Don't worry, all of my bunnies are just fine.
But a friend recently lost one of her four bunnies--her first one, her Philpot. This friend has gone from enchanted to addicted as a bunny owner, and I can relate. Her bunny, like many pet bunnies, died suddenly and without warning. She didn’t really know how old Philly was, because she rescued her from a bad living situation. She was devastated at the loss, and I spent a lot of time with her that weekend. I could relate so strongly to her grief, and I know that it’s nearly impossible to explain to a non-bunny-owner what it’s like to lose your first bunny. It’s hard enough to explain the devastation of losing a familiar pet, like a cat or a dog. We know that we love our pets without the ambivalence that always tempers our relationships with other people. But a rabbit? People just don’t get it.
It made me think of my first bunny, my Marvin, and how much it ripped me apart when he died. I got him without any forethought. I was helping the Humane Society redesign their web site as a pro bono project, and the meetings were held in a room they also used for small animals. I got used to the squeaks and squeals of the various critters in the room and I of course ooh and ahhed over the cute bunnies, but I didn’t pay much attention. I had cats. Gray cats. With folded ears.
One day I came in and the first thing I saw was a small gray bunny, with lop ears, up on his hind legs and chinning his cage … just like my cats. I didn’t know they chinned things! I went over and looked at his paper work. Unknown age, probably around 3 years old. Owners didn’t want him anymore because their kids got bored with him. His name? Bunny. But the paperwork also said ‘loves cats and dogs, loves to be held, litter trained.” My world turned a tiny bit on its axis.
I held Bunny for the rest of the meeting. I debated the insanity of taking him home. And then I remembered to follow my gut, and he came home with me, in a loaner cage. Luckily I had great information and advice from a bunny-savvy volunteer at the Humane Society. I got him home and let him out to see what he would do. He hopped into the TV room. I sat on the couch. He sat on the floor facing me. I turned on the TV. He lay down on the floor. I settled in. He sighed, stretched his legs out, and put his chin and head flat on the floor. At that very split second, I fell in love with him. He fell asleep.
For the next two years, I discovered bunnies, through research and curiosity and the simple experiences of sharing my home with Marvin. The terror of trimming his nails and having them bleed, seemingly unstoppably, and calling an emergency vet hotline. They told me to use flour on the bleeding because I didn’t have styptic powder (within moments, he was covered in pink flour). A month later, another frantic call, this time because he ate a large portion of one of my flip flops. The sleepy vet said to watch his poo—ahh, the joys of the bunny ‘poo watch.’ All bunny owners get to know the poo watch, because any sign at all of health or illness is our responsibility to sleuth out. Our dear little pets simply stoically bear it all, often until it’s too late for us to help. My bunny-owning friends and I call them the worst pets in the world, because we love them so much and they are so delicate, and because of course they are the very best pets in the world.
There were new things to discover every single day he was with me. The newness of his diet, his vet needs, his habits, his face-washing. His meticulous use of his litterbox, and my total tolerance of the occasional accident. The wonder of his binky-hops of joy. The instant transition from serious little stern-meister to silly toddler at the drop of a hat. The way he charmed everyone he met, patiently 'letting them' hold and pet him as their worlds opened a tiny bit more, right on the spot. The way he turned me into a 'bunbassador,' telling the folks in line with me at the grocery store that the 6 bunches of parsley are for a bunny...and did you know that they can be litter trained, should be spayed and neutered, and hop around the house?
My discovery that he knew his name, and would come when I called him! That he had his own habits and schedule, and was very impatient with any changes to it, ever, at all. The way my heart stopped for a minute the first time he jumped up on the couch, and ambled over my entire body to reach my chest, so he could lie down and take a nap on me. The first time he licked me, clearly grooming me with love and pleasure. The thousands of videos and pictures on the web showing the delights of house-rabbit ownership. And the horror of having my eyes opened to the way these incredible little animals are so abused, and so easily forgotten, and readily assumed to have no value at all.
Two years ago, I came home from a business trip and found him in his condo. He had died earlier in the day. He had been fine the night before, and now he was gone. I crumpled. My little joy, my little buddy, my little endless source of newness was gone. How do you explain this loss? That now this little spirit that somehow dropped randomly into your life changed so much for you? How do you tell people without sounding like a crazy bunny person? Why did it hurt so much? And even today, sitting, writing this in my home full of my four bunnies and two foster bunnies, am I still in pain about it? Why did I have to wait so long to look at photos of him, long after I got more bunnies,that I almost felt like I waited too long, and could hardly remember him? Why was he so magical?
I think I know now why it hurts so desperately much to lose your first bunny. I think it’s because there are very few times in our adult lives that we are completely, totally surprised by something delightful, new, and unexpected. Something that has no downside that isn’t totally overbalanced by the hugeness of the upsides. An experience that is so joyful and so much like opening a little door to a magical new world. Because bunnies are silly, matter-of-fact, sweet, smart, loving animals who are so much more than they seem. They are endlessly forgiving. They are hilariously funny. They are playful and stern and disapproving and scary. They are bad-asses and sweet peas. They were there all along, in cages, in classrooms, in hutches, and in places I’d rather not think about anymore. And for people who love animals, they are like discovering a trunk full of treasures, full of sparkle and promise and delight.
It’s like the first one puts you into a sort of thrall of discovery that lasts from the day you bring him or her home to the terrible day when suddenly ‘your pet rabbit died.’ It’s a huge loss, because you’ll never get that ‘first’ again. The fact that you had a really strong, really personal friendship with this little animal (who probably came into your life in a fairly unexpected way) will hit you like a ton of bricks. Later, you’ll get more bunnies, and very very special ones will come into your life with their own newnesses. They will be a part of your life because of that first bunny. You'll end up with new (lovely) people in your life through your bunnies. Your first bunny will bring you lots of lasting goodness.
But that first loss is like a heart attack, a terrible shock to the system, surprising in its force, and lasting in its consequences. Because when it happens, that particular life experience has ended. Getting a pet rabbit as an adult is like getting a second chance at experiencing childlike wonder. The loss is bigger than it looks, and I’ll always miss my dear, surprising, loving, life-changing little friend, my Marvin.