Five and half years later, our rabbits still don’t trust us. That’s not likely to change.
It’s after ten on a weeknight. Natalie is ready at the foot of the bed, towel in hand, syringe between her teeth.
I’ve blocked off the head and right side of the bed using pieces of luggage, setting the stage to gently flush Moe out from the left. He’s tremoring in a corner, watching me with those intense blue eyes. Breathing rapidly. Flinching every time I move. Body taught, like a clenched fist.
Luna, our spayed female, locked inside their house, stomps at us from across the room.
This is ridiculous. All we want to do is brush Moe, feed him the expensive laxative and antibiotic his vet prescribed, and hopefully see a poop by the morning. Is that so much to ask?
There’s a logical reason why our animals mistake us for serial killers.
Before she ended up at the Butte Humane Society (where we adopted her), Luna was found in a cardboard box on the side of the road, ‘FREE’ written on its side in black marker. This was during the middle of summer in Chico, California, where temperatures get up to one hundred and ten often. She was already two years old when we got her. Moe, at one year, was returned by a family after the kids got tired of trying to play with him.
When we first decided to adopt them, our line of thinking was that rabbits would be less expensive than a dog and lower maintenance. I don’t think either of these has turned out to be true.
Moe has climbed into the box spring and neutralized our progress. How he chewed through the bottom layer of box spring is a different story altogether. We must now stop and redirect our efforts. After a quick huddle, I am sliding under the bed, face up, with a different towel on my chest. Nat has moved back into the catching position, ready at the exit.
He is fully focussed on me, assuming that I am his most immediate threat. This is a good thing. I manage to guide him back the way he went in. As he hops down and runs for cover, several old, dried pellets from other situations like this drop onto me. I do not try to stop or grab at him. A moment later, Natalie has wrapped him up in the towel. He grunts and whines through the fabric. Luna, meanwhile, continues to stomp.
After more than five years, we’re still learning and trying to find ways to live in harmony. The struggle for trust in the world of adopted rabbits hinges on three things. First, you’re fighting their nature. They’re prey animals, pretty low on the food chain, without any serious offensive game, and believe that pretty much everything wants to eat them. People, especially.
Second, your days will be measured in poop quality. In their litter tray, you want to see whole, round pellets. No slush. Slush is a bad sign. No poop at all is even worse.
Rabbits need fresh hay, leafy greens, and water to keep their frail digestive systems in check. You can spruce things up with canned pumpkin (rabbit cocaine), apple, banana, and berries occasionally, but this shouldn’t be more than an occasional treat. The wrong mix of sugary fruit can kill them in days.
Third, if you have an exotic breed, like our lionheads, you’ll be responsible for brushing and trimming their hair and nails as needed. With the exception of feeding rabbits medicine, this is the most difficult thing to master.
We get most of the medicine into Moe’s mouth and he bats at us through the entire brushing ordeal. He hates this, but it’s crucial. He hasn’t pooped in two days. This is when things can get ugly fast.
When it’s all over and he’s free to run back into his house, Luna welcomes him home, stomps one more time at us, and begins grooming her partner. This is not normal. Moe is the ones who dotes on her. In fact, it’s highly likely that he got blocked up because of all her hair he ingests.
For all my doubts about them trusting us, there’s no disputing how much they need one another. They’re a bonded pair and spend ninety percent of their waking hours together, either sniffing or grooming one another, or competing for pole position at the food tray. You can tell when they are having a spat. It’s almost always about food. There’s grunting and stomping. There’s not a whole lot you can relate to your rabbits on, except for their relationship dynamics. They remind me of my grandparents.
“[U]nwanted rabbits are often abandoned in fields, parks, or on city streets to fend for themselves, where they suffer from starvation, sickness, and are easy prey to other animals or traffic accidents.” rabbit.org
We don’t call it a cage: it’s the House of Rabbits. And nothing makes me feel more like a super villain than cleaning their lovely home. They hate it. Loathe me for it. Fear this ritual. Luna and Moe retreat to the corner of the room, and watch me destroy their world with a vacuum and shredded dish rags. They stomp and huddle together as I remove their territorial droppings, dismantling one of the key strategies the limited rabbit arsenal.
Sadly, this is a necessary evil. In addition to poop management, hair and household management are equally important. And they will hate you for it. Luckily, there’s pumpkin.
Food is my redemption. Luna will stand up and walk on her hind legs, sniffing at the air, looking for pumpkin. There’s something about it that resets her brain and makes all the trauma of seeing the vacuum cleaner dissipate. For Moe, it’s berries and apples.
In the world according to traumatized rabbits, the axis of good and evil rotates on silence and treats.
I often watch our rabbits in the morning, just after I’ve fed them and cleaned out their litter box. I’ll work at the desk near their house, staying as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, trying to blend into the furniture.
When the world is calm and they’ve got space to run around, to be social, they’ll jump around and kick their legs out. That’s called ‘binking’, the bunny dance of joy. It’s a sign that they’re unable to contain themselves, and simply have to jump around.
Deep down, I hope that the story they’ve constructed in their minds about us is nicer than the one I imagine: that they think of themselves as POW’s or hostages.
I hope they know that we force feed them medicine, clean their turd box, and trim their toenails because we love them. Not for the conventional reasons that you love most pets: ours can’t love you back the way a dog can, but they can burrow into your lives and own a special place there. Because they’re adorable and quirky and sweet and strangely intense, and that makes them really unique. We’re happy to love them from afar and let them be whatever it is they need to be.