I bought my rabbit, Clem, eight years ago from a thin, springy woman who ran a rabbit rescue from her large house in the country. Upon entering, I remember a sharp, rusty odor, but there was not a wad of fur or dropping to be found. Her house was immaculate for someone with animals living in every pore; rabbits munched and frolicked in their cages in the garage and living room. She even had a “private stash” in her bedroom that weren’t for sale.
I found this woman slightly unhinged. Little did I know, I would soon understand her need to cut across four lanes of traffic and throttle her car to the side of the road to retrieve an unventilated box of abandoned kits.
Clem was not my love at first sight. Nay, I had my heart set on a four-year-old Rex that looked just like the Velveteen Rabbit, one of my favorite fictional critters as a kid. My boyfriend, Sean, adored him too, but convinced me that it wasn’t such a good idea, since he had a large tumor on his hind leg. This would be our first pet as a fairly new couple, so I agreed to move on, reluctantly.
Clem flopped around a cage with a litter of rabbits that were indistinguishable from each other. They each had shiny black coats and stubby ears. We knew he was “the one” when he plopped right in front of us and shoved his nose into my hand. For 20 bucks, he was ours. On the ride home he nuzzled my waist, poking me with his whiskers and every now and then stretching his neck and sniffing the air. We named him Clementine; I didn’t learn that he was a male until a year later, when we went to get him neutered. I remember correcting the vet, who then schooled me by showing me my rabbit’s testicles.
Rabbits are not rodents; they’re lagomorphs, which is something I always threw into my father’s face. He assumed that rodents were less than those of the canine and feline families, and called Clem a “chew toy.” But I’m here to tell you rabbits are as sassy and conspiring as cats and as athletic as dogs. Did you know that rabbits can do kick flips with their hind legs? That they can throw cardboard boxes across the room? Pretty badass for a chew toy.
Clem has his own special brand of sassery. When I would study for college exams, I’d arrange all my books and notebooks across the floor and work, and Clem would come bounding across the carpet then nudge my hand. I happily mirrored his affection, but I’d have to shoo him away after the third or fourth round of pets in order to get any work done. Clem detested being shooed, so he’d devise a plan out of spite. He’d stare at me while threatening to chew through my lamp’s power cord. I’d sternly tell him NO and he would inch closer and closer to the cord anyway until I launched from the floor. The fluffy-tailed bastard would bolt underneath my dresser.
His favorite game to play with me though was the one where he’d rip a page from my notebook and flee with it into his cage. So fun. And everyone knew that once he was in his cage, he was untouchable; one could likely lose a finger in a single instant of reaching into his highly protected turf.
In literature, rabbits have always been depicted as tricksters, and I believe that every rabbit has a little of that witty, conniving Bugs Bunny in him. I believe Clem receives great pleasure when I bumble around the room to catch him. He is after all prey, and maybe he wants to be true to his nature by making his large, dim-witted oppressor hustle.
Clem lives for yogurt drops, his preciouses. All I have to do is rattle the bag of Yogies to get him to emerge from his dark tunnels. He rips them right out from my hand without a thank you. I was curious to know why he’s so hooked and decided to test them for myself. It turns out that the tart, artificial strawberry isn’t half bad. Hell, I prefer them to Smarties. Clem also saws down at least a quarter of a bag of hay a day. His mouth is constantly at work, rolling around in little circles.
A rabbit’s chow-down is much more complicated than it looks. They chew in sequences, first chiseling hay like a paper shredder, then grinding it down between the molars on one side of the mouth at a time, then pumping their intricate jaws to bring food to the back of the throat. They have a total of 28 teeth, including their trademark front incisors. Rabbits are delicate creatures; their skulls are not solid bone, rather they are thin and fenestrated, resembling a lace-like fabric.
There came a point when I felt guilty about Clem being alone all day, so I bought him a rabbit friend, whom we named Dexter. He’s cotton swab white with black rims around his eyes, which makes it look like he wears glasses like Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory. Dexter and Clem hit it off right away. They cuddled together so tight that they looked like one rising and falling ball of yin and yang.
Around the time Dexter hit his teenage rabbit years, the love spell wore off. Dexter grew impatient with Clem’s dominance, his insistence that Dexter should clean his fur whenever he commanded. He was smaller than Clem, but faster, and growing into himself. He didn’t like to be bossed around and thumped in protest. I noticed they started sleeping on different levels in the cage. Dexter took the top bunk, and Clem huddled in the bottom one. It was a tragic observation. They were supposed to be brothers for life.
One day I was doing laundry in the basement, I heard a loud clamor coming from the ceiling. I slammed the laundry basket on the floor and heaved myself up the stairs. When I opened my bedroom door, Clem and Dexter were one again, except this time a tangled tumbleweed rolling around on the carpet. Patches of Clem’s fur were scattered across the floor in between small red dots of blood. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there deciding which finger I could afford to lose. I had a feeling this was an ultimate death match to decide who would be the alpha once and for all. Finally, Clem staggered, so I scooped him up, saving him and his dignity. Dexter’s tail was raised, and he was still grunting heavily. This fluffy bunny wasn’t fucking around.
In the end, Sean and I bought another cage and split them down the middle. It was devastating for us to watch. Their brief and passionate love was no more. I’m going to be honest with you; I felt a little resentment toward Dexter, even though I knew he was transforming into a man rabbit who wanted his space and independence. Clem couldn’t handle that. To him, he and Dexter needed to share one beating heart — one that beats 180 beats per minute (at rest). Was Clem’s affection too big, too suffocating for Dexter? Clem handled their breakup fairly well, though, in the time he spent chasing Dexter around the apartment, he made up for in eating. The poor bastard put on a couple of ounces.
It’s interesting how much value you can get out of 20 dollars, and also how much work. I guess most pet owners stumble over these crossroads.
The brushing of a rabbit is serious manual labor that you have to keep on top of. There was one year I was up to my eyeballs in jobs and homework. I vividly remember the messy hair buns and basketball shorts, the Monster Energy drink-induced nights where I was trying to decipher the Canterbury Tales, the braille of English. I slipped. I couldn’t keep up with Clem’s high-maintenance fur. What happens when you don’t brush a domestic rabbit? Well, they start to ingest their fur, which does startling things to their digestive tracks. Anyway, Clem ate so much of his own fur that it formed a web-like weave around his shit. The result was solid, golf ball size turds that Sean and I had to chop off with a pair of designated scissors.
Let me just say that rabbits aren’t as cute with solid rock turds hanging from their butts. Or when they’re yawing. Or when they’re eating their poop, which is pretty standard for most animals.
I thought we almost lost Clem. He wasn’t eating for a couple days so I rushed him over to a pet clinic near me. They turned me away because apparently Clem is considered “exotic,” which blows my mind. Clem, exotic? Give me a break. Exotic basically means risky, specialized, not to mention expensive, in veterinary terms.
So I drove Clem 45 minutes to a pet emergency center that was open 24 hours. I couldn’t locate his carrier so I sat him in my front seat, draping my cardigan over his head so he could hide, which he seemed to appreciate.
“We’re almost, there, Clem. Hang in there, old chap!” I told him. I turned my wheel gently, as opposed to cranking it. I didn’t want to freak him out even more than he already was with his wet, black eyes maniacally jutting out of their sockets.
I shoved my rabbit underneath my armpit, and we entered the emergency room. The receptionist, a young man with messy hair, jeans and a slight lisp, escorted us to our room and left us. I began to pace. I texted my friends about Clem’s updated status even if they didn’t ask. I let Clem sit underneath my chair as we waited for the vet.
About 30 minutes later I asked the receptionist how much longer until we were seen. Just as he was about to respond, a loud screeching alarm blasted through the hallway, bouncing off walls. Dogs began to bark, and two women in blue scrubs hustled past me with carriers with whiskers protruding from them.
“There was a gas leak. We all need to evacuate,” they told me. Clem was statuesque in his spot on the floor where scooped him up.
Rain pelted the street and cars. People huddled with their pets under umbrellas or scurried to their cars for shelter. Clem buried his head in my lap.
This was it. I thought chopping a poop ball off my rabbit’s ass had officially made me a crazy bunny lady, but I think the moldy cherry on top was waiting out the rain in my car with my supposedly dying rabbit until the firemen fixed the gas leak and told everyone to go inside.
The firemen waved everyone back in. We sat in the lobby waiting to be resituated, dripping in our chairs. A sick pitbull rested his head on his owner’s lap. The woman stroked the spot around his half-shut eye. A vet tech who was holding a cat in its carrier dozed off against a wall and dropped the cat’s fluids bag on the floor. Everyone in the waiting room peered at it on the floor until the tech noticed and snatched it up. Clem and I had a staredown contest with an overweight Yorkie who looked unamused with the entire situation.
Finally, Clem and I were herded into a room again where I began to pace back and forth, anxious to hear my rabbit’s fate. A vet tech popped her head in. She was pretty and looked slightly older than me. I stared at the infinity symbol strung on a chain around her neck when she spoke to me. I stared at it some more when she told me the final bill to keep Clem over night and administer medications. 1,200 dollars minimum.
“Lady, I love him, but he’s a rabbit. Give me a break, huh? I suppose you don’t do payment plans?” I laughed.
“No, but we take credit cards,” she said. Not a drop of sympathy in her clear, blue eyes.
“Ah, I figured as much. I think I’m gonna just take him home then. I mean, I just don’t have that kind of money. Is there any way I can just give him the meds on my own?”
“Well … I will check back with the doctor and see what I can do.”
She was tired. Clem and I were tired too. I took a peek at him. He was trailing off in my arms, but not really, as rabbits only sleep when it’s safe, which isn’t often for an animal born into fear.
We nursed Clem like he was a newborn. Five different medications, including one you have to mix into a green sludge. We’d take turns wrapping Clem burrito-like into a towel and shoving syringes past his two teeth. He jerked and sneezed as we force fed him the green sludge and spit it up if we gave him too much too quickly. Why is love always such a messy operation?
In two weeks, Clem was in perfect health. He rejoiced, kicking his hind legs, and all my began innards began to frolic.