Mending a Broken Bunny Bond

I met Suzanne, a graduate student in psychology, when she asked me to help her find a friend for her rabbit Toby. Toby visited my home and was paired with my foster rabbit Maddy. In spite of our best efforts, it was almost two years before Toby and Maddy formed the friendship envisioned for them by their human matchmakers. To succeed, their “marriage,” like many real life relationships, required time, maturity, and the working out of differences.

Toby’s Background

August 1991. Bred to be a laboratory rabbit, Toby is judged unsuitable for this purpose. He comes home in Suzanne’s pocket, four weeks old, barely weaned, and suffering from an abscess. Suzanne hand feeds him. He thrives.

December 1991. Toby the adolescent is described by Suzanne as “intelligent and strong-willed.” She remembers, “He learned to de-rabbit-proof my electric cords by extracting them from their plastic tubing.” Taking Toby to the veterinarian to be neutered, Suzanne meets a volunteer in the waiting room and hears about the HRS rescue and placement program.

Maddy’s background

February 1992. A backyard rabbit breeding project has gone out of control, and the colony is endangered by heavy rains. Maddy, about one year old, is rescued with the others and enters the HRS foster care system. A chocolate bunny with a round face, she is spayed and put up for adoption.

Toby Meets His Own Species

December 1992. Toby spends the weekend at my foster home. A bold 1 year old, he seems unintimidated by strange surroundings. His white fur sticks out in all directions, completing the portrait of a ruffian. He boxes every rabbit he meets. When I comb out his untidy fur, he boxes me too. We decide to continue the matchmaking another time. During the ride home, Toby jumps into Suzanne’s lap as if seeking comfort. Some of his aggression, it seems, is bravado.

January 1993. Toby returns for another matchmaking session. Over the holidays he has had surgery to remove an intestinal obstruction, a mass which included an ingested rubber band and flyaway fur. Although skinny, he’s as feisty as ever. As before, he uses his front paws to repel the approach of any rabbit.

Maddy Falls in Love…

Only one rabbit seems unaffected by his attitude. Maddy makes up her mind, mounts Toby and grabs him in a big bear hug. Toby seems too surprised to resist. I give the two my blessing and send them home with Suzanne.

…but Toby Doesn’t

January-April 1993. Maddy’s repeated displays of affection are rejected by Toby until Maddy is irritated and begins to fight back. Unless supervised, the two must be caged so they don’t hurt each other. Suzanne uses car rides, unfamiliar places, and a spray water bottle to inhibit them.

Suzanne calls and we speculate why the two are having a hard time. We guess that Toby, weaned early, may have trouble relating to other rabbits. Maddy, although physically neglected, lived in a rabbit family group. Perhaps this gives her a better sense of rabbit etiquette.

In Sickness and in Health

April 1993. Toby’s inquisitive nature gets him in trouble again. An abscess on his neck leads his veterinarian to discover a swallowed needle. Suzanne and I wonder how long the needle has been there, and if it contributed to Toby’s aggression.

November 1993. Maddy manifests a head tilt and is rushed to an emergency vet. She recovers fully after being hospitalized and medicated intravenously for several days. In between the distractions of illness in both rabbits and Suzanne’s own wedding, she continues to work with them. She describes the routine: “We settled into a pattern in which Maddy and Toby would have back-to-back overlapping running time.” First Toby has some time out of his cage, then Maddy is let out to join him. When a fight breaks out, Toby is returned to his cage. If a serious fight occurs, the rabbits are separated for several weeks. She switches cages, so they get used to each other’s smell. Once they stop teasing each other through the wire, she puts their cages side by side.

Patience rewarded

Over the next year, Suzanne is rewarded by increasingly frequent signs of mutual affection. The rabbits are hugging, grooming, and hanging out together. They share the same space in Suzanne’s house.

Suzanne gives Maddy credit for the eventual success of the match. “Toby grew up, and Maddy worked hard,” she sums up the process. I give Suzanne credit for great patience, understanding, and fondness for both rabbits.

New Year’s Day, 1995

Suzanne arrives with Toby and Maddy for a photo session. Suzanne and I chat while the bunnies wait in the carrier. We are interrupted by a bang. “That must be Toby stamping,” I say, smiling. “Well, it could be Maddy,” Suzanne says, “Toby has influenced her.” She reflects on their personalities. “Sometimes I wonder who is dominant. Toby is the first to act. But it’s Maddy who’s actually braver.” The rabbits demonstrate her assessment. Toby, bolstered by some grooming from Maddy, is first out of the carrier. He looks fatter and more robust than he did two years ago. Maddy, also looking well, comes out next. She goes exploring while Toby returns to the carrier. “They tend to separate when they’re out and around,” Suzanne tells me. “But when they’re resting, they snuggle together. Sometimes Maddy sleeps on top of Toby.”

I ask Suzanne why she persisted in getting them together. Why not give up after a few fights? “Well, I knew it was best for them. I knew that being in school and working, I wouldn’t be able to give them all the attention they needed. And I saw from the times they did get along, what was possible.”

Holly O’Meara and Suzanne Mallery

House Rabbit Journal Volume III, Number 4, Winter 1995