Growing up, everybody had a pet. There were cat and dog people, reptile and fish people, bird people (an odd group), and some people had hamsters or guinea pigs. We were also constantly out catching things, like turtles and salamanders and worm snakes, and making them cozy little nests that we would craft in shoeboxes and aquariums. Sometimes our beloved pets would deliver us prizes, little half-alive things of one species or another that we would try in vain to resuscitate and nurse back to health, only to be dropped on the veterinarian’s counter the next morning, tears rolling down our cheeks, please please save our field mouse, Oscar, we love him so. The vet would reassure us that he would indeed do his best and then would whisk the box into the back room and Oscar would never be seen again. Only the dogs and cats seemed to have any sort of longevity; everything else was either buried in the back yard, flushed down the toilet, or dropped off at the vet for eternity. And all the while, I never, ever met any rabbit people.
I’m sure there are lots of reasons why rabbits were not popular pets, I am acutely aware of some of them now, but I’m guessing that reason number one is that most of us grew up thinking that rabbits were not for companionship, they were for wearing: rabbit lined gloves, earmuffs, collars and cuffs and scarves, how warm and wonderful! For Christmas one year my parents gave me a gray and white rabbit coat that was so luxuriously soft that I felt like a movie star when I wore it, and so I wore it year-round. Oh, how I loved that coat. It was the warmest, most marvelous thing I had ever set my sticky seven-year old hands on. There were two round fur puff-balls attached to either end of a string that when pulled would tighten the hood around your face and made you look like a Pomeranian, or you could whack your sister in the back of the head with them when she rode in the front seat on the way home from school, and infuriate her. There was a valuable degree of entertainment and whimsical justice attached to the memories of that coat which provided an early appreciation of rabbit.
My husband had read that rabbits were allergen-free, low maintenance, ahem, trainable, kid friendly and had medium lifespans, all of which made them a perfect match for us, and it was on one cold Easter morning that we joined the shadow ranks of the rabbit people. They were hatched at a friendly farm not far away, and they were Holland Lops, sweet and luxurious little designer bunnies. The girls’ love for these furry little things was immediate and they were petted and rubbed and held and fed and loved and dropped and dressed up, and not one peep ever was uttered in either protest or acceptance. Not a sound they made, they just sat in your lap for hours twitching their noses and nothing else, like a toy, only warm. And, they even lived outside in a cozy little hutch: the perfect pet.
For such timid animals, rabbits are freakishly strong and aggressive. And sneaky and fast. And very high maintenance. No matter how well we secured the hutch, they frequently managed to escape. They have bionic rabbit fingers that unfold from their paws at night and make them able to achieve unbelievable feats of lock picking and latch flipping. Since we were not forewarned of this proclivity, we found their escapes incredibly vexing. Making the situation worse, the bunnies would break out and cavort with the raggedy wild rabbits who eagerly shared their wood ticks and botfly larvae in the honeysuckle with them. It became a routine occurrence to glance into the back yard and see two small black and white fur balls darting around at dusk (a perilous time for a prey animal to go for a run) with two panicked girls in hot pursuit, screaming and crying and flailing their arms.
Catching a rabbit is incredibly difficult and requires either one generic predator, or a team of patient, energetic and agile humans. For the latter, it goes something like this:
You get close, but most of the time not close enough. You try to reason with it but its brain is about the size of a bitten off pencil eraser, and it just watches you, warily, in that weird sideways rabbity way, munching grass and mocking you. You crouch low, two feet away, cooing, Here sweet bunny here sweet bunny bunny bunny, kissing at the air until your lips are numb and dry, presenting a bouquet of fresh parsley until your arm falls asleep, and you feel stupid, and you hate your husband for buying the damn bunnies, and you’re terrified you won’t catch them before the sun sets, and your children are crying. You reach out gently so the rabbit can sniff your hand and recognize you as the one who feeds it, not the one who feeds on it. And in an instant, you grab it, lightening fast, but the rabbit wriggles away, magically, leaving you with a silky haunting on your palms and fingertips that lets you know that for an instant you had held it, and then lost it, again. The rabbit watches from the other eye from a safer distance now, perhaps four feet away. This can go on for hours until you feel you just may go insane, or cry, and you can only hope that you’ve worn it out enough for someone else to get their hands on it. And deep down, a deeply-conflicted part of you, sees them as part of a wonderful, luxuriously soft, winter coat.
It was a frequent scenario in the Hereford backyard and so became a chief source of exercise for our family and friends, but it was just a matter of time until those bunnies found themselves on the wrong side of the honeysuckle when the sun went down.
Losing a pet is heartbreaking, indeed; finding it’s bits and parts scattered about the yard is nothing less than traumatic, for most. For others, who shall remain nameless, those who are more opportunistic and have a unique ability to compartmentalize, may take the finding of a rabbit paw as a sign of fortuitousness, like stumbling across a four-leaf clover in a field, a totemistic discovery to be kept in the garage for good luck. As most of us cried over and mourned the violent demise of our sweet little bunnies, the lone socio-optimist was planning on researching local taxidermists with a specialty in key chains. Luckily, none were found before said opportunist was shamed into properly disposing of said paw before it could be discovered by a curious child. And oddly enough, as the resident fur advocate, whose first material love was a rabbit coat, I was deeply saddened by the loss of those sweet little bunnies, and most definitely not the one with the foot.
I learned a lot in the world of rabbit people: that they are stranger than bird people, firstly; that it is way more poop cleaning than I ever wanted or expected to be committed to, secondly; and lastly, that maybe my parents were onto something when they gave me a coat instead of a pet those many years ago; or maybe not. That coat outlived the rabbits by years and provided inestimable comfort, sure. It didn’t require any level of maintenance at all, and it didn’t have bugs or diseases or medical issues. It didn’t run away; and it never left me. It didn’t have to live in an apartment outside braving the elements, and it couldn’t be eaten by a predator (although our dog was highly intrigued by it). No, it was hung reverently in the closet next to my mother’s coat cousins, who were also its betters, and whom I’m sure it admired, like a commoner sitting next to kings and queens.
But caring for these peculiar creatures reminded me that you can find love in unexpected places, that bonding with an animal is something so very special, that no matter what it is, rodent or perhaps reptile, that it can lead you to to experience a deep joy that just can’t be found in something without a heartbeat. The memories are richer, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes hilarious or tragic, but there is a fragile balance in life that is simply not quite understood without a sense of inter-connectedness, and sometimes even loss. Our pets teach us a lot about ourselves and about others, and although I wasn’t always excited about the botfly extractions, the cage cleaning, nail trimming, ear treating, gland clearing, pricey small-pet vet visiting, they were still absolutely perfect in a perfectly flawed kind of way. Oh, yes, and luxuriously soft.