“Are they happy in their cages?”
The county fair is an unlikely place to consider existential crises, but I had to ask.
“Of course. I mean, I do take them out and love them. I sit on the the porch swing and we rock away.”
Did she cuddle all 30 of her breeding rabbits? That must be quite a chore. It has to be only the ones she really loves– the pets in cages closer to or in the house. She and her son had a barn where most of the rabbits were kept. I imagined my animal fancy guide on a stationary glider, perusing the muck boots in the L.L. Bean catalog as she stroked the lottery winning doe of the day. Her gold rimmed bifocals caught the highlights in her carefully cut and dyed hair. Her sweet smile and soft voice must belie a sharp nose for details acquired in the American Rabbit Breeder’s Association. A Mini Rex’s fur should be smooth and springy, not too soft or silky– according to ARBA. I’m sure it wasn’t just any bunny who got to swing with the mater familias on the front porch.
I looked the Mini Rex in her dark eyes. Her chocolate fur broke into mocha highlights on the edges of her curves- ears, limbs and paws. Were there signs of discontent? The Netherland Dwarves were, indeed, much more high strung. Their noses twitched and they moved around the cage a lot– not quite pacing. Were they concerned about their shortened, slightly distorted extremities? Perhaps they were working through fire drill procedures and the opposability of their toes. The Mini Rex sat still. There wasn’t much to do. I wouldn’t call it contentment. Perhaps it was acceptance.
My son walked into the poultry and rabbit show barn. His jeans were dusty and his shirt was wet.
“Did you finish?”
“You fed and watered her? Did you clean out her stall?”
“Yes. Aww! Hello little bunny.”
Linus’ project for the fair was Caramela the Lamb. He was content he’d finished the chores. He was now basking in the velvet coated bunnies. Trying to pet the Mini Rex was difficult through the wire.
“My son started with rabbits when he was 10. They’re so easy. He’s 30 now and we exhibit at all the big shows. If you’re really interested in getting a rabbit for your 4H project next year, come to our show at the fair grounds next week.”
“Thank you. I think you’re right about the Mini Rex. You’ve been so kind to share all this information.”
As we ran through the rain to the parking lot, “Mom can we do both next year– a bunny and a lamb?”
Thanks to Caramela the leaves on all my flox are gone, the delphiniums are smushed into the ground, but the herbs are still in place. She doesn’t care for Genovese basil and Italian flat leaf parsley. I am not eager for any 4H project. It is almost certain that Esmerelda our cat would greet the new recruit with claws and teeth. None of animal fancy or husbandry strikes a chord within me. It’s more, however, than the fear of entrails on my front porch or ruined flower beds. I’m not sure I have enough love to give a caged animal. Beyond her unwanted pruning of the garden, I was frustrated by Caramela’s displacement from the flock. It wasn’t right to keep her behind wire. I’m not sure it’s suitable for bunnies either. Daily administered minutes of love and entertainment outside the cage could not possibly make up for all the hours spent inside.
I am an enthusiastic party to Disney-fying all animal dilemmas. Esmerelda, or Mimi as we prefer to call her, was banished from the house for marking her territory. To assuage my guilt, almost every time I see her, I act out a continued diatribe of responses in a mock, irritated cat voice. Mimi’s immaculate tuxedo suit; soft, pink padded paws; bright green eyes and petite stature make this very easy. I like to envision her love affair with Figaro the cat in the 1940 production of Pinocchio. Between my Mimi performances and all the Aardman animated videos my son watches, I’m troubled for his future on a grass-fed meat farm. He has inherited my need to anthropomorphize. Bottle feeding and raising a rejected, triplette lamb was far removed from watching Shaun the Sheep.
He often sighs after wrangling with Caramela, “She’s just not like the sheep in Bitzer’s flock. Mom, why do you draw bunnies?”
“I have no idea.”
I can’t remember asking for a pet, ever. Cleanliness seemed far more important to me than any satisfaction derived from petting fur. I was in charge of dusting all the furniture and cleaning bathrooms by the time I was 10. Cats, dogs or any other shedding creature would only make my tasks take longer. They’d keep me from getting back to important things like drawing unicorns, flying Pegasuses and rainbows. I liked to give them to my friends at school. In the fifth grade I first spent the night away at a girl named Caroline’s house. It could only have been months of gifting fanciful crayon creations that prompted this privileged invitation. They had horses, dogs, cats and I’m sure there was a caged rodent somewhere in a corner of their very cluttered house. Eking out room for myself in the cramped, living space of others is a life time goal I’m still working on. The smell, dander and fluff of pets only makes it harder. As a child the only other time I experienced creatures was in Italy. With the limited space on my grand-parents’ small farm– cows, dogs, fowl and pigs were either chained and/or contained. I had had no intimate contact with fur or feathers of any kind, ever. It was not something I missed.
At Caroline’s I was free to jump on the huge trampoline inherited from the local gymnastic’s club. We role played in the abandoned Rolls Royce in a field behind the house. The car was powder blue and caked in dust. There was Queen Anne’s lace everywhere. Caroline’s mother had real bone china from their native England stacked in glazed cupboards. We grazed on a cold, rare beef roast left on the stove and Yorkshire puddings in the refrigerator. I slept near a wood stove in a sleeping bag. In the morning we ate Alphabits cereal with multi-colored marshmallows. My head was floating in the clouds where no dirt or dust collected in corners for me to clean. In spite of all this wonder, I could not wait to get home to my mother’s clean house. The purpose of animals was to dress Cinderella and draw her carriage to the ball in appropriate attire. There was no mess or smell involved.
How I ended up living on an animal farm 30 years later is my life’s mystery. I am still struggling to understand my place in the animal kingdom. Everyone poops, among many other bodily excretions. But not everyone has a septic system, a pedestal sink, a bidet or an enameled claw foot tub where they can dispose of the evidence. I credit my unease over this discrepancy to that first sleep-over in a cluttered country house with 5 children, as well as my restricted child-hood access to farm animals. I love the fresh air, the acres of uninterrupted landscape, the delicious bounty from the garden, and the quiet dark sky at night. I’d kill, however, for reliable public transportation and access to well stocked bookstores, grocery stores, sustainably provisioned restaurants and chocolate shops. I’m a free-range human with eccentric, and probably unnecessary, urban predilections.
Is it the generations of over-breeding that keep me from embracing the shed skin and hair of the animal kingdom? Is there a World Human Breeding Association I could join for support? Perhaps the Mini Rex and I have more in common than I realize. The recessive mini-dwarfing gene that makes this rabbit so petite, calm and groomable is orchestrated from years of couplings. The chocolate colored representative at the county fair is far flung from the first Rex that appeared in France in 1920. I am even more removed from my Italian ancestors who lived 10 feet from their cattle and poultry. The animals here are at least a half mile away– a great walk to keep me under the ideal show weight for my breed. Would I be happy in a cage? If there weren’t bathrooms to clean or furniture to dust, maybe… If I could read, write, draw and paint as much as I like, perhaps… If someone took me out to love, groom and swing with on a porch for an allotted time each day, possibly… These were all things I pondered as I painted Bunny’s World. Enjoy!