HERE HE SAT, a small black bunny, dark eyes bulging in terror, at the noisy intake desk of the SPCA. My heart went out to him, of course, but also to the newborn human whose arrival in the world had been marked by action of such unnecessary callousness and ignorance–an inauspicious beginning on a world so in need of compassion. And I’ll bet the nursery wallpaper has cute little bunnies on it.
At the shelter, I saw what had probably caused his eviction from the only family he’d known. When I reached into his cage, he got up on his back legs and boxed at my invading arm. It was such a small, timid, ineffectual “attack,” barely making contact, yet this normal, natural, even necessary bit of bunny behavior had deprived him of his home and might even have cost him his life.
We brought Thumper to our sanctuary, and re-named him Cookie. During the early days, before he was neutered, he spent most of his time (at least when humans were present) in a hiding tunnel or in his hay-filled litterbox. Your basic fearful, bug-eyed dwarf rabbit, I thought–then berated myself for this absurd breed generalization. I’ve known dozens of confident, mellow dwarf-size bunnies. Like astrology, this sort of stereotyping is dangerously seductive. Life would be so much easier (and a lot less interesting) if the world and its creatures really fit into these pre-packaged forms.
Recovered from his surgery, quarantine period over, Cookie emerged from his cage to encounter his new world. Now that he was beginning to feel at home, unthreatened and hormone-free, there were no more displays of defensive behavior. He remained in hyper-alert mode, easily startled (I imagine that’s how he got his original name). Such reactions were not surprising, considering the disruptions he’d been through, especially at his age. Well cared-for house rabbits can live 10-12 years and more, but 5 is definitely not young. Abandonment, the stress of the shelter environment, relocation, surgery, new humans, new routines–how many of us would survive such drastic upsets intact?
As the weeks went by, I watched him explore the cardboard boxes and haytrays in his immediate environment. He ventured farther from his home base, visiting with the guinea pigs in a nearby area. He was not a confident bunny, but neither was he unusually fearful. At about this time, a beautiful gray girl-bun was left in a tiny, filthy cage on the front steps of the shelter. Luckily for her (and for us, and especially for Cookie), she survived a night in this frightening and precarious situation. Like Cookie, she was “aggressive,” that is, terrified by humans and striking with claws and teeth when cornered. Like Cookie, once stress and hormones were removed, she stopped all aggressive behavior.
The introduction of Roo to Cookie went smoothly, and within a week they were sharing a living space. Most afternoons were spent on opposite sides of their room. I had yet to see them groom each other, but had often observed simultaneous (or, more accurately, contagious) grooming. Cookie would begin morning ablutions while basking in a pool of sunlight. Within minutes Roo, across the room and not even looking in his direction, would comb her long silky ears. Though apparently younger than Cookie, Roo’s was a placid nature. Neither seemed in a hurry to deepen the bond. Slowly they moved closer to each other, and showed more relaxed body language. The compact “breadloaf” position elongated into legs stretched to the side, then fully kicked back. Roo added front legs stretched forward, sometimes becoming so zoned out that she flipped over almost on her back.
One evening I was sitting on the floor in Cookie’s area, watching the guinea pigs go about their busy business. I noticed that Cookie was sitting in front of me, about 2 feet away. His back was to me, but I knew that with his small head and large eyes positioned to maximize peripheral vision, he could see me clearly. I was sure he hadn’t been there when I sat down, which meant that he had come over and chosen that spot. He was checking me out! Up to this point, he had shown no interest in me, nor had I expected him to. I was glad that he’d progressed to the point that he didn’t run away when I came near him in the course of doing chores. There was no need to socialize him, or to ask of him anything but the weekly routine physical exam to which we subject all the creatures in our care. I hadn’t asked or even allowed myself to hope for his friendship. I knew that in Roo, his need for closeness was being met.
A few days later, Cookie again placed himself just in front of me. I realized that in fact, he had been sitting not-too-close but not-very-far from me for quite a while. I wasn’t looking for such behavior, so I hadn’t noticed it. Breed-generalizations are not the only obstacles to clarity. Cookie had been quietly encouraging me to pay more attention to him, and at last I heard him. It’s one thing for a rambunctious youngster to shove her nose under your hand while honking and grunting. Such unmistakable messages are hard to miss (and impossible to resist). It’s quite another to be approached by one whose history and early behavior predict at best a gradual lessening of unease.
I decided to respond to what I was now almost certain was an invitation for a close encounter. I reached forward to pet him, still half-expecting him to bolt. He didn’t. He sat quietly as, for the first time, I stroked his silky black coat. His ears went down, then his eyelids. In a few minutes he went totally REM, twitching and blinking and listing so far to starboard that he woke up as he righted himself. Surely now he would hop away. Which he did. Three days later, he took up his just-ahead-of-me post, right at my feet. Before I’d even begun to pet him, his body had relaxed into pre-Nirvana mode.
A similar gradual advance proceeded in the friendship between Cookie and Roo. With many pairs, once the introduction process is complete, the progress to inseparability is rapid, the switch from apparent hostility to endless love dramatic. With Cookie and Roo, I marveled at the gradations, watching as the foundation of their bond was laid. Time-lapse photography would have shown the subtle unfolding of this lovely relationship, two creatures moving closer physically over the weeks and months. Side by side gradually became leaning side by side. Then the angle of the lean increased, each degree visible as a flow chart. Complementing the physical closeness is the grooming curve, complete with the nose-nudging contests often mistaken by humans for submissive behavior. In fact, the rabbit with nose on the ground is the winner. This makes sense when you realize that the prize is to be She Who Is Groomed, not she who grooms.
Quiet, gentle little Cookie has flourished here, giving and receiving love from several admirers. He’s a joy to be with, and I’m grateful to have him under our roof. And yet when I think that minor surgery and a little patience might have allowed him to stay with his previous family I’m reminded, again, that education saves even more lives than rescue does.
House Rabbit Journal Summer 2002: Volume IV, Number 7