The giant purpose-built hutch in Annette Edwards’s back garden has been empty for over a week now, a poignant reminder of the world-famous rabbit who was, until recently, safely snuggled up in the hay inside it.
For it was from these palatial quarters that Darius, the biggest rabbit on the planet according to the Guinness World Records, vanished without trace last weekend.
His heartbroken owner says the 4ft 3in Continental Giant was stolen in the middle of the night and told me this week that he will die without the special diet she feeds him.
The giant purpose-built hutch in Annette Edwards’s back garden has been empty for over a week now, a reminder of Darius who was, until recently, inside it (pictured together)
‘I’m just so devastated,’ said 70-year-old Annette, a former model who, as we shall see, is no stranger to celebrity herself.
‘I can’t think straight,’ she added. ‘Every time I look out the window, I see Darius’s cage. I’m all over the place. I feel sick in my stomach. I’m a complete wreck.’
But despite scouring the garden and fields around Annette’s isolated cottage outside the tiny Worcestershire village of Stoulton, detectives from West Mercia police have found neither hide nor, er, hare of the enormous agouti-coloured bunny.
Neighbours heard nothing suspicious on the night in question. No strange vehicles were spotted in the area.
No footprints appear to have been left behind at the scene. None of Annette’s dogs barked as if alerted to intruders.
With no witnesses and few clues, Darius’s disappearance is fast becoming a great animal mystery of our time.
It even merited a story in the New York Times and has been a hot topic of conversation on TV programmes as far flung as the U.S. and Australia.
And yet while the three-and-a-half stone rabbit is undoubtedly something of a celebrity — he was hired out for a party to celebrate the first birthday of Tamara Ecclestone’s daughter, Sophia, and once appeared with comedian Jimmy Carr on TV show 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown — Darius is also, at the ripe old age of 12, definitely getting on a bit.
The 4ft 3in Continental Giant was stolen in the middle of the night and told me this week that he will die without the special diet she feeds him (pictured with Mia, six)
Blind in one eye, too decrepit to breed, who on earth might have wanted to snatch the poor old bunny away from his his well-earned retirement? More importantly, why?
‘I can’t understand the motive for taking him,’ says a desperate Annette, who has put up a £2,000 reward for Darius’s safe return.
‘Is it someone just being spiteful or jealous? I just don’t know. My head is a mess.’
The last time she clapped eyes on her beloved boy was when she put him to bed between 7pm and 8pm last Saturday giving him fresh hay and water and double-bolting him into his garden home for the night.
Even if she had forgotten to slide the bolts at the top and bottom of his door, she explains, Darius would have been safe in his decked enclosure.
Annette was awake again at around 6.30am on Sunday: ‘I looked out of the window and noticed his door was open. I rushed out to see why and there was no Darius.’
She immediately called the police who, she says, have been ‘absolutely fantastic’.
‘They’ve been here, they’ve been round all the neighbours, they’ve been through all the farmers’ fields. They’ve had forensics there.
‘They’ve been all around the fencing. I can’t praise the police enough. I didn’t think they’d spend that much time on this but they have. They’ve been backwards and forwards.’
It was raining hard last Saturday night, says Annette, which might explain why her boxer dogs didn’t hear an intruder and bark.
The police believe, she says, that the thief must have parked up in the farm track at the side of her detached 300-year-old cottage, climbed over a stile and then across four feet of wire mesh which would have led them to Darius’s hutch.
But pet detective Colin Butcher told me this week that in 20 years of dealing with animal crimes, he has never come across a rabbit stolen to order by professional thieves.
‘We’ve done a number of different cases over the years,’ said Mr Butcher, a former police Detective Inspector.
‘When we deal with the theft of rabbits, it’s usually disputes of ownership or family-related issues. There’s no commercial market, regardless of the species. The value is negligible. Even the prize rabbits have limited value.’
British Rabbit Council board member Roland White, who introduced the Continental Giant to the UK in the early 1990s, backs this up: ‘There would be no point in stealing a Continental Giant to make money,’ he said.
‘You can buy them on the side of the road in countries like Belgium and Holland for as little as 15 euros where they are bred for meat because of their size.’
Annette says, in her experience, the usual life span of a Continental Giant is six or seven years but that all of hers have lived to be at least nine.
Darius, she admits, is truly a marvel. ‘I put most of it down to diet,’ she says. ‘Everything here is top notch. The animals get treated better than the humans.’
When I asked Annette, who still has eight other giant rabbits in hutches in her garden, if she could think of anyone who might have wanted to take Darius, she said: ‘There’s been a few funny things.
‘The police have said there’s a group on a rabbit website who’ve been a bit jealous and spiteful but I’m not on those sites.’
She was also quick to deflect unkind speculation, much of it on social media, that Darius’s disappearance is in any way connected to a £1 million insurance policy that, according to a 2010 article in The Times, she took out on Darius.
‘He’s not insured,’ she insisted when I asked her about it. The article, published in 2010, was not factual and ‘just a bit of fun’ added to the whirlwind of publicity around Darius after he hopped into the record books and straight into the limelight, she said.
‘I can assure you that the police have looked into this. There was no insurance for Darius and there never was. It was talked about but we didn’t do it.’
Fame is nothing new for three-times married Annette. In 1997, aged 45, she was picked by Nivea to be the face of its Visage skincare range for a Mother’s Day advertising campaign featuring eight of her ten children.
As well as making headline news, she appeared on TV chat shows with the likes of Esther Rantzen, Richard and Judy, and Alan Titchmarsh, talking about how she had managed to maintain her youthful good looks despite having so many children and announcing her desire to relaunch the modelling career she had first given up, aged 17, when she got married and had her first child.
Raised in Bromsgrove in the West Midlands by her grandmother, a variety hall entertainer, she left school at 15 and signed on with a Birmingham modelling agency.
Her first job was with the London fashion house Michael Grant but her career was cut short by marriage and babies.
After divorcing at the age of 29, Annette said she began modelling again and was crowned Miss Birmingham at the age of 30 before winning contracts with Adidas and Coca-Cola.
Photos from her album show her when she was well into her 40s still winning ‘Lovely Legs’ and ‘Glamorous Granny’ contests at Butlin’s.
After the Nivea contract, Annette appeared increasingly drawn to glamour work, posing for the likes of the Daily and Sunday Sport newspapers — on one occasion, with daughter Jody.
In 2000, she announced that she was planning to act as a surrogate for her daughter because she couldn’t have children of her own.
She later claimed, in a separate article, that she was being stalked by an obsessed female admirer. She said the stress meant she had given up on the surrogacy plan.
She received another Guinness World Record for being the world’s ‘oldest Page 3 model’ just shy of her 61st birthday in 2012.
In the same year, after a harrowing EastEnders’ storyline about a mother swapping her dead baby for another character’s newborn, Annette told the Mirror newspaper that she, herself, had snatched a baby as a 16-year-old teen.
She had suffered a miscarriage a month before she was due to marry her older boyfriend and was so traumatised that she stuffed a rolled-up jumper under her wedding outfit.
Later, she took a baby from a pram parked outside a clinic on the outskirts of Birmingham.
She was quickly caught and the baby was returned, but Annette spent two months in the hospital wing at Holloway Prison in London before a judge at Birmingham Juvenile Court decided to release her.
She went on to have a daughter followed by four sons and a second daughter before divorcing in 1980. She had two more sons and a third daughter with two other partners.
Her youngest daughter was born in 1995, the year she married her last husband, graphic designer Robert Edwards.
On her website, which doesn’t appear to have been updated since she was 62 and which features several of her topless photographs, she claims she has ‘worked all over the world including Playboy in New York’ (there is no explanation in what capacity) and invites fans to buy photos from her shoots.
But over the past decade, Annette appears to have devoted more and more of her time to her rabbits as well as the boxer dogs she breeds.
Her first record- breaking rabbit was another Continental Giant, Roberto, who was well over 3ft long, in 2004.
In 2007, his equally enormous partner Amy became the star of an Asda advertising campaign to promote vegetables and healthy eating.
After her death from a heart attack, Amy’s daughter Alice was also declared to be the biggest rabbit alive.
Then came Darius who was born in 2009 and broke the world record when he was just 13 months old, by which time he was longer than an average six-year-old child.
At the peak of his fame, Annette had £10,000 worth of plastic surgery and began dressing up as Jessica Rabbit, complete with glittery red sheath dress and crimson wig, for photoshoots with her pet.
Rabbit ownership has not, however, been without drama, even before Darius went missing.
In 2017, Annette received a five-figure payout from United Airlines after one of her rabbits, Simon, froze to death while en route to a new home in the States.
A year later she told her local paper that she and Darius were retiring and she would no longer be stripping off for the cameras.
Darius could have been forgiven for hoping for a more peaceful life in which to live out the last of his bunny years.
Continental Giant expert Roland White said that what surprised him most about this case is Darius’s age: ‘They are short-lived despite their size. They have small hearts. I’ve been breeding these rabbits for 30 years and I’ve never managed to get one even to live to six years old’, though they have been known to live longer.
Annette attributes her animals’ long life to the care she gives them as well as a healthy diet of carrots and cabbages.
Because of Darius’s age, Annette now spoon-feeds him a special mix and makes sure he gets plenty of fresh air.
She says she is praying for his safe return having doubled her initial £1,000 ransom offer in the hope that ‘somebody wants this money and they just want to drop the bunny with their face covered’.
‘I just want the rabbit,’ she says. ‘I just want him home.’
Above the door of his empty hutch, Darius’s name is still proudly displayed in large blue letters — a fitting sign for the biggest rabbit on the planet.
Those who love him hope that he will soon be back there, hopping around in the hay and nibbling the carrots he so loves.
But until Darius is found, the mystery of the great bunny burglary will go on.