Comfort in a Crisis

In many ways I felt unprepared to be a volunteer for House Rabbit Society. For one thing, I was squeamish. I remember visiting Marinell Harriman for the first time in Alameda, CA, in 1988. I had discovered a population of needy rabbits in Los Angeles, little knowing how involved I would become.”While you’re here, let me show you how to lance an abscess,” Marinell said cheerfully. She had a foster rabbit who needed wound care in between visits to the veterinarian. She’s got to be kidding, I remember thinking, I don’t even want to watch, let alone do it myself. And: What is she saying–this is part of the job? I left hurriedly to catch my plane, and was spared the experience–for the moment.

Back in L.A., a young white rabbit begged for treats from passersby along a fenced-in dumping ground for unwanted animals. I took Malcolm home, noticing how thin he was despite a ravenous appetite. I found oozing white goop in his fur. Panicking, I phoned my veterinary office. “That’s pus,” said the assistant on the phone, matter-of-factly. “You’ll need to bring him in.” Pus? Did she say pus? My ignorance overwhelmed me.

My unreadiness for my role as rabbit rehabilitator included a bigger squeamishness about the world itself that included places such as hospitals. Places where not knowing the rules could have scary consequences. The scariest consequence of all: that someone I cared for might die.

When these fears are big enough, they may prevent us from seeking help. Just as animals can be “vet-shy,” so can their humans. Thinking back to my novice bunny caretaking days, I ask myself what gave me courage. I asked HRJ readers to help me out. What comforted them in times of bunny crisis? This article is about the small gestures of kindness that overcame our fears.

Kay and Eric Nelson praise their veterinarian, Corey Thompson of Vacaville, CA. Along with other compassionate practices, he begins each visit by getting out a clean towel so their bun won’t have to sit on the cold metal exam table. Their bunny, and they, feel safe and cared for. As Nancy LaRoche of the Colorado HRS explains, “If the [veterinary technicians] immediately bring a towel to put on the slippery exam table, take a moment to stroke the rabbit, or otherwise acknowledge him/her, speak to me with some sympathy for the rabbit, I feel that, if the rabbit has to be hospitalized, s/he’ll be in caring hands.”

Such gestures matter to us. My first rabbit veterinarian worked in a large hospital with separate waiting areas for cats and dogs. Already worried about Bromley bunny’s delicate health-she wasn’t eating-at least I didn’t have to look out for dogs pushing up to her carrier. Amy Spintman of the San Diego HRS has similar thoughts. If a non-canine wait area is not possible, she suggests a sign asking dog guardians to respect the space of smaller animals in carriers.

Waiting with a sick rabbit can build apprehension. Waiting without your rabbit while s/he is taken to another part of the hospital to be evaluated, treated, or given surgery can magnify your fear. And yet, sometimes this prompt response lets you know your rabbit is getting life-saving care. At her hospital, Marinell observes: “When you go in with a really sick bunny, you don’t have to wait for your scheduled appointment time. The bunny will be taken to the back for a stability check-in case they need to start oxygen or IV’s.” Consolation while waiting can be found in the environment as well. I remember reading with tears in my eyes, the thank-you cards and photos pinned to a veterinarian’s bulletin board. If those animals got better, so could my bunny.

Phone calls at the end of a nervous wait can increase or reduce our fear. Tracy Joe Lash and her family write, “We were in Hawaii for 10 days when we got a call saying our bun had been rushed to the veterinarian. After hours of waiting to hear what was going on, our veterinarian called and first off said ‘everything’s fine’-then proceeded to explain the situation. It made a huge difference that our doctor reassured us with ‘everything’s fine’ first.”

Empathy over the phone is also important to Celina Andrade, who had a frightening experience at the veterinarian’s on New Year’s. Her rabbit Baxter almost died from an obstructed cecum. Her veterinarian later phoned her at home to check on Baxter. Celina says, “It sounded as if she really cared about Baxter.”

CiCi Caladah describes how her veterinarian returns her phone calls personally and speaks with her directly. She recalls many positive experiences at Monterey Avian and Exotic Clinic in CA. On a 4th of July weekend, I called them in a panic. The Hollister Motorcycle rally had begun, and my bunnies were terrified of the noise. I was desperate to get them away from it. I had just moved to downtown San Juan and didn’t know about the rally. The clinic was full of boarders, but accommodated us anyway.

CiCi is comforted by seeing her clinic selling products specific to rabbits: pellets, willow balls, toys, and apple tree twigs. She appreciates the veterinary staff calling her bunnies by name. She notes that the receptionists will “babysit my bunnies while I use the bathroom or run to the car to get my purse.” She writes “My vet clinic staff are compassionate, patient, and… praise me for my vigilance towards my bunnies, instead of judging me for being needy or thinking I am demanding.”

As wonderful as it is to be assisted by veterinary staff, another source of fortitude is suggested by Chris Asimos. She reduces her anxiety in a bunny health crisis by talking to another rabbit guardian. As a volunteer for HRS, she knows others who understand what it’s like to be emotionally involved with a bunny. Many of us join HRS and volunteer for just this reason. As I read these responses to my question, I notice the gestures that comfort us often respect the special needs of rabbits and support our desire to do the best we can for them-which we do, as I did, when I gave up my squeamishness out of love for Malcolm almost 20 years ago.

By Holly O’Meara

House Rabbit Journal Summer/Fall 2007: Volume V, Number 2