Desert Environmental News 3/29/2012
Storified by Chris Clarke · Thu, Mar 29 2012 13:29:33
Storified by Chris Clarke · Thu, Mar 29 2012 13:29:33
Storified by Chris Clarke · Thu, Mar 29 2012 02:28:07
Thistle – rabbit, lover, hero.
2001(?) – March 22, 2012
When I first met him he was in a hutch, in the middle of a large chain pet food store doing their part to help the local shelter adopt out animals. He was locked in there, so I found a staff person with a key. The lid rose, he looked at me a bit shyly, and I picked him up.
He nestled against my chest, nose tucked against my collarbone.
I’d wanted a rabbit for… how old was I? Younger than ten. Probably younger than six. We were still living in the Finger Lakes and my parents were hustling us out the door to go visit relatives but I stuck by the television, watching Mr. Green Jeans hold a big brown doe as he talked to Captain Kangaroo and the credits rolled. I wanted that rabbit. Looking back, it was the first time I remember my senses heightening in that certain way: I can still see the incredible, sharp-focus detail of the rabbit’s fur lapping over Hugh Brannum’s fingers. It was a weird, unsettling lust like I’d never known before. At that age I was afraid of dogs and cats, and I wasn’t accustomed to wanting to pet an animal on purpose. I touched the screen, almost hoping to feel the fur.
That feeling didn’t go away for about four decades. My ex-and I had talked about adopting a rabbit some time before, but held off: we were renters, and not only did we feel like a baseboard-chewing organism might be a detriment in hunting for the next place, but the local rabbit society volunteer was clearly skeptical about our living situation. Holding that rabbit in the pet store that day in 2004 I was in possession of a brand-new, two-year-old mortgage. And a garden full of tasty weeds. And a compost pile that needed nitrogen. For once the tickmarks on the PRO side of the balance sheet exceeded those on the CON side.
I wasn’t really thinking about that when I said I’d take him. I was just feeling him against my left clavicle, breathing softly if a bit nervously, his unbelievably plush Mini-Rex fur like velvet shag beneath my fingers.
And then I got him home and I started learning about rabbits. They’re not dogs, nor are they cats. One friend with experience said “think of a lap-dog-sized horse and you won’t be far off.” She had that right. He liked to run away. He liked to eat massive amounts of hay. He had a serious temper and expressed it with his teeth, and even neutering him a few weeks later only slowly curbed that painful little idiosyncracy.
Mostly, he did not like to be cuddled. He didn’t like to be held. He was fine with the occasional equine snoot-rub, especially if it was a precursor to the offering of a carrot. But he wanted all four feet on the floor, or the ground, at all times. This isn’t unusual: it’s one of the first things a new, modern, houserabbit type person learns from the experts about their new pet. Thistle had this quality to excess. It’s part of how he got his name, along with a taste for his eponymous plant.
I accepted his no-cuddling preference without too much disappointment; what I was losing in potential snuggling I was making up in getting to know a completely new kind of animal personality. I’d expected his personality to be, well, fluffy. He was anything but fluffy. We gave him the run of the backyard. He appointed himself Warrior King of the garden, a title to which the dog graciously proffered no objection. He always resisted being brought in at night, or when we were leaving for the store, and I had to chase him around the perimeter ten or fifteen times before catching him. But then he learned that I eventually always did catch him, and that each capture was followed by being picked up and carried into the house. Rather than suffer through that, he decided that on the third or fourth circuit — enough chasing to be sure I meant business — he’d just head back into the house of his own free will.
I’ve been thinking today about one time in particular that I went to flush him out of the underbrush and chase him inside. It was mid-day. It had started to rain, turning cold as a front passed over the Bay Area. I got to the back door and saw him sitting under an Adirondack chair, mainly sheltered from the wet, and every now and then taking a nibble from a random glistening leaf. I stood and watched from the doorway. A thin stream of rainwater fell from the edge of the chair’s seat in a near-continuous drip. He swallowed a mouthful of grass blade and then, tilting his head up rakishly, drank from the stream as it fell. He was utterly at peace, lord of all he surveyed, and he drank the garden’s wine and ate its fruit at ease with himself and the world, like the rabbit in the Stevens poem:
To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;
And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;
Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full
And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,
You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
I let him stay out there a bit longer.
I remind myself today that I gave him that, plucked him from the jaws of sheltery extermination and grew the garden for him and refrained, that one time, from harassing him back into the house just as things were getting good. I gave him that.
That thought will make things better, eventually.
Three months later I moved out, an unpleasant process. I sat on the floor for a while during one day of packing, despairing over the end of the marriage and that part of my life. Thistle walked into the room, curious. He came and sat as I fretted, just out of reach but with me nonetheless. Packing ended and I moved. My ex-wife tended Thistle for me for 18 months. When she brought him to me in Los Angeles at the end of that too-long time he was changed. Despite her stellar caretaking he’d aged, and sickened. I nursed him to relative health over the next few weeks but he was palpably different: a deposed monarch, like one of those dictators who sheds his ridiculous military uniform, dons a caftan and spend his days sitting poolside in Monaco.
It’s two and a half years since. His cage has been next to my desk that whole time, in Los Angeles and now here. He and I have spent most of our waking moments together since our reunion. For the last six months he has been losing weight very slowly, despite eating prodigious amounts of hay and produce. He’s still eating even now, his head held up by the rim of his food bowl. He can barely hold himself up. His muscle mass is next to nonexistent, enough to chew his food and to flail when he falls over. I get up — I just got up as I finished the previous sentence — and gently turn him right-side up.
He has an appointment with the vet tomorrow at 11:30 am. Though I’ve hedged my bets to an absurd degree, telling the vet that I’m open to suggestions of how to make him better if any such options exist, he will not be coming home from that visit. It’s time. Even I can’t deny that. Without the fat and muscle he once wore, there is nothing but skin and thinning velvet shag fur to cushion bone from rug. He is uncomfortable even lying down.
For the past week, he has fully relaxed only when I pick him up, turn him with excruciating care of his tiny bones, and cradle him in my arm against my chest.
He is only at peace when I hold him.
He’s not any better, but he’s not any worse. A couple very generous friends have tossed some money into the veterinary fund, so at least I have less of that feeling that I can’t afford to do the right thing by him when the time comes. I hate being in that position, but I’m grateful to be in that position. If you know what I mean.
I’ve reposted this before, three years ago — it’s even in the book — but I’m doing it again as it seems apropos.
We’ve named the rabbit Thistle. Or he named himself: that was the one name he responded to at all. Smart bunny: the second-runner-up name was “Stu.”
Thistle was running around in the back yard this morning. We’re trying to acquaint him and Zeke in a controlled fashion, so that they can keep each other company without us watching every second. But it seemed, this morning, like several million years of racial memory were manifesting themselves in Zeke’s pointy little brain. The rabbit would run up the cinderblock path, and every hair on Zeke’s body would stand at attention.
I trust Zeke not to inflict deliberate harm: we’ve had a dozen small pets since we got him, and he’s always been very gentle. But after a couple laps around the garden, nose just inches behind Thistle’s tail, I started worrying about the accidental stomp… not to mention inflicting too much stress on the rabbit. Rabbits do die of fright.
So I called Zeke, and after a minute, when the commands finally registered on his rabbit-addled mind, he came running toward me.
With Thistle in hot pursuit, nipping at his heels. I think they’ll be fine.
I think he’s on his way out. Might be tonight, might be a few days. I don’t think it’ll be weeks.
I’ve been wrong about this kind of thing before, over and over again. Maybe this will be one of those times.
He spent 45 minutes sleeping in my lap just now. He’s never done that in his life. He’s weak and slow.
I have Perlman’s Bach solos playing for him. It’s his favorite music, aside from my ex-playing her violin. He used to leave his cage when she’d practice, wander out to the living room and sit with her as she played. If she wasn’t 500 miles away I’d have her bring it over.