Pet rabbits fall into the category of “it seemed like a good idea at the time”. I was reminded of that this week because I’m in charge of taking care of my friend’s rabbit while her family is on vacation. She said I would probably only have to stop in one time during the week, on Wednesday, but on Tuesday I was worried because it had been hot, and what if their air conditioner stopped working? So my kids and I stopped by the house and went to check on the furry little bunny.
I had pet rabbits as a kid, but people who have pet bunnies these days have the more exotic, angora kind, not the run-of-the-mill rabbit I was used to. This bunny had a multi-colored coat that looked soft and cuddly, but every time we reached for him he freaked out and shot around the cage, sending his bedding and food bowl flying. When we first saw his cage, his placemat had been pulled out and looped over top of his food bowls. I wonder how long he’d had to duck his head under the placemat for the hopes of a meal. He had also kicked the “natural” bedding, which looked like ripped up insulation, so that it was covering all the food in his bowl.
I don’t know why I thought my neighbor’s bunny would be a cuddly bundle of joy, as I have never had good luck around rabbits. One of my early childhood memories involves a boy who lived across the street from my grandparents. There were lots of wild rabbits around their house, and one night this boy managed to capture one of the rabbits. As a harbinger of his future life as a serial killer, he then set the rabbit on fire. I didn’t see it happen, but the story became legend for two whole blocks of Monroe Street. If I remember correctly, the fire somehow went out and the rabbit was instead picked off by a waiting owl. (I saw a red-tailed hawk pick apart a rabbit in my yard just a few years ago. It is not pretty.)
Nearly thirty years after the “rabbit-on-fire” incident, I sat down at my computer one day to see I had a Facebook friend request from someone with a name I vaguely remembered. I clicked over to my email to send my sister a note and ask if this was the same bunny torturer from our youth, only to find an email waiting for me. My sister had written, “I got a friend request today from ____ ______. Do you remember when he set that rabbit on fire?” I friended him and scanned his info. He didn’t appear to have become a serial killer after all. He is in a band, though. Maybe he was just emulating Ozzy back in the day.
An even older memory I have also involves rabbits. One night I was at the golf course with my sister and parents. It was late on a summer night and getting dark out. My father had been on the course, picking up the flags after men’s day, and when he came back in he was very excited.
“Get in the golf cart, girls, I have something to show you.”
My father is not an excitable man. He is stoic. He is quiet. He does not draw attention to himself. So the little bit of energy bursting from him that wanted to show his girls something cool he had discovered drew the attention of other people who were in the club house.
I got in a golf cart with my parents and sister and a couple other members got in their carts and we all drove off across the manicured grass as the sky grew ever darker. My father led the way, crossing empty fairways and weaving around trees, finally taking us to a far corner of the course where the holes bordered a sheep pasture that led to forest and a high hill behind it. The hole he was aiming for was a par 3 in which the men’s and women’s tees are all cut into the side of a big hill, with the wild sheep pasture on one side and a thick clump of forest on the other. The loud putter of our engines slowed as my father tried to creep up on whatever it was he had seen that he wanted to share with us.
It was fairly dark by this point and my eyes strained to see. I remember one person having a flashlight and swinging it around the grass on the hillside between the two tees.
“The baby rabbits would be right there,” my father called out to the person with the flashlight, pointing at a dark form in the grass. “They had to have just been born when I passed them an hour ago.”
The flashlight caught the form in the grass, but I didn’t see any baby rabbits, or the mother rabbit, for that matter. All I saw was a big snake with a series of lumps in his body. Darkness pressed in all around and I couldn’t see the faces that cried out in disgust and horror. We climbed back in the carts and the loud rumble of the engine whisked us away from the carnage.
Despite my early bad associations with rabbits, somehow my parents thought it would be a good idea to keep them as pets. We had a hutch that my grandpa had made out of wood and chicken wire. Two-thirds of the cage was open to the air and there was a latch on top where you could lift the rabbits out, and the other third was enclosed so the rabbits had a place to hide when thunderstorms came. Or at least that’s what I imagined they did.
My sister and I took our rabbits out of the cage about every day. We would let them hop around the lawn and they would never go so far that we couldn’t catch them. Lots of times we brought them in the house, too, and let them roam around freely while we played in the basement with our Barbies. We would just have to pick up their trail of droppings after we put them back in their cage.
One time I was playing in the downstairs bedroom where I had a smaller doll-sized bottle that had been filled with some kind of liquid – maybe milk or juice or water, I can’t remember anymore – and it was positioned next to the open door. I heard a noise and turned around to see a nose sticking out from under the door and the mouth pulling at the bottle. I started to laugh and called to my sister, “Come over here! One of the bunnies is being so cute!” I assumed one of the rabbits was behind the door and had smelled the liquid and was giving himself a little treat. Then I looked into the living room to see my sister with the two rabbits hopping around her and looked back to the door. The creature was still there. Realizing that the door was almost completely open and there wasn’t much room for any animal on the other side, I slowly creaked the door away from the wall and sent the critter scrambling for cover. A vole had gotten into the house and was helping itself to my doll’s bottle!
The lesson I learned from this is that cats make better pets because they will take care of unwanted critters for you. Rabbits could care less.
We went through a number of rabbits each year. We didn’t keep them in the winter, but when spring came we would get our first rabbits about the same time as we got our Easter baskets. At first my sister and I would pick the prettiest rabbits that were available, black or grey or mottled, but after a while I started picking only white rabbits with red eyes. And I quit giving them different names, like Tinkerbell and Fluffy. They all became Whitey.
We got our rabbits from a man who lived a few blocks from us. He had multiple rabbit cages in his backyard and he would let us know when babies were available so we could come pick them out. We didn’t have to pay him for the rabbits, because we would give them back after a few months once they got big … and fat. I asked my mom once what he did with the rabbits after we gave them back. To her credit, she did not sugarcoat it. “He eats them.”
This is why they all eventually just became Whitey. I didn’t really understand what I was doing at the time, but I can see now it was my coping mechanism to believe that my pets were really all just the same animal, or maybe Whitey reincarnated again and again.
I had friends who also got pet rabbits from this man. Their mother told them that when they gave the rabbits back, he released them into the forest. I don’t think I would have believed this lie had my mother tried to pass it off on me. I’d rather know the truth, even if it hurts, than to live in a world fabricated for my protection.
Me and Whitey.
Note the extinct features in the background. They are called a "clothesline" and "gas tank"
(also known as the silver horsey).
Whitey was small enough to fit in my Easter basket when we first got him.
He would be much plumper when I said good-bye to him.
My sister's rabbit, and her rad sock.