Saturday, April 12, 2008

Rabbit Season

Under identical circumstances, the pet rabbit would have shredded me.

Smokey, the sixteen-pound scimitar-clawed, white-fanged scale model of a perfect predator on the African veldt, lay stretched out on my lap, belly up, front paws draped comfortably over my forearm and the rest of him spreadeagled to the ceiling and limp as a rag doll. Trust is not a problem for this big fella, and as a CNN anchor droned on about the latest in presidential politics, my other hand wielded a sharp scissors, snipping bushels of long hair from his chest and belly and parts south. Among the first things to go, the bushy Charlie Chaplin pants billowing out from under his tail. A sensitive area, you would guess.

While I think professionally shearing this shaggy cat like a sheep to cope with shedding season would seriously mess with his head and his self-esteem, Smokey had been leaving black tumbleweeds of discarded fluff behind him everywhere he walked for weeks. He looked like a small bear stalking through the living room…or a furry ottoman. The man in my life had long ago suggested using his shop vac on the cat as a solution…but I could imagine the screams and bloodshed to follow. No, the surreptitious use of a scissors once in a while worked just fine.

I couldn’t help but look back at “the rabbit years” with ironic appreciation.

We’ve been “horse people,” “dog people,” and for the past three years, “cat people.” But somehow I don’t think we ever made the grade as “rabbit people.” Not that we didn’t give it our best shot.

Our entry to the rabbit zone started, as most things do, with a massive amount of naivete, overlayed by a surplus of good intent.

The kids had always been suckers for anything small and furry. Childhoods passed with regular trips to state fairs and county fairs, with always a stop at the small animal building to laugh at the chickens that looked like oddly shaped angora rabbits, and the huge rabbits that looked like footrests with ears. At every juncture with a small pet—hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas, guinea pigs—the question always came up, “can we?”…and the answer was always “NO.” I was in no hurry to add one more four-legged creature to take care of, and their dad was positively, deathly allergic to cats. We were damn lucky to have a dog.

But one year, a few weeks before my oldest daughter left for college, we drove a couple of miles down the road to the county fair, and made the annual pilgrimage to the small animal building. We laughed at the chickens, kept clear of the geese, found our way over to the rabbits…and then infatuation struck. The college-bound kid looked into a small cage at eye-level, locked eyes with a young short-haired rabbit, and breathed, “oh, look, if I was going to have a rabbit, that’s the one I’d want.”

We peered closer. She’d picked well. He was exquisite. Not much larger than a Fannie May Easter bunny, and a plush chocolate brown. He looked just like the Velveteen Rabbit, come to life. The inevitable question popped up. “Can we get a rabbit?” And this time, I just said “hmmmm…..” And this time their dad didn’t say anything. Big mistake. As I’ve said before, nature abhors a vacuum.

It was nearly a done deal from the start, contemplated through a happy haze of optimism and ignorance. With the kids getting bigger and no toddlers to chase after, how much extra work could this be? And of course, there was the absolute cuteness factor. And the oh-so-soft-to-the-touch factor. And the fact that I still get all misty eyed reading “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.”

Determining that this perfectly proportioned creature was a “mini-Rex,” I quickly rushed in where angels feared to tread. If we were going to get a rabbit, it was imperative to do it before my daughter left for college, to give her one more cute, welcoming pet to remember…and come back to visit. I located some young rabbits at a breeder fifty miles away, and off we went. Passed over the two brown ones in favor of a white rabbit with grey Dalmatian spots. I recall him as having “more personality.” My son remembers that the rabbit bit him on the finger. He came with a pedigree. He still got neutered.

Regardless, he came home and was installed in a cage in the kitchen, with shavings, and a litter box, and a water bottle, and a bunch of rabbit toys. And a half hour of recreation time out of the cage every morning while we were in the kitchen having breakfast. After much dismission, the kids finally agreed on “Zorro” as a name…and we never used it again. He pretty much answered to “here, bunny bunny!” and the promise of some yogurt-dipped rabbit treats.

The retriever didn’t take the news well, though he wore his disappointment and sense of displacement with dignity. Having to share the kitchen with a small furry prey animal he should, by all rights, be chasing at sixty miles an hour across an open field, was a serious violation of the rules. He was still impeccably well-behaved, head resting on his front paws as the rabbit thumped his way around the kitchen, brown eyes following us and filled with reproach, ignoring the indignity. Though every once in a while, a sudden noise would cause the rabbit to bolt, and for a brief half-second the thin veneer of domestication would drop and Bandit would lunge at the primordial target, eyes flashing…until he remembered the rabbit was off limits, and sank reluctantly to the ground yet again.

If messing with the dog’s mind was the only consideration, we’d probably still be “rabbit people.” But for some ungodly reason, this particular bunny developed personal hygiene issues. He had packed on the pounds—he finally weighed in at six pounds, looking at rest like an enormous bunny slipper—and the zaftig proportions of Orson Welles in those Paul Masson wine commercials. And the end result was that he became a rabbit in need of constant bathing…and haircuts in unspeakable places.

There’s a great Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1947, a Warner Brothers classic named “Rebel Rabbit,” in which the world’s most iconic delinquent bunny decides to set the world straight about just how tough he can be. Outraged by a two cent bounty on rabbits, compared with the $50 bounty for foxes and the $75 for bears, he mails himself to Washington and demands that the U.S. Game Commissioner explain the outrageous inequity.

“Well, other animals are destructive, harmful, obnoxious to people, they do damage. Rabbits are sweet, furry little creatures. They wouldn’t harm a hair on your head,” explains the clueless bureaucrat. “Rabbits are perfectly harmless, and the bounty stands at two cents!” That would, or course, be Bugs’ cue to prove his point by striping the Washington Monument like an old-fashioned barber pole, cutting Florida loose from the mainland with a hand saw, and filling in the Grand Canyon.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.

What I’d never realized before is that on the food chain, placement equals personality. Dogs and cats are high on the pecking order. They walk through their day secure in the knowledge that if they were kicked out of the kitchen and into the cold, cruel world, their job would be to kill and eat whatever they came across. That’s why your cat may regard you as a fellow predator (and probably a far inferior one); and your dog may look at you as the leader of a hunting pack…but a rabbit is constantly looking over his shoulder, certain that everything he meets is out to put him on the menu. Relaxation isn’t in a rabbit’s inner lexicon.

Which would go far to explain why every time I wrestled the rabbit into submission and on to his back for a sponge bath or a trim, I ended up with a kitchen sink full of gossamer fluff, dirty, soapy water splashed everywhere, and long claw marks on my forearms, from elbow to wrist. The pleasure of his company began to pale a good year before we gave up.

The tipping point came finally when we bought the kitten. At two pounds, tops, Smokey ran from everything at first. He found the rabbit fascinating, but enormous by comparison. When the rabbit was loose in the kitchen, Smokey was perched safely on a kitchen chair, curiously watching this strange large creature thump around underneath him.

But then Smokey grew…and grew…and grew. By the time he weighed as much as the rabbit, I could see a possible conflict looming. By the time he weighed twice as much, the look in his golden eyes as he languidly draped himself over the seat of the kitchen chair spoke less of curiosity and more of sampling the menu.

A dream finally tipped the scales. I awoke one morning from a nightmare in which I’d returned at night from an out-of-town trip, to find the front of the house lit up by the flashing lights of squad cars and an ambulance, and crime scene tape around the house. In my absence, the dream went, the cat had murdered the rabbit, and the ceilings and walls of the living room and kitchen were drenched with blood.

I called the local Humane Society the next day. “Can you folks take a rabbit today?” They were open for business until eight, and within an hour I was there unloading the rabbit, his cage, the litter box, shavings, litter, toys, rabbit food, a bunch of those little yogurt covered treats…and a check for twenty five dollars. I drove away in the late evening sun, lighter by one rabbit, heavier by a massive load of guilt. It lasted several months before finally dissipating in a fog of other activity.

We still have a few reminders of our days with “bunny, bunny.” Some chew marks on a gate in the kitchen. A handful of professional photos I’d had taken when he was still new to the family, pristine and untested and wonderously clean. A carrying case gathering dust in the garage. A picture I took around Easter one year, with the bunny sitting next to the retriever, and the retriever wearing white and pink rabbit ears. In the shot, the dog is licking his chops.

The only rabbit I see in my future now is the cottontail my son shot with his compound bow last fall in the backyard, dressed, and thoughtfully put in the freezer in a Ziploc bag. I still haven’t figured out how to cook it, though Hassenpfeffer is right up there on the dinner choices, along with Colonial Rabbit and Rabbit in Tarragon Sauce.

Hmmm..... Maybe we're "rabbit people" after all.

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