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And the Love Goes On
A new friend often provides recovery and grief support
By Joy Gioia
Introduction by Holly O'Meara

From House Rabbit Journal Vol. 4, Nr. 7 - Summer 2002

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  • The Right Stuff for a Bereaved Bunny
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  • When the bond between a loving pair of bunnies is broken by the death of one, their grieving human caretaker must think what's best to do for the surviving rabbit.
    HRS volunteers who foster multiple rabbits face this problem as one of their responsibilities. We would like to share the experience of some of our volunteers with you. The first step is to assume the surviving rabbit is grieving, even though this grief may be expressed differently by different rabbits. Michelle Wilhelms, HRS Chapter Manager in San Diego, notes that rabbits respond to loss individually. "I have noticed some rabbits after the loss of a companion, look for the other rabbit for a period of time and may leave droppings around. The grieving rabbit may be more quiet and reserved-perhaps not eating as much. Some get destructive-tearing up things they never bothered before."Michelle recommends giving extra attention and toys, as well as monitoring the grieving rabbit's eating habits.

    Bea VanHorn, a volunteer with HRS in Colorado, has also seen a dramatic response to loss. She writes about a grieving rabbit: "Freddie's response was pure anger. He lashed out at everything and was visibly miserable. He also became ill. While I spent hours a day loving him and showering him with attention, it was clear that I wasn't the perfect mate for him. He is now bonded in a threesome. My feeling is that at least if he loses one of them, he will still not be alone."

    A bonded group of more than two rabbits is an excellent strategy to prevent the scenario of a solitary, grieving rabbit. As always when introducing rabbits, it is best to let the rabbits choose their own friends. > Working with your local shelter or HRS foster is one way to do this. If a loss occurs before you can adopt your "support group"of cuddly rabbits, volunteer Margie Wilson offers a creative interim solution (see The Right Stuff for a Bereaved Bunny article). And now, the story of two rabbits whose need for love transcended their limitations and eased the heart of their foster parent.
    - Holly O'Meara

    JOEY, A YOUNG HOLLAND LOP, was neglected so badly that infections left him blind in one eye and with limited sight in the other, deaf, and with chronic respiratory problems. He could have been a candidate for euthanasia because he sat in his house like a live lump of fur, not responding to anything. That is, until Trixie came along.

    Though young, the stunted mini lop had terrible malocclusion requiring removal of her incisors shortly after she arrived. People were also not on her "favorite things" list. Fortunately, fate placed her house next to Joey. The interest on the part of both bunnies couldn't be ignored, and since both were likely to be permanent fosters, they were introduced. It was rare, bunny-love at first sight.

    Joey and Trixie were moved into a larger suite suitable for two bunnies, and Joey got more attention than he'd ever had. Trixie not only became his "seeing eye" bunny, also kept his bad eye thoroughly cleansed. The infection from his prior life had sealed the tear duct with scar tissue, so that his eye wept constantly and required unwelcome cleaning from human hands. Soft licks from Trixie, however, were a completely different story. Everyone who saw them was charmed by their total devotion to each other.

    Majic also came from a nearby shelter. After being declawed on all four feet he was kept as a classroom rabbit in a small, wire - floored cage for five years before he couldn't stand poking fingers any longer. A simple touch would cause him to whirl and sink his teeth into an offending hand, so the shelter could not put him up for adoption. At home we realized he couldn't eat properly, either, and the next day he went into severe head tilt. Years of inability to scratch his own ears caused a nasty ear infection. In addition, his molars were so badly cupped he could only chomp up and down; no grinding motion was possible, as the upper teeth fit inside the lower teeth like pegs into holes.

    By the time Majic was well, he'd been handled and cuddled so much that he was a sweetheart towards humans. However, introductions to other rabbits proved futile, due to extreme defensiveness and insecurity on Majic's part.

    Majic was housed on the lower half of an old bunk bed. Thick, soft rugs, placed over water proof mattress pads, made a comfortable "house" for him, and a 24-inch-tall pen made a perimeter around the edge of the mattress to keep other bunnies out. Because declawing had left him with nerve damage on all four feet, Majic wouldn't jump down the short 14 inches to the floor . There wasn't a latch on the pen where the panels met, as Majic didn't try to push them open. The bed was in the same room as the large house for Trixie and Joey.

    After two happy years with Trixie, Joey's condition worsened, and his weight fell away. One evening Joey had a seizure. My husband, Tom, and I rushed him to our animal clinic. With the help of our veterinarian, we evaluated Joey's health. He had gotten to the point where he couldn't eat. He couldn't swallow and was physically unable to accept food from a syringe. Sadly, we decided on euthanasia. Trixie was allowed to stay with Joey's body for a while, so she would understand that he was gone.

    Back home, Trixie made a small and pathetic picture as she lay in her empty house looking totally miserable and depressed; her dinner untouched. I stayed with her awhile and made her as comfortable as possible but felt horrible for her as I went to bed.

    Morning brought an incredible surprise. Majic had pushed open his pen during the night and had jumped down to lay next to Trixie's house. She was lying inside near to him. I decided to experiment and opened Trixie's door. She came out, and the two met nose to nose. Neither was quite sure what to do, but it was clear they had no intention of fighting, so I broke all of my bonding rules and left both pen and door open for the day. I put Majic back on his bed, as it was unlikely he could jump back up there, but I left the pen open.

    For the next two days, Trixie went back and forth between Majic's pen and her old house, before abandoning her house completely to stay with Majic. During those first two days, they explored their developing friendship. Majic fully accepted Trixie's presence in his pen yet didn't force his attention on her. By day three, they were cuddling and grooming, and Trixie's hearty appetite had returned.

    I still get teary thinking about Joey, but I never cease to be amazed by the things I see animals do. I'm very happy that Majic and Trixie were able to find love together.

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