Saying Goodbye, by Kiki Clark“I can’t recommend rabbits as pets. They chew on electrical cords and baseboards, dig at the rugs, occasionally mark, and they need more affection than you realize, while relating very subtly back to you.” That’s what I’ve always said, and I speak from experience, since I’ve owned two rabbits.
The first was Glory Roberta. Glory was a charity case. Our friend, Katherine, hosted an ex-boyfriend for a while, out of the goodness of her heart. Her heart had a lot of goodness, because the ex bred rabbits as a hobby, and populated her yard with cages during his brief visit. Then he didn’t separate the young bunnies according to sex in time, and they populated some more, whereupon he left town. Katherine eventually found homes for the rabbits, but in the meantime their numbers were culled by a wandering dog that tore open the cages and killed quite a few. Glory Roberta, nameless and still young, was inherently wily. She escaped the dog and decided to live the wild life through two Colorado winters, occasionally coming to the back door and eating the food Katherine put out for her. After two years, Katherine decided enough was enough, and caught her.
You have to respect a rabbit like that. When Katherine asked if we wanted to take this super-bun, we agreed. Glory looked just like Peter Rabbit, sans the blue coat, and she had a lot of personality. Also, she was always happy to be petted, even from the beginning. I think she had been handled a lot before the dog incident. We had Glory for about four years – through the spider bite that caused large sections of the skin on her head to turn black and peel off; through the subsequent effects that caused her tear ducts to scar over and cease draining so that her cheeks were wet; through cysts and her subsequent spaying. But believe it or not, this is not really her story.
We moved late in Glory’s life, to a house with a tiled sunroom – an ideal environment for house rabbits. And we decided to get her a friend. We took Glory to the Humane Society and introduced her to a variety of prospective buddies. The first one was aggressive. The second one chased her around and around the enclosure, trying to hump her even though they were both fixed. As I recall, his name was something like “Frisky.” And then there was Charles. Pure white, with the red eyes of the albino and lop ears that hung down on either side of his face, his name was listed as “Whitey.” We surmised he must have belonged to children, maybe a kindergarten class, because you could have picked him up by one leg and he wouldn’t have objected. He sat in the enclosure, cleaning one ear, while Glory hunkered in one corner, still panting from her encounter with Frisky. “We’ll try him,” we said, and took them both home.
Charles was an ideal friend for Glory. You wouldn’t have known her tear ducts were faulty, because he cleaned her cheeks. He groomed her a lot, and her fur, which had gotten a little clumpy in her old age, took on the soft, fluffy characteristics of the true Rex breed. We put a pet door in the side of the sunroom, leading to a fenced area with a dog-proof hutch in it. Charles learned how to use the door in about five minutes. Glory Roberta took a day or two. She had ideas about how the door should work, and never went through it without chewing on it or giving it a resentful sideways shove.
The great outdoors was a revelation to Charles. Glory Roberta taught him to dig, and he came inside every summer evening with his claws muddy and worn, although somehow he and Glory managed not to tunnel outside their fence. Amazingly, his white coat never held the dirt or mud, and we took to calling him the Teflon Rabbit. When it rained, he sat in the roofed hutch, pondering the world. He sat there when it snowed, too, leaving canonical rabbit tracks in the fresh powder and looking just a little less white against it.
Glory’s health problems multiplied alarmingly when she reached the age of six, and we put her down when the only alternative was exploratory surgery. We brought her body back because we had heard the surviving rabbit could pine and cease eating, but Charles gave her corpse a sniff and hopped away as if to say, “I knew that was coming.”
We decided not to get another rabbit, but to double our attentions to Charles so he wouldn’t be lonely. It worked remarkably well. Charles, who had been very subservient to Glory, seemed happy to be out from under her dominant personality. He still dug in his tunnels and enjoyed time outside, but he was more likely to spend his long afternoon naps on a bed of towels in the sunroom, periodically coming into the living room and lolloping up to be petted. In the evenings, when his energy was high, he would race across the living room, leaping into the air with lapin joy. One memorable time, I even got him to play peek-a-boo. He was never the larger-than-life character that Glory had been, but he had a sweet, quiet charm.
He had an inborn terror of dogs, but played host to the neighborhood cats. They jumped the fence and sat in his little yard, fascinated and confused by his prey smell and movement combined with the fact that he was almost as big as them, and loved having their company. I often felt bad that our own cat, Tilly, treated him solely as a rival for our attentions, and responded to his friendly overtures by running away or batting him on the head. Eventually he stopped trying.
People were charmed by Charles. We would give them a papaya tablet to feed him. Little kids giggled, while the more adventurous adults followed our instructions and lay on the floor with the tablet between their lips, getting a whiskery kiss when he took it from them. He wasn’t a lap sitter, but he loved for either of us to kneel on the floor next to him, so he was against a thigh. He would press his head against us and close his eyes while we petted his silky back and thickly furred ears. When we stopped petting, he licked our jeans or skin in a little reciprocal “thank you.” Sometimes he shoved his head under our hand or rooted it against our fingers as we rubbed the bridge of his nose. He was never a lap sitter, but he would climb practically onto our heads for a piece of banana or apple, and we had to move the Christmas tree into another room so he wouldn’t trim all the lower branches.
The years went on, and included two trips to the emergency room (Charles had a knack for getting critically ill on weekends). Rabbits have very few states between well and dead. We developed a saying – “The only difference between a live rabbit and a dead one is five minutes of looking thoughtful.” We brought Charles back from the brink of death twice with the use of subcutaneous fluids and antibiotics. He never minded needles, but the antibiotics were an ordeal, with him spitting out pills secreted in apples or coated with bananas. If we managed to fool him once with a certain food, he refused it the next time. Nothing worked twice. During his second illness, we tried a syringe. He lay on his back in my lap, eyes closed tight, legs trembling, apparently defeated except for the trickle of medicated goo that he pushed out with his tongue and that I repeatedly scooped back in. I had to cut dried medicine out of his chin fur three months later, as he refused to ever clean it off and it had matted hard.
That was only three months ago. When a nine-and-half-year-old rabbit becomes incontinent for the second time in six months, it’s a bad sign. Kidney stones were very likely, and would require surgery. But there were other symptoms as well. I could feel Charles’ ribs, shoulderblades, and hips under his beautiful fur. During the last few days, he ate so much his stomach was distended, but he still lost weight. And he had no fever, but sat next to any heat source available, whether it was us (his favorite), the baseboard heaters, or close to the woodstove. Yesterday he began to tilt forward as he was sitting up, as though he were nodding off. Then I noticed he was doing it even when sitting up to eat, as though he didn’t have quite enough strength to stay reliably upright. But he didn’t evince any signs of discomfort, and hopped around with no trouble, lifting his head to be petted, as always.
I didn’t want him to suffer. I didn’t want to force the usual antibiotics past his tightly clenched lips for ten days, only to see no improvement and have an emergency vet ask if we wanted to have an x-ray or consider surgery. Our regular vet, Dr. Bauman, owns rabbits herself. She didn’t quibble when I brought Charles in this morning, but nodded understandingly. “He’s really old,” she said. “They don’t usually get better when they’re this age.” I asked the usual questions, and she assured me that they would give him Valium, pain killers -- a raft of comforting drugs. Only then would they overdose him on an anesthetic. I opened the wire traveling cage and kissed the top of his head one last time while he tried to get out. “Mommy loves you so much,” I said tearfully, then went to the lobby to fumble with my credit card and car keys. I left the cage there. Dr. Bauman said they would give it to the local wildlife rehabilitation group.
When Charles recovered from his last illness, I knew it was only a matter of time. Most domestic rabbits die at around age six. I wrote his eulogy then, while I was so grateful to have more time with him and thinking about the ways I would miss him when he eventually went away.
For Charles, 1996-2005
Our rabbit, Charles, is no more.
Those strong white feet have
Leapt across that farthest shore.
His ruby eyes and sweetness,
I will miss. Likewise the way
He gamboled ‘cross our (spotted) floor
To gently kiss my feet.
He is no more.