Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Saturday, February 25, 2017

That Rabbit is Dynamite

As a first-time owner of a rabbit I am once again a student, learning about my animal and her unique blend of wildness and docility. 

     It all started with a photo my friend, a veterinary nurse, posted on her Facebook page: she'd successfully placed an endotracheal tube in a rabbit under anesthesia for a spay surgery. Placing a tube is quite a feat in an animal with a very narrow mouth. "She's up for adoption," my friend teased when I commented on the photo. Yeah, right. No way was I going to get a rabbit. Rabbits scare me as patients because of their fragility, especially under anesthesia. As pets, they intrigued me but did not promise the kind of companionship you'd expect from a more traditional pet like a dog or cat. I have kept degus in the past and know how lovely these animals can be, but had never contemplated keeping a rabbit. Something about this rabbit caught my eye and my heart. She had an exceptionally beautiful coat (yes, I admit I fell in love with her looks before I got to know her), and even in her unconscious state she looked proud and regal. When my husband and I went to meet her at the SPCA shelter she showed polite interest, but otherwise went about her business without getting too excited. She nipped us through our clothes in a light and non-vicious way that meant she was treating us like other rabbits, a democratic and openminded attitude. On the drive home she was curious, kept trying to explore the car, and peed in my husband's lap, which I assured him was a sign of affection and acceptance. (In truth I don't know if it was a sign of anything more than peeing in his lap. This rabbit does not speak in metaphors.) 

     We wanted her to have the run of the apartment, but after a few "accidents" on the bed which were not accidents at all, and after she shorted out my Mac by biting through the cord despite a thick layer of duct tape, we decided to cordon off an area of the living room for her abode. Our crappy old futon turned out to be the best setup: there's a sort of tunnel behind it that she uses for galloping, resting, and deconstruction work. You have no idea how much foam stuffing fits into a couch until a rabbit removes it for you, over and over and over. (I'm reminded of Stephen King's story The Cookie Jar, but I'll stop before I go down that rabbit hole.) As I would sit typing on my laptop, the rabbit would work with fierce dedication, pulling and shaking and stomping as she kicked the liberated stuffing out of the way. Often it felt like she would chomp into my backside any second, or that her head would emerge from a hole right next to me. The laminate floor had to be covered in a mat to give her traction for jumping and binkying (a mid-air shimmy unique to rabbits and hares). The makeshift wall of this compound is 30 inches high, and while she's never jumped over it while we were watching, we know very well that she does this in our absence. We know this from the little puddles and caches of turds she has sometimes left in the bathroom, and from fresh toothmarks on appliances cords. Duct tape only seems to attract her attention to them; it really is one of her favourite desserts, second only to a pair of old leather boots she devoured on one of her walkabouts. (There goes the herbivore myth.) The most touching aspect of these prison breaks is that she's always back in her run in time for our return. It's as if she knows that we expect her to be there and does not wish to defy us too openly while still having her fun. Once I caught her nosing around just outside the wall, and she hurried to get back, exquisitely aware that she was in the wrong. With no traction on the laminate, she simply hopped up to the wall and did a vertical takeoff. I had trouble believing my eyes until I recalled that her short muscular legs are practically spring-loaded. We've ordered a foldable fence to replace the makeshift wall, but other than closing the rooms' doors to keep her from eating electronics, we're not terribly upset about these forays. An animal this smart deserves its moments of secret naughtiness.

     I'm aware I've been calling her "rabbit" without giving her name. "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names," wrote Confucius, and while I don't pretend to be wise in this matter, I'd like to at least avoid utter silliness. I just can't think of a name for her that's not stupid, either too tame or too pompous. Officially she is Tilly, but hardly ever call her that. She's addressed as bun-bun, or by the affectionate Russian word for "hare," zaika, a word with a zing of mischief.

     Getting her accustomed to the outdoors has been a true eye-opener. Rather, she did not need to get accustomed but only reminded of what she already knew. From her behaviour I'm guessing that she grew up in a semi-feral state and learned to forage for what grows in the wild. On her hopabouts she ignores her favourite house food (timothy hay, carrots, lettuce) and goes for the seemingly blah mosses, ferns, and old dead leaves. That was when I realized that there are two natures inside her: a house pet with an array of favourite foods and a capacity for affectionate attention, and a wild animal who sees me as a threat to her freedom. She moves from one state to the other by degrees---spending more and more time under the bushes, running faster and faster along her circle routes---but once the transition is complete, it can be alarming to watch. On several occasions I found myself chasing a wererabbit, a creature frantic to get away and hide. I'm not sure how much of it is mischief and play on her part, and how much---a genuine longing to return to the wild and to be left alone. The very reason I chased her was because she'd found the resourcefulness to free herself. She doesn't mind wearing a harness and can run like a demon in it, but as soon as she realized that the nylon string attached to it was being used to gain control of her when it was time to go home, she learned to bite through the string. In fact, she showed me just how she did this by cutting through a freshly-attached string while I watched. The gesture was so contemptuous and yet so honest that it left me floored. She simply couldn't be bothered to wait, or to do it on the sly. With this new development we've decided to take a break from the outdoors until we find string she can't bite through (halibut line?) or until we get a fence set up on our recreational acreage. Even then I'll have to watch her like a hawk to make sure an eagle doesn't scoop her up. This is not conducive to writing the Great Canadian Novel, but I might manage a series of lesser Canadian short stories during my breaks.

     Our journey together has only begun, and already a few stereotypes have taken a tumble. There is nothing timid or indecisive about this animal. While there are no rabbits in Russian folklore, their close cousin the hare is fabled for cowardice. If that's not an example of old folk wisdom pulled out of the derriere, I don't know what is. Monty Python were far closer to the truth with their own exaggeration: there isn't a cowardly bone in a hare's or rabbit's body. They crouch, they go into hiding when they sense danger, they press their ears close to their head, and they sniff and watch and wait. This is not cowardice, not even shyness, and certainly not indecision. It's the extreme caution of a prey species that has to be smarter than the predator who wants to eat it. 

     Yet for all that, rabbits are vulnerable as hell. They are probably the only pet who is also an accepted food species, a duality that leaves them open to carelessness and disregard on the part of people. My husband grew up with rabbits kept as meat animals (the "poor man's pig"), and while his duty was to feed and shepherd them and clean their cages, he was implicitly discouraged from developing emotional attachments. I see a look of happy disbelief on his face when he plays with our rabbit, an animal not meant to be eaten but only to be loved. Rabbits are the most likely pet to get abandoned and simply turned out to fend for themselves, and probably the least likely to be adopted from a shelter. Much like parrots, they turn out to be far more intelligent and demanding than the unprepared person counts on, and their tantrums and misery come as a shock to those who expect a cute innocent wittle bunny. They are capable of growling, of slamming people with their hands and pounding the floor with their feet, and of ripping things to shreds. They apologize for nothing, and they look longingly at no one. Why doesn't Disney teach kids about any of this? 


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