In October 1990, a mail carrier on vacation was returning to her home in Madison, Wisconsin. For a lark, she and her friend stopped at an “exotic animal auction” somewhere in Iowa. Held in an old barn, the auction was selling such exotic species as llamas, turkeys, pheasants, cats, and rabbits. A young gray Angora was auctioned off in a cage so small he could not move; two bowls lay overturned onto the wooden bottom of the cage. The mail carrier bought the rabbit, and on the road she attempted to give him some water. But the cage had no door and no opening to its wire top. She dropped in some corn. Once in Madison she attempted to free the rabbit, but non-removable metal clasps held the wire hood in place. The bunny was sealed in. She spent two hours prying the clasps out of the wood. He was starved and dehydrated and bit her when she took the water bowl away to refill it. She remembered being told that animals are dropped off at the auction up to a week before they are sold. There was no way anyone could have given this rabbit water, had they bothered to try.
The next day she took him to the veterinarian. “I wouldn’t have given a quarter for him,” the veterinarian later told me. The medical file for that first visit reads, “Sneezing. Bilateral ocular discharge. Lots of dandruff, purulent nasal discharge. Lower teeth need to be trimmed! Rabbit is very depressed and prognosis is grave.”
A year and a half passed, and the veterinarian called to ask if I wanted this rabbit, now named Thumper. The impulse buy had turned into an inconvenience; the mail carrier had hoped he’d be a nice surprise for her kids, but now they had lost interest, and she didn’t really have time for him anymore. I was about to purchase a house, and I was changing from half-time employment at my college to full-time work with a heavy teaching load and a long commute. Nevertheless, I had always thought I might like to do some fostering. I took the request as a test of this romantic notion. Having no idea of the history of this rabbit, I agreed to take him on condition that he be neutered and held until I moved–one month later. In the meantime I wrote long letters and sent handouts to Thumper’s current human, explaining how to improve her relationship with her bunny (litterbox training, etc.), hoping, of course, that she would keep him.
The More the Merrier
A few days after I agreed to take this rabbit, Helen Lau from the Chicago chapter of the House Rabbit Society called me. She had been wonderful when my rabbit, Pajamas, had a serious fur blockage. She explained that because of landlord problems, she needed to find temporary homes for the Chicago foster bunnies until she and her husband, Franklin, could buy a house. Could I take some, she wondered? I screwed my courage to the sticking place and said I guessed I could. When I asked how many she had and she said ten, a wool blanket fell between me and the rest of the world. I went numb, knowing I was going to take them all.
In August of 1991, I went from one bunny to 12 in one week. During that period, I was afraid of my house (it was built in 1927, and, in order to save money, I had not had an inspection); I was afraid of my new job; I was afraid of the rabbits; and I was aghast at Thumper. Contrary to my expectations, these new additions were not mere copies of Pajamas. They were fur-like aliens, maybe not even rabbits. Two of them were out to inflict bodily harm, and yet I was supposed to take them out of their cages for exercise once a day. One of them was so carnivorous that you couldn’t even move her unless you could first get your hand over her eyes. (This one is now bonded to my P.J. and still treats me like ambulatory trouble.)
When Thumper arrived, that is, the day after the first batch of Chicago bunnies had come, a heat wave did too. The mail carrier brought Thumper over. I sat her down and asked if the rabbit had any health problems. None that she knew of, she said, except that his teeth needed to be clipped every once in a while. She left, and I looked him over. He was a miserable mess, and my response was angry resignation. The anger was mostly at him, since he was the only one there and I was stuck with him. Where was the romance of the rescue? In the 90+ heat, he had been chewing on his fur, which was wet and smelled vile. He was full of dandruff. He had been fed catfood, and the smell of that was disgusting. He was semi-frantic. At least we had that in common.
I made an appointment at the clinic for the next day and meditated on how to get this rabbit through the night. The heat was crushing. I would be sleeping across town in an air-conditioned house, but I couldn’t take him. I tried to set up tolerable quarters on the porch, hoping for small breezes, and then guiltily left him. The next day I rose at 5:00 a.m. There had been a loud thunderstorm. When I arrived, the rabbit on my porch was close to hysterical and could not be comforted. We went to the veterinarian later that morning, and the doctor found fur mites, overgrown teeth, snuffles, and severe depression. I could not cope. I had to escape from him, and I asked the veterinarian if he would board him.
The next days were terribly stressful for all of us. I spent my time “icing down” the Chicago rabbits. Since my house had only 30 amps of electricity, air-conditioning was impossible. I set up a system of large blocks of ice and fans, four of each; but as these big blocks would melt, the water would overflow onto the floor. I had to be there to empty the pails and calm my fears about water splashing on cords and causing electrical fires that would burn down the room with the rabbits. I purchased an air mattress and slept in the room, waking up every few hours to check the ice. Eventually I borrowed large enough containers to hold six hours of ice-melt. The heat abated somewhat after about five days, and I knew I could not postpone bringing Thumper home. I set up an ice system upstairs and went to get him.
Reality Sets In, Deeper
What made living with Thumper so difficult in the next weeks was that I had no clear idea what the word “contagious” meant. It was a nightmare word. I was worried that the healthy Chicago HRS bunnies would catch this rabbit’s pasteurella and fur mites. Whenever I touched Thumper, three to four times a day because of the medicating and cleansing, I changed clothes completely. My only “washer” was an antique one left in the house, of the hose and wringer variety. Laundromats are depressing places, and this is where I spent my free time. Although I was determined to do my duty by Thumper, he did not engage my tenderness. His attitude toward me seemed remote at best, and I imagine that from where he sat, mine toward him seemed about the same.
Eventually the fur mites were gone, the bales of wool had been sheared from his body, and I realized I only needed to wash my hands and arms well after handling him to prevent spreading his “diseases.” I realized that pasteurella and fur mites are not the devouring demons I had contemplated during those early days. Helen and Franklin were sending me funds and were coming up to Madison once a month to take over completely, giving me a break. My vet, Dr. LaVon Hettich, sent Thumper’s x-rays to Dr. Susan Brown in Chicago. Dr. Brown reported that Thumper had impacted front incisors and that these were probably causing his excessive nasal and eye discharge. Dr. Hettich took Thumper down to Chicago to have the incisors removed, but Dr. Brown decided that such surgery was too risky. She did, however, remove the lower teeth, which at least eliminated the stress of clipping them, an excruciating task for me, a novice, that I put off on Helen as much as I could.
Thumper’s sneezing and eye discharge got worse and worse, and we gave him more and more antibiotics. We would decrease the dose, and he would start sneezing again. He was living with me in close quarters, my small second floor. All of the other bunnies were downstairs. The sneezing became unbearable for me, as did the strain of living with an invalid so closely and constantly. Still, my feelings started to change. Maybe they changed because of compassion. Maybe the physical closeness of so much handling worked on me. Perhaps I was influenced by other people, who found Thumper incredibly cute. Among his ailments is a condition called “lazy ear,” which, I’m told, occurs when a rabbit is born in too-hot weather, as well as in rabbits with a lop-eared parent. One ear sticks straight up, but the other tilts about 80 degrees. Or perhaps my feelings changed because other people who knew his history, like his veterinarians, talked of his courage. Maybe I was beginning the migration from romance to reality and finding the terrain more rewarding than I’d expected.
It was clear that Thumper could not continue the way he was. Dr. Hettich discussed the problem with a veterinarian friend at the University of Wisconsin veterinary school, Dr. Tom Curro. He suggested that a surgeon there could remove Thumper’s remaining front teeth. The surgeon felt that it was a “long-shot.” Radiographs showed no reason to think that removing the teeth would help, but it was “all they could offer.” I agreed to the surgery but resolved that I would let Thumper suffer for only a few days after it and, if he wasn’t making progress, would have him euthanized. I came home from work on the fourth day after his surgery to find him huddled in a corner, crunching his teeth. He was worse than he had been. His mouth looked dreadful to me, like cheesecloth. I called Dr. Hettich to come and euthanize him.
Thumper and I had an hour together before she came. I cried terribly, held him, and told him things I hadn’t said before, even to myself. I thought about our year-and-a-half together. I thought, vividly, about that box in which he’d been imprisoned before I met him. When Dr. Hettich came, I put Thumper on the floor and went downstairs to answer the door. When we got up the stairs, this bunny of mine, who had been immobile for four days, took one look at the visitor, tore from the room and dived under the bed. Dr. Hettich suggested that we wait a day or two before deciding to euthanize. As she left, she said something about its being an animal’s job to make a fool of his human.
Over the next four months, Thumper metamorphosed into a miracle bunny, until at last he had no symptoms of anything. I felt triumphant. Everything we had been through together had paid off. I had my “Herman”* for the Madison Chapter of the House Rabbit Society. A rabbit had entered my life and opened a door for me. He’d helped me toss a few illusions out the window, too. After ten months, the Chicago bunnies went home. Soon I started a small, seven-bunny HRS foster program in Madison, and I plotted how to find this, my first foster, the perfect human. Thumper needed more time than I could give him. In the end, however, although he is much better, he remains a rabbit with very compromised health. The eye drainage comes and goes, and he’s really not very strong. So Thumper and I are together. At night, after I wearily climb the stairs from Bunny Socialization School on the first floor, I find him waiting on my pillow.
Everything about him has always tested me to the limit. Like having animals on my pillow. Or that mysterious act of grooming me that he must do every night. I get into bed, and Thumper lays his head across my throat while I stroke him and listen to his fragile breathing. Then he begins to wash my face, a ritual that has taken me a long time to understand. I groom him when there’s something wrong; he grooms me when there’s something right. “It’s the highest compliment a rabbit can pay,” Marinell told me. Ginger Ambrose, a friend and Madison’s first HRS member, says grooming means “I love you. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” To me it signifies something like “I claim you, and by so strong a right that I can take our bond for granted and know you feel the same.”
Animals are so strange, the way they know things beyond knowing. The claiming, the reclamation.
by Julie Smith
House Rabbit Journal Volume II, Number 12, July 1993
*Refers to Herman in the House Rabbit Handbook.