Willingly Useful

It seemed a beautiful line in the movie “City of Joy,” spoken by an Indian woman after assisting an American doctor with a childbirth, “Thank you for allowing me to be of use.” Many touching scenes from stories, present and past, involve self-sacrificing people trying to be useful.So, when is “being used” a privilege, and when is it exploitation?

The determiner is choice. Forced servitude is certainly not the same as choosing to be of service. If a person chooses to be useful for altruistic reasons, it is not exploitation. An animal may choose to participate in an activity that benefits humans or other animals, and if the benefits are mutual, it is not exploitation.

My rabbits kick up their heels and dance about in their play yards. This entertains me. It is their choice to do so. I am not putting rabbits on a stage and saying, “entertain me,” but they are willingly selecting an activity that is amusing to onlookers and fun for themselves.

Assorted preferences

Personalities vary as much in rabbits as they do in people. We know of the adventurers, the cuddlers, the mischief-makers, the daredevils, the show-offs, and the simple ambiance-givers, to name a few. Each these rabbit dispositions can be gratifying to humans, and all it requires to keep from exploiting them is to let the rabbit do the choosing. If your rabbit enjoys being held on your lap, then hold him. I have one rabbit, among my present forty, who comes into bed with us every morning while we have our coffee. This is a very pleasant ritual for my husband and myself, and Lillian’s vibrating whiskers tell us that she’s purring. For most of our other rabbits, however, it would be torment to be taken under the blankets in a human bed.

If you provide your rabbit with an environment where there are choices-quiet resting areas, loud and active areas, old people, young people, high places, low places, windows and dark corners-you will get an idea what your rabbit’s preferences are. Where does she go to play? to rest? to explore?

If you have one who thrives with lots of people and lots of handling, then she would probably not be opposed to making public appearances. If your bunny hangs out in quiet corners or under the bed most of the time, she probably would not delight in visiting a classroom. If your bunny is adventurous and inquisitive and constantly pushes her physical boundaries, then she may indeed enjoy new adventures with you in the car. My rabbit Phoebe used to stand on her hind legs in the back of our wagon and look out the rear window. Yet, my other rabbits crouch in apprehension.

Exceptions not the norm

Of approximately 200 rabbits that I’ve fostered in the past five years, most have learned to enjoy human companionship in varying degrees. Twenty-two have become real “people rabbits.” Of those rabbits, fifteen would qualify as cuddly, lap-type bunnies; and thirteen, as adventurers who welcome new activities, such as traveling. Six are both lap bunnies and adventurers (a rare combination).

These personal statistics suggest to me that only about 10% of the domestic rabbit population would be suitable for public human events, traveling, or noisy homes full of kids. By “suitable” I mean that, from the rabbit’s point of view, there is pleasure in these situations and that they choose them for themselves.

My son, Bill, and daughter-in-law, Amy, do not expect their rabbit to be a forced recipient of “affection” from their three little boys. Yet, Vic spends his day following the youngsters up and down the stairs, stealing cookies and toys, leaping over trains, planes and batmobiles, and playing “catch me if you can.” Within the 10% “people-rabbit” category, Vic is a nosy adventurer but not a lap bunny.

I was not pre-sold on the idea of David Love’s travel book, reviewed in this issue, because I couldn’t imagine a rabbit enjoying such an intensive schedule of people and places and public attention-until I met the 8-year-old Buns in person. When she arrived at our front door, she was snoozing on her back in Dave’s arms. Buns is an extraordinary rabbit, in a 3% minority that enjoys going to new places, meeting new people, and sitting on a variety of laps. It would be an unfair projection of the exceptional, if we expected all rabbits to behave in a similar manner.

Meeting additional needs

If you have an outgoing child who likes to perform, you look for a theater group where he can express himself . An artistic child might be enrolled in a painting or a ceramic class. Parents try to find activities for their children that satisfy their needs. Because animals, too, have varying personalities, their needs have to be assessed individually. Most rabbits are quite content to stay at home with one or two human companions, an animal friend, and a variety of toys and places to play. A small percentage might welcome additional human socializing.

To find out if your rabbit has additional needs, observe his reactions to social situations. When strangers pet him, does he crouch with bulging eyes and rapid breathing? Or does he flatten out and “purr”? If he is stressed by strangers you needn’t insist that he make new acquaintances. You wouldn’t normally thrust your cat upon anybody who walks through the door.

At party time, does bunny hide away from, or enter into, the bedlam of festivities? If he is stressed by the extra noise, then a quiet retreat should be available for such occasions. Although we are painfully aware of those human practices that inflict injury or death to rabbits, and we do not intentionally exploit our own animals, we might overlook situations that get too one-sided. If your kids are hovering over a crouched bunny and you’re not so sure he is enjoying the attention, see to it that bunny has choices (plenty of escape routes).

Also ask yourself the question, Does the rabbit avoid, tolerate, or actively seek the company of children? This will give you some idea of how mutually pleasurable the child-rabbit relationship really is and how much work is necessary to make it two-way enjoyment.

As we become more concerned that our animals are treated fairly, an easy rule is to respect their choices. Intervention is necessary only when the rabbit chooses physical danger, such as running loose in the yard at night or chomping on electrical cords. But to insure that your cherished companion is engaged in willing usefulness rather than being used-as playthings for kids, for educational programs, in animal-assisted therapy, as traveling companions, at fairs, in exhibitions, for any social or commercial event-let choice by the animal always be the guide.

Marinell Harriman

House Rabbit Journal Volume II, Number 11