I remember Spencer’s velvety gray ears, his constantly twitching nose, his long transparent whiskers, how the fur under his paws was yellowed and brown, how his testicles looked like wrinkled purple cocoons. We acquired him from our neighbor, who bought a bunch of rabbits from a pet store, in a moment of short-sighted weakness, and left them all in her backyard. Rabbits, as they are wont to do, reproduced quickly, and soon she had a semi-feral rabbit colony in her yard. I like to think we rescued Spencer from her. Dad built him a two-story bunny mansion in the backyard and lovingly stained the wood and added waterproof house shingles to the roof. When we were kind, we’d pick him up and cradle him on his back as if he were our baby. When we were unkind, we’d zip him up in purses and throw him down on the ground too roughly. He was always good to us, miraculously. Rabbits are not necessarily great pets for small children; they are nervous and tend to bite when cornered. But Spencer was astonishingly good-natured; he never bit any of us, even though he had plenty of reason to over the years.
I remember searching for and finding handfuls of baby bunnies in freshly dug warrens in the Blaker’s back yard. Their house backed up to ours and we shared a fence line. Mrs. Blaker was a rather inattentive woman. She yelled a lot at her mean kid, smoked constantly, even when she was pregnant. But on a whim one day, she bought a few rabbits from a pet store.
She let the rabbits roam free in her back yard without food or cages or attention. After a few months, as the old cliche would tell you, there were dozens of rabbits. They had become more or less feral. They started digging complex tunnels through the yard, where they would give birth to their plentiful young, finding shelter from the weather and the hawks. They ran around in their self-made, fenced-in village, completely unchecked.
When the Blakers were gone during the day, we would climb over the fence and go searching for the rabbits. I like to think that we kept them from becoming completely feral, because we handled them so often. We’d sneak them baby carrots and celery from home. We would gently and carefully retrieve the adorable, fluffy babies from the warrens, sticking our skinny arms down dark, animal-made tunnels, feeling gently for a warm ball of velvety fur. Miraculously, we never got bit. We’d sit back there and cradle these bunnies for hours. It was a paradise for an animal-crazy child like myself.
One of the Holland lop does gave birth to a beautiful litter of white and dusky brown babies. At this time, Mrs. Blaker finally realized she had a rabbit problem on her hands and started advertising free bunnies to the neighborhood children. We convinced our parents to let us get one. It was our first real family pet, because fish and finches don’t inspire too much affection; kids want something fuzzy to love. Mrs. Blaker invited a bunch of us little girls in the neighborhood to come play with the bunnies, probably to tempt us with them while our parents were unaware. Our bratty friends, Jennifer and Allison, started physically fighting over a pretty chocolate-colored bunny, grabbing at it like it was a doll, and snapped its legs. It died the next day.
We were mortified and swore we’d never play with them again. The next morning, we quickly picked out a sweet white-and-brown male from the litter. We named him Spencer (maybe because I’d been reading a kid’s version of The Faerie Queen? I don’t know) and told all of our friends that Jennifer and Allison were never allowed to hold him. I felt a great sense of pride that we had rescued him from his quasi-feral, neglectful situation. Dad built Spencer a big bunny mansion, a two-story hutch that sat against the fence. When we let him out, he would run against the fence with his still plentiful relatives. He once got bit in the face by his uncle and his little velvet nose was forever split in two.
Spencer was the best pet. We liked to think he played hide-and-seek with us. He playfully chased us around the yard. He never bit us, which was incredible, considering how we (especially Grace) tortured that poor bunny. Grace liked to smuggle him inside and put him in doll’s clothes, zip him up in purses and swing him around. He was always good-natured. He lived for many years until one winter, we found his still, frozen body on the ground floor of the hutch. I remember wondering if we had failed him, if we should have let him live inside, if we didn’t love him enough. I imagine these thoughts, a specter of Spencer, will always resurface when any animal of mine dies.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Spencer and to my god-bunnies in the United Kingdom, Indy and Felix.
Animals distract me. This, the title of Isabella Rossellini’s new film for Planet Green, could very well be the story of my life. It premiered a few weeks ago and, of course, I really want to watch it. Rossellini is busy training her eighth guide dog and making this documentary, a tribute of her lifelong love of animals and a public exhortation for people to realize how their actions affect other living creatures.
I watched the series of bizarre trailers (in which she impersonates a chicken on hormones and an eyelid parasite) and just kept thinking, “I want to BE this woman. Maybe I AM this woman.” I wish. If only we could all be rich, quirky, gorgeous Italian model-actresses…
I think it’s the title, though, that especially resonated with me. What a perfect description of my (now well-documented) condition! Guion certainly knows this is true. We can’t go on a walk without me pointing out every animal in sight: Pigeons, feral cats, skinks, songbirds, squirrels, and dogs, of course always and forever, dogs. We’ll be driving through the Virginian countryside and I’ll point out cows on the hillside. As if they were something novel! As if we hadn’t passed 700 of them minutes before! It’s a problem. But, like my kindred Isabella, I’ve always been this way.
My parents were fairly tolerant of my animal obsessions as a child. They let me get six mice to “train” for a “science” experiment when I was in early middle school. Really, I just wanted some mice because I thought they were cute. I named them all after Shakespeare characters and kept the males in females in separate glass tanks. Then I found out that Romeo was a Juliet and we had a potential population problem on our hands. The parental edict descended and I had to get rid of them. But they were fun for a while. If extremely smelly.
I went through a brief budgie obsession, which culminated in me getting a pair, Monet and Renoir, for my 13th birthday. They were cute and affable and liked to use my fingers as landing perches. However, I was not prepared for the nocturnal activities of such birds. My annoyance with the noise grew and I began to pray that they would die. This is a dark confession for an animal lover. But there you have it. God rather unceremoniously answered my prayers and about a month later, I found Renoir dead on the floor of the cage. I grieved, but not as much as his pretty gay lover, Monet. Monet died of a broken bird heart a few weeks later. We buried them both in the backyard and ornamented their graves with twig crosses.
Spencer was our family rabbit, a large and happy Dutch lop. He was our first true playmate and easily the most tolerant rabbit ever to live. We acquired him from our irresponsible neighbor, who was running a de facto rabbit colony in her back yard, which met up with ours. She probably had anywhere from 20 to 30 rabbits back there and never fed or cared for them. I like to think we rescued him from that situation, even though he could still play with all of his poor half-siblings, cousins, and assorted relatives along the fence line. Dad built him a two-story rabbit mansion in the back yard. We believed that he played hide-and-seek with us. He never bit us, not even once, which is remarkable, considering that we tried to dress him up and smuggle him inside for tea parties.
Then, of course, you know about Emma, my beautiful, intelligent Australian Shepherd that I failed with my teenager-ness. I think she’s the primary reason I want another Aussie; I have this feeling that I have to make it up to her somehow.
My need to lavish affection on an animal has even extended to Reuben. A fish is barely a pet–they’re about as much fun as a plant–but I love this fish. I talk to him in the mornings when I feed him. I think he’s very handsome and I worry about his manorexia.
The other day, during my lunch break, I made a list of all of the animals I wanted to own on our fictional 300-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley. Here is my ideal menagerie:
- Pack of dogs, at most four (Shepherds from most regions: Australian, German, and Anatolian. And probably a Great Pyrenees.)
- One to two cats. (I do not know anything about cats and I’ve only met a few that I’m fond of; I loved Kitteh, my housemate in Denver, for example. Yet I probably shouldn’t be allowed to get a cat because I think of them as purely decorative beings. Cats are so elegant and pretty and they go with everything! If I got cats, they’d probably be functional barn cats.)
- Two to three bunnies. I love bunnies!
- A flock of finches or two budgerigars for the parlor. It’s only proper.
- Goats for lawn control and cheese.
- Sheep for the dogs to guard and herd. And for wool. And lamb kebobs.
- A llama. For inter-species friendships with the sheep. And because they’re super-soft.
- One handsome Jersey cow for milking.
- If we suddenly inherit millions, two horses. For riding around the property and for brushing. Haven’t gotten over My Little Pony yet.
- Chickens. Guion will probably make me get chickens. I have no interest in them, but I think I could learn to love them.
This list has the potential to grow. Consider yourself warned, husband.
I am finally going to my volunteer orientation at the Charlottesville SPCA this weekend and I could not be more excited. It’s absurd. I was talking to Emily yesterday about her life and she’s talking about huge things like her career and moving to the West Bank for six months and she’s all, “What’s the big thing in your life right now?” And I’m just, “OMG, I’m going to the animal shelter!!” No comparison in the magnitude of these life plans.
But there you have it. Animals distract me. That’s all I really need to say.