The Sad Truth About the Frankenstein Rabbit

Does the rabbit really have cancer? If so, is it terminal? We talked to an expert.

This bunny, dubbed the ‘Frankenstein Rabbit,’ likely has cancer, say wildlife experts. (Photo: Gunnar Boettcher)

Jul 12, 2013· 3 MIN READ
has an ASME Award, edits for Backpacker Magazine and writes for Outside, Skiing, and more.

It’s hard to watch: a rabbit with several thick, black, tube-like tumors sticking out all over its face and head. The YouTube video is titled “OFFICIAL: The World’s Scariest Rabbit: Frankenstein,” and was produced by a kid named Gunnar Boettcher, a 20-year-old student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. In the video, he’s crouched next to a pickup, speaking with a fake Australian accent.

“We’re outback, in the Amazon jungle, and right now, we’ve got ourselves a monster rabbit,” he says. “I don’t know what it is...what kind of breed it is...but it’s crazy. It’s got monster... monster spikes sticking out of its head. We don’t know what this thing is capable of, but we’re going to sneak in, get a closer look.”

The camera pans to the rabbit, nibbling on a blade of grass. No less than a dozen of the greasy black tumors protrude from its furry head. Boettcher spends another two minutes watching it, stalking it, and doing his best Steve Irwin impression. Nice work if earning the resulting 314,718 views (and counting) was his mission. But what we want to know is what ailment is affecting the poor rabbit, and, more importantly, is it curable?

In news stories following the release of the video, Boettcher reported that he saw the rabbit as recently as last week. After doing some research, he said he believed the rabbit has shope papilloma virus, which effects rabbits and can lead to the kind of cancerous tumors seen in the video. Joe Stangel, area wildlife supervisor for the state Department Natural Resources, told the Associated Press that’s what he also suspects.

The disease is fatal, he said, although he had never seen it affect a rabbit like this. Per DNR policies, officials will likely let nature take its course.

But the story made us think of another piece we did, back on June 22, detailing how scientists at the University of Rochester, New York, recently discovered a substance secreted by mole rats that may one day prevent cancer in humans.

The substance, called hyaluronan, has a high molecular density. When removed from the mole rats’ cells, the cells became more susceptible to tumors. Upon further examination, researchers discovered that the gene responsible for producing the chemical is unique only to mole rats. That’s because the molecules in mole rat hyaluronan are significantly longer than in any other animal. And the length creates an environment that prevents the rats’ cells from bunching together. The result: No possible growth of tumors, which scientists are now attempting to transfer to humans.

We were curious about a few things after seeing the Frankenrabbit video. First, we wanted to know if the results of the Rochester study could have any implications for afflicted rabbit. We reached one of the study’s authors, Andrei Seluanov, and he told us he thinks it’s too late for this rabbit because the tumors on its head and face—already so large—likely indicate that papilloma will spread to its internal organs. Once that happens, the rabbit will likely “experience great pain,” said Seluanov.

But he did add that earlier, before the tumors got so big, the results of the fruits of the Rochester study could have definitely helped the rabbit.

Seluanov also said that from what he could see on the video, the rabbit in question looked like it was in “fine shape,” despite its hideous appearance. And that if the rabbit could have been discovered, caught, and had its tumors surgically removed by doctors, “it probably would have been successful.”

At this point, says Seluanov, the famous rabbit will die likely of cancer. Which has made many of the viewers of the video lash out at its producer for using its misfortune for human entertainment, and casting blame for the rabbit’s appearance on everything from fracking to tick bites.

“I love how they call the rabbit ‘Frankenstein,’ ” wrote one. “The rabbit's not the monster. The people who made its environment polluted enough to do this kind of damage to a creature in nature are the Frankensteins. I bet you any money they are FRACKING in the neighborhood. Get ready people. This is what your kids will start looking like soon.”

While another wrote: “Shope Papilloma Virus has no cure and always indirectly causes or directly causes the death of the animal. There's nothing this kid can possibly do to help it and honestly I'd say he's more making fun of Nature Programs than he is making fun of this rabbit. It's a sad, scary disease to catch, but that's how it is. You can't save everything. Let the rabbit be, nature sorts itself out.”

And still another chimed in: “One question; is it OK to make fun of someone/somethings misfortune? A dog being torn apart by other dogs? A cat being skinned alive? Just answer the question please. That is my entire point. I say it is not.”

Someone else said this: “If you would research this a bit further you would find this is usually treatable with a very good cure rate. It is typically caused by a mosquito or tick bite. It all comes down to a person's desire to help or not. In my personal experience, wild animals are just as appreciative of human assistance as those that are not wild.”

We think calling attention to oddities such as this is fine as long as it doesn’t harm a person or animal. But what do you think? Should Boettcher have “rescued” the rabbit and tried to help it?