Where Are You Sugar Magnolia? I’m lost, lethargic, tired of grooming myself and the couch. You will be tender and submissive. I will enjoy having you groom me, will take the parsley out of your mouth if I finish first. Respond to the local HRS.
Our chapter has not yet started a personals column for single rabbits, but we do operate an active “dating” service. When a rabbit is brought to us for a companion, we have her meet several eligibles from our foster home or the shelter; these encounters we call dates. Five or six dates gives the visitor a good chance of finding a partner. We do this dating because we believe that rabbits have strong preferences in their sweethearts.
Only You, and You Alone
We recently dissolved a group of eight rabbits because of fighting. These bunnies had an out-building on a Wisconsin farmette; and we turned the space into apartments, intending to reorganize the rabbits into couples. Out of the eight, only two were obviously in love. So happy were they to see each other again–we had separated everyone for a week to try every possible combination of two–that they ran ecstatic circles around each other and executed spirited flops. This incident and five years of matchmaking have told us that the rabbit who meets other rabbits often has varied responses. This is more apparent the more one studies the vocabulary of rabbit dating (still very mysterious). For example, a rabbit may look indifferent but be only shy, fearful, or clueless about what to do. His date may respond by thumping and jumping over him, shoving her nose under his belly, grooming herself in a relaxed manner very close by, exaggerating her fear when he makes a move, or biting him to start a chase. These gestures may look like aggression or indifference but are actually expressions of interest. Dating gestures mean opposite things, and this is why an HRS fosterer is helpful. Mounting can mean “it is important to me to appear to be the rabbit in control” or it can be an invitation to chase, mount, and be the boss.
A rabbit may need many more dates than five to choose a partner and much more time in between. This is because many rabbits do not speak rabbit. Often they have no idea what the behavior of another rabbit means, or what signals they should send or how to send them, or indeed whether they want to send any at all. They work this out during the dating process.
Shadow had seven dates in a four month period and attacked them all. On the ninth she started waiting and watching. On the eleventh she met Murphy. Maybe he was the right guy and all the others weren’t; more probably she had learned something from her previous dates. In any case she finally had one sort of “good date”: she ran, he chased; she turned to be groomed, he mounted. We were astonished at the change, but it reinforced our opinion that rabbits learn by dating. This makes us more relaxed about matchmaking and more apt to apply time and choice than stress techniques.
You’ve Got That Magic Touch
Once a rabbit has identified a promising eligible, we send her and the candidate home with the human to follow the HRS guidelines for matchmaking. This includes side-by-side cages, dates in neutral territory, and then dates in her space. The majority of humans are true partners in this project, being inspired by their rabbit’s attraction to a particular individual and fascinated by the couple’s progress. We urge the human not to hurry love, for even though Sophie has chosen Britches over Shirtails, she can be quite put off by his style of lovemaking until she gets used to it or sends a message to modify his act. Britches may dig deep down into her ears or chew off her whiskers to demonstrate his love, but to Sophie this feels weird and aggressive. Squabbles may ensue because the rabbits are working out who does what to whom as well as who owns what and how.
How Deep is Your Love?
And that’s the point really: humans may help, but rabbits work out their own relationships and continue to do so. “Good couples,” those who do not fight and who cuddle, may still have their issues. My Martha and Thermal look the blissful couple 60% of the time. But Martha doesn’t like being nipped by Thermal when they wait for treats. She would like to be groomed by him instead of having to stick her nose under the water spout while he’s drinking to try to get a few licks. She flirts with the bachelor next door by sitting pressed against the pen at the point of closest contact, or at least she did until he was adopted. My Pajamas and Zeta have a good relationship only because they have enough space to allow Zeta to run when Pajamas tries to mount, which she detests. None of this is to say that even these rabbits would be better off alone, never mind the majority who are in conflict-free relationships. We humans divorce 50% of the time, but we keep going back to relationships because we need them. How much more do rabbits need them, since they do not have other rabbit friends.
I’m Gonna Make You Love Me
Do rabbits who make their own matches do better? I don’t think so. Both free-choice and arranged marriages require adjustment and negotiation. And rabbits who get to date still make questionable choices. For example, Billy. Billy had several dates; the girls all liked him fine, and he very much liked them. But being an old three years–life in a hutch had left him weak and soft and heavy–Billy did not have the energy to chase and mount, despite alluring invitations. Enter Pym. Billy fell hard for Pym because she did not bother to run when he mounted her. “O.K. fine” was her attitude. “No problem.”
Billy loves Pym beyond measure. If she sits two feet away, he chatters contentedly as though she were pressed against his body. Billy does all of the grooming. If he timidly pushes his nose in Pym’s direction, hoping for a slip of the tongue, a mistaken swipe, she perkily prances three feet away. “I don’t have time,” she communicates. Billy pays a price for his choice, but who would separate these two and dare tell Billy he is not happy?
In our chapter we do free-choice matchmaking not because it leads to better matches but because it seems gentler and easier on everyone. Also it is our way of showing respect to our rabbits, acknowledging that they too have feelings. Besides, why should humans be the only love fools?
Julie Smith, PhD
House Rabbit Journal Spring 1997: Volume III, Number 9