Fluffy and Patch have been with us a whole year now. Four full seasons of twitching noises and a patio sprinkled with sawdust and droppings. Twelve months of daily searches for dandelions and trips to buy hay.
Their arrival last July marked the end of a long-waged campaign by my daughter Katie (then seven) for a pet of her own, a soft fluffy rabbit she didn’t have to share with anyone else.
I’d been through the usual stalling tactics. When the idea was mooted in the autumn of 2003, the first excuses were easy. The weather (too cold to bring a baby rabbit into the house), her age (wait until you’re seven), do you realise what hard work they are (she got a book out of the library).
At the time the family already had three cats, so I tried the ‘but we’ve got pets already’ approach. That fell on very logical ears. “But Mummy, they belong to everyone, and they don’t sit still long enough for you to stroke them.” True. Our cats, grown weary of being prodded by endless pudgy toddler fingers, could easily have been descendants of Houdini.
What Mummy and Daddy though
In principle, I had absolutely no objection to the arrival of a furry, caged creature. After all, having had my own string of rabbits, gerbils and an entrepreneurial line in the breeding of guinea pigs (in the 1970s I sold the babies back to the pet shop for 35p a go), it would have been hypocritical of me.
My husband had been denied warm-blooded pets as a child for the strange parental reasoning that he ‘might be upset when they died.’ His parents had their reasons: his father’s beloved dog, a mongrel who used to meet him at the school gates, died in a mysterious poisoning incident. Instead he was allowed goldfish (collected free and delivered by post in return for serious consumption of Chivers’s jellies in the early 1970s). But as he pointed out to me, you can’t exactly cuddle a goldfish.
I made half-hearted attempts to persuade my daughter that a guinea pig might be more fun. After all, I had extensive knowledge of those. But she was adamant it had to be a rabbit. Her reasons? She just loved rabbits. Her favourite bedtime companion was an over-loved and therefore slightly saggy green rabbit, and the whole household knew the video version of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit to the point of being word perfect.
Preparation and persuasion
For months, things went quiet, but all the time my daughter was beavering away, reading book after book on rabbit care from the library. She visited friends and their pets, hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs, but the desire for a bunny prevailed.
One quiet afternoon when her elder brother was at Cub Camp she seized her moment. “Can I have my rabbit now? I’m seven, it’s summer and I’ve read all the rabbit books.”
She was right. She had taken her brief, and fulfilled every aspect of its criteria. Fluffy and Patch arrived. We opted for two rabbits (so they don’t get lonely), Patch for her and Fluffy for her six-year-old brother Christopher. The £40 purchase of two rabbits entailed all sorts of other paraphernalia – two-tier hutch, outdoor pen, water bottle, rabbit book (for keeps) and of course food, and toys – a plastic carrot and jingly ball. The last two items took me by surprise too but she assured me that rabbits like to play to keep their brains active.
The pair of them took to rabbit ownership with gusto. Feeding, cleaning, stroking were all part of the daily list of pleasurable chores. Our cats ignored them but everyone else had to admit that yes, they were cute.
The playground warnings that the children would get bored with them, and that I’d end up doing all the cleaning, haven’t in the main materialised. Kids of any age will occasionally ‘forget’ and on school mornings the rabbits often have to wait a while to get their bowl refreshed.
Ownership has brought with it all kinds of mini-dramas which make an episode of Emmerdale seem positively tame. We had the worrying couple of weeks when our two girl rabbits seemed to be mating, and a nervousness gripped anyone who opened the hutch of a morning expecting to find a squirming brood of offspring. It never happened. Then we had the incident of Patch’s bottom, in which a little too much Savoy cabbage led to an unpalatable poo residue in the nether regions which involved a Fairy liquid douche and the opportunity for the rabbit to hop around the living room while her fur dried.
There have also been scratches and escapes. Our willing, but bunny-phobic neighbour agreed to look after them while we went to the beach for a week. We returned to find two happy rabbits and the neighbour sporting a string of slashes on her forearm which looked like a particularly brutal form of self-harm. The soft, supposedly docile fluffy things were the culprits.
Our previously flat lawn is a mass of holes, and the rabbits have provided a social link to the neighbours whose garden backs on to ours. The days of calling over the fence for a little assistance have been many, as the burrowers supreme dug their way out in a mission that would impress any imprisoned inmate. And various children have been pitched over the fence (sometimes in their pyjamas) to ‘coax’ the annoying things back.
We haven’t yet reached the sad stage when a rabbit dies – my daughter tells me they can live up to six or seven. But they are old hands at pet death. Already in their short lives they have buried three cats, one a road accident victim, another from a brain tumour and the third old age (17). Each passing has been marked with poems, flowers and rivers of tears over the hard-dug grave in our heavy clay soil. All are talked about and remembered fondly. I know it will be harder when their own personal pet walks over the rainbow bridge to animal heaven, but I’m not worried.
There are plenty of times when I’ve wished the rabbits (damn things, pointless creatures etc) weren’t ours. Our garage has a permanent additional flooring of straw bits and sawdust. We have actively let dandelions and sow thistle grow in the front garden, instead of the usual shrubs and bedding plants. But the children – as far as children of that age can – have lived up to their word and cared for their own pets.
Actually owning the rabbits has rid them of any rosy-glowed view of pet ownership. For a half-term project rabbit expert Katie (now 8) wrote candidly, “Rabbits are lovely and fluffy. If they bite you it does hurt, but if they scratch you, you start to bleed and that really hurts.”
She and her brother have learned that being a rabbit is a bit like being a child at times. You make a mess, someone cleans up after you, sometimes life can be a bit boring and restrictive, but you do know somebody loves you – unconditionally.
Alison Marlow is a former Editor of the Webmag, and now writes novels.