We don’t seem to expect perfection in humans, but for some reason, we expect it instantly in animals. The paradox is that when you expect less in a rabbit you actually get more. This may be because you shift the responsibility for being perfect from the rabbit to yourself or to the situation that you have created. The trick is to stop looking for a perfect animal and start working on a perfect relationship. Try meeting animosity with benevolence.
When our foster rabbit Bandit came lunging and growling to bite our ankles, we said, “Oh, you came to be petted!” as we gently stroked his ears. Bandit lunged every time we walked into his room, only to find himself being petted or rubbing noses with a human. Bandit’s lunges are now exuberant greetings. He still runs toward us, doing a silly dance on the way. The assertive rabbit may always need to assert. But when the urge to attack is combined with fondness for the attacked, a unique thing happens. The bite attack is replaced by an “affection attack,” which is just as gratifying for you as having a dog meet you at the door. When this happens, you will feel that you have achieved a perfect relationship. You will have forgotten that you ever wanted anything else but an aggressive rabbit.
Everyone knows what a setback feels like. You’ve finally gotten an animal to trust you, when something disrupts your relationship. The rabbit escapes, and you have to grab her. She hates to be held, and you have to medicate her. For most rabbits these events are taken in stride, but for a tense, formerly neglected rabbit they may seem disastrous. The rabbit reverts to trembling when you pick her up. She runs when you approach her.
I was taught that building a relationship with and animal requires consistency, patience and logic. Working with foster rabbits teaches what I forget to expect: the possibility of a breakthrough; that moment of a behavior change that has been worked towards but seems to occur spontaneously. I pick up the trembling rabbit each day pet her, set her down in her run. Nothing changes–that’s how she is. Or is she?
One day I lie down in her run and fall asleep. When I wake up, she’s lying beside me. She doesn’t tremble again. I can’t always be consistent in the way I treat my rabbits. I have palience, but not a lot of time. But it’s wrong to assume that the rabbits won’t improve. Teaching follows its own logic. All it takes is a breakthrough to turn a setback around.