ox, the pig, the snake, and the goat (or sheep), are the yin signs of the zodiac. The yang signs, then, are the monkey, the horse, the dog, the tiger, the rat, and the dog. Both the yin and the yang animals have related personality traits. The rabbit (yin), for example, can be described as “quiet, elegant, kind, responsible”; the other two animals in the rabbit’s “compatibility triangle” (determined by the positions on the zodiac circle) are the goat (yin) and the pig (yin) – described as “calm, gentle, sympathetic” and “compassionate, generous, diligent,” respectively.

The Five Elements

The zodiac is also built on wu shing – the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal (gold), and water. The idea is presented in that popular classic for 1960s college students, the I Ching (the Book of Changes). Originally written as a how-to book for divination sometime between 1000 and 750 BCE, and morphing into a cosmological text sometime before 200 BCE, the I Ching contains the roots of both yin/yang and wu shing.

The elements govern the interdependent and interactive relationships among all things; relationships are a balance of creation and destruction, just as ying and yang balance energy. When elements interact, progress – positive or negative – occurs. The five elements move in a cycle; when it’s positive/creative, the cycle goes like this: wood starts a fire, fire creates earth, earth holds metal, metal carries water, water feeds wood. When it’s negative/destructive, the cycle goes like this: fire melts metal, metal chops wood, wood separates the earth, earth absorbs water, water puts out fire.

Combining the Cycles

The zodiac animals rotate in a 12-year cycle, and the zodiac elements in a 5-year cycle. This of course, does not match up. The “regular” rabbit years are 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, and this year, 2023.

Since the elements go in the same order every cycle, the element-rabbit cycle has been:

1939: earth rabbit
1951: metal rabbit
1963: water rabbit
1975: wood rabbit
1987: fire rabbit
1999: earth rabbit
2011: metal rabbit
2023: water rabbit!

And what does the water rabbit portend for 2023? The year starts on January 22, 2023, and goes through February 9, 2024. If you were born in any of the years of the rabbit, this will be a year of hope, and your life will take a turn for the better. You will be lucky in love and career, although you should stick with the job you have now. Your lucky colors are red, pink, purple, and blue; your lucky flowers are hostas and jasmine; and your lucky numbers are 3, 7, and 9. Of course, other Chinese horoscopes list completely different colors, flowers, and numbers. Fortune cookie, anyone?

Are Water Rabbits Real?

No, and somewhat yes. Can rabbits swim? All rabbits can manage to swim, usually under extreme duress. The same fluffy coat that makes rabbits cute and cuddly also absorbs water, adding weight and dragging the rabbit down. Rather like trying to swim in your winter coat and boots. Should you have a pet rabbit that likes the water, make sure it swims in a very shallow pool. A foot of water would be the max, and there should be an easy exit.

There are two types of rabbits that do swim regularly, swamp rabbits and marsh rabbits – they have fur described as “sparse.” The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) is largest of the cottontail rabbits. It lives in the south-central United States (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama) in cypress swamps, marshes, and river estuaries. The swamp rabbit is the most hunted rabbit in the United States, and is also prey for domestic dogs and alligators. When threatened, they sink down in the water with only their noses showing so they can breathe.

The marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) is a small cottontail found in the coastal southeast United States. It favors freshwater marshes and brackish estuaries. The largest current population of marsh rabbits is in the Great Dismal Swamp, located on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. They are more prone to swimming than the swamp rabbits. Their worst predators are the great horned owl and the marsh hawk.

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