The story I planned to post today (on Sharon Carvell, an amazing artist with a special connection to trees) has been delayed. Instead, I’m sharing this story about a rabbit. While the theme is fauna, not flora, I think the story’s a good one, and, besides, the time is right. And it shows what our household was like not so long ago when our daughters were young and we celebrated Easter with not only chocolate rabbits—but real ones.
I will publish half the story today and the conclusion on Wednesday.
Wishing you the best this holiday,
Puff the Tragic Rabbit
Puff, a.k.a. Fox Mulder, former humper-bunny extraordinaire, rested on a towel in my lap as I fed him Earth Farms Organic baby food diluted with warm milk and spiked with crushed antibiotics. The carrot goo, administered through syringe, dribbled out his mouth and down his dirty-white chest. The dwarf rabbit looked rough; he’d had surgery the day before to open up a large-marble-sized abscess on his chin. We were surprised he made it through. I didn’t see how someone so tiny and weak, little more than fur and air, could survive. I just knew his heart would give out. I’d almost planned his funeral. But here he was.
The bald, fleshy abscess now had a gaping hole in it. Terrifically gross, but I was beginning to get used to it. I had to keep it clean by squirting it with saline solution a couple times a day with a bigger syringe.
Even though Puff had made it through surgery, the vet hadn’t been optimistic.
“I wasn’t able to drain it because Lepus have a thick, non-liquid, almost hard pus,” Dr. Hart explained, as I and my two daughters gathered around his cage. “I got out as much as I could.”
Six-year-old Lily stared at the rabbit. Though she’d recently confided she thought the young doctor “cute,” she wouldn’t look at him now. “He’s bloody,” she said, her eyes glued to Puff’s blood-flecked chest. She was scandalized.
“Honey, they don’t have time to bathe them after surgery,” I whispered. Her sister, Zora, ten, petted Puff silently.
“We’ll keep him on antibiotics and see what happens,” said Dr. Hart.
As I fed Puff, I thought about the nightmare Lily shared with me that morning. She dreamed Puff had a hole in his throat and all his blood squirted out until he got as small and skinny as a deflated balloon. As he sat on my lap, sucking down baby food, wanting to live, I wanted to weep.
Maybe this was my penance for not taking good enough care of our first rabbit. Oscar was a lop-eared rabbit from the feed store, last year’s Easter present for the girls, especially Lily, who’d became smitten with rabbits in kindergarten. (She especially loved the Beatrix Potter stories.) Although Oscar proved to have dangerous claws and an independent personality—in other words, not a huggable playmate—we enjoyed him as an addition to our family. Unfortunately, his stay was short. He disappeared from our fenced back yard last summer and was never found. I’d been the one who thought it’d be okay to let him scamper free.
When spring came again this year, all crocuses, daffodils, and marshmallow chicks, my mind returned to those happy heralds of spring, bunnies. In May, I noticed a classified ad: “Free male dwarf rabbit to a good home. Comes with a hutch and food. ” I called and the owner described him, “He’s Himalayan, white with dark markings.”
White, I thought, that’s the rabbit color Zora likes best. White with pink eyes, like the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland. Then she mentioned his name, Felix.
Felix. Our first bunny was . . . Oscar. It had to be fate.
“We want him.”
Less than an hour later, a winsome rabbit cuddled on my lap as Andy and I rode home in his truck. The owner said we didn’t need a cage, he’d be fine on my lap, and Felix was. I’d been thrilled by how damn cute he was, white with dark pearl-grey ears, muzzle and feet, and so small, only slightly bigger than a guinea pig. Only his bright pink eyes seemed strange. We were given, in addition to the bunny and hutch, a bag of rabbit pellets, mini alfalfa bales, and a salt wheel—and told that Felix didn’t care for carrots. His owner said she’d gotten him two years ago from a sister-in-law who had, in turn, found him through an animal rescue place in Denver.
“Won’t Zora be surprised?” I said, stroking the rabbit. I loved spontaneous pet buys; they weren’t the always wisest but they were, as the girls would say, the “funnest.”
The girls squealed when they saw him. Zora said,“this is exactly the bunny I wanted!” She had a hard time choosing a new name. It was between Puff and Fox Mulder (of the X Files, her favorite TV program). Lily wanted to name him Poof. I steered her away from Poof. In the weeks to follow we became so charmed with gregarious Puff, and so pleased with the Netherlands Dwarf breed, we decided to get a second rabbit for Lily. Unlike the large, lop-eared variety, Puff was manageable; his scratches didn’t leave bloody gouges, and he seemed to genuinely like us. He was not, as far as I could tell, plotting a disappearance. Zora fed him carrots and he loved them.
To find another bunny, I first checked with local rescue groups and the Humane Society. When those bunny trails led nowhere, I found a breeder.
The next Saturday morning, the girls and I drove to a neighborhood a few miles away and stopped at a blue house. Sadie met us at the door, all smiles. Her husband waved from the living room sofa.
From a wicker carrier by the door, Sadie brought out the bunnies, one buck and three does, so minuscule you could cradle one in the palm of your hand. Soon they bounded around the carpet. The girls and I had delighted in baby animals before—chicks, ducklings, puppies and kitties, even lambs and goats—but the five-and-a-half week old rabbits, so perfectly tiny, with cunning satin ears, velvet coats, and spun sugar whiskers, were paws-down most precious.
“They’re so small,” I said. “Is it really okay to take them now?”
Sadie nodded. “They recommend up to eight weeks before weaning with the larger breeds, but Netherlands can be weaned at five. They’ve been on solid food for almost a week now.”
They came in a color assortment: two black, one brown, one white. Sadie said the white and brown ones (Himalayan and sable) would get their markings later. We took turns cuddling them. A longing for all of them swept over me, and I dreamt of a life where baby bunnies frolicked about a Beatrix Potter thatched cottage, and around my feet, every day. As they hopped and played, performing marvelous stunts like standing on their hind legs and giving their whiskers a washin’, Lily made up her mind. She wanted a black female, just like Poopsie-Doodle, one of the psychedelic cartoon animals created by girls’ merchandise phenomena Lisa Frank. A few days earlier, when she showed me a small stuffed animal, the prototype for her perfect rabbit, I forewarned her that the bunnies we’d find were not likely to have outsized Kryptonite green eyes.
I, too, wanted a female. I’d been told by the feed store owner who sold us the lop-eared that two males would not get along. Actually, her exact words were, “You don’t want to get two males. Males have been known to try to castrate each other.” The image of testosterone-crazed rabbits, gore dripping from furry herbivore mouths, made me decide that would never happen. A female, on the other hand, would fulfill my grander, secret scheme; I wanted the rabbits to have a litter, just one, so the girls and I could experience the wonder of mammalian pet birth.
I wondered aloud if Sadie was sure of the sexes, since baby rabbit genitalia is not exactly easy to discern. In spite of their notorious reputations, even grown rabbits can sometimes have, to put it delicately, “discreet” sex organs. Sadie laughed. “I’ve been doing this for a while. I have two does and a buck I breed regularly.” I asked her about breeding. Obviously, this was Sadie’s hobby and passion—she was the grand mistress of bunny love, priestess of pet procreation.
“It’ll be about six months before the female’s mature enough. You can keep them together until then; they should get along fine. But once they get together, they’ll have a litter in about 30 days to the day.”
“And how soon can she get pregnant again?”
“Almost immediately.” In a hushed tone, she added that the father should be kept away from them, and the mother might eat the first litter as well.
Sadie came from rural Kansas, and her family had raised rabbits for food and pelts. As a former small town Missourian, I could relate. The occasional wild rabbit in the frying pan, compliments of my dad’s hunting skills, was a part of my youth as well. Sadie was now, like me, a city girl—she wasn’t in it for food or pelts, and, at $25 each, the dwarfs were pretty safe from being bought as food for city pythons.
Lily finally settled on one of the two black females, her version of Poopsie.
* * *
Lily named her brown-eyed baby Satine, after Nicole Kidman’s character in Moulin Rouge (there is a degree of permissiveness in our household regarding letting children view bawdy and wildly romantic films). Satine and Puff got along well, though Puff tried to hump her every now and then. This caused us alarm, particularly in the beginning when Satine was one third his size, and I became angry the time or two Puff pulled out a mouthful of fur. Later, when Satine got a little older, I’m sorry to admit the humping became a source of amusement to my daughters. I’d read that this (humping, not laughing at it) was a show of dominance, also used by female rabbits on the young ones, a Lepus pecking order thing.
We found some large, collapsible metal pens that we could use as bunny playpens during the day. The rabbits had room to leap, sniff, hop, run, nibble grass, and stretch out on their bellies under a shrub, while we kept an eye on them. The girls played with them, pushing them around in Lily’s wicker baby carriage, and they’d entertain themselves by fiddling with the bunnies’ mouths, making their upper lips stick up so you could see their buck teeth. Bunny yawns caused mirth too; there was something about those huge incisors, top and bottom, and all the tiny teeth on the sides that gave the yawns a comic effect. At night we’d return them to their hutch.
A rabbit magazine I found had an article on bunny “hypnotism.” The girls tried it. To put a rabbit in a trance, you lay it on your lap, on its back, then use both your hands to stroke the sides of its head, from front to back and up its ears. Usually, within less than a minute, the rabbit will be slack-jawed, legs straight up in the air, eyes half-opened and glassy, perfectly still. Even peals of laughter would not raise Puff, who soon became so easily hypnotized Zora could merely flip him over and he’d go under.
Then one day Zora noticed Puff “chewing” at times when he wasn’t eating. I didn’t pay much attention, at first, thinking the rabbity mastication motions a tic, probably something rabbits just did. A few days later I noticed a hard spot under his jaw. I wondered if it was abnormal, so I felt and compared his jaw with Satine’s. I couldn’t tell a difference. Scanning several books on rabbits and small farm animals led to a dead end. Andy checked him out and came to the same prognosis—there didn’t seem to be cause for alarm.
A few more days passed and it became noticeable, a definite bump, and he looked thinner. He was having trouble eating. Panic-stricken, I got a referral from our veterinarian (who didn’t do bunnies) for someone who did and made an appointment.
The next day the girls and I took Puff in to Dr. Jeff Hart.
The receptionist led us into a small white examining room and soon Dr. Hart breezed in. He’s young, was the first thing I thought. The second was, great, now that I’m nearing 40, I’m seeing thirty-year-old doctors as young whipper-snappers.
“And who do we have here?” Dr. Hart smiled, an earnest, clean-cut boyish smile that reminded me of Doogie Houser.
I explained Puff’s situation. The girls looked on, and the doctor nodded, lips pressed together, eyes solemn. He took Puff to another room to weigh him. As soon the door closed, Lily looked up at me, straightened her dress and asked, “Do I look all right?”
This is a girl who at age three, on library excursions, used to bring me romance paperbacks with Fabio on the cover. “You should check these books out, Mommy.” Now, with a mixture of horror and pride, I thought again, oh God, she’s going to be just like me, a dreamy flirt.
Zora chortled, looked first at me, then Lily. “Gawd Lily! Lily’s in luuuuve.”
“Stop it Zora,” Lily squealed.
“Cut it out, both of you.”
Dr. Hart came back and told us Puff weighed in at just under 2 lbs. Underweight, but not alarmingly so. He put him on antibiotics for a week and scheduled surgery to open the abscess. He suggested I buy baby food to mix with the medicine.
I bought jars of spinach, peas and carrots, got out the mortar and pestle to grind the pills. I let the girls be in charge of the feedings. Puff ate from a saucer; food covered his mouth and chest at each meal.
The next week we brought him in and found out he’d lost half a pound, one quarter of his weight.
* * *
(To be continued on Wednesday . . . )