On March 1, 2008 I boarded a train in Poznan, Poland. Destination: Warsaw. The train was almost empty. I had an entire six-seat compartment to myself. I set the empty pet carrier beside me and watched the winter landscape glide by. Rain splattered against the window, obscuring the fields and sky. Gray on gray. The wind howled.
After three hours, I arrived in Warsaw. I was met by the head of Stowarzyszenie Pomocy Królikom, a Polish rabbit rescue society. They were having a special event that day, but she had made the effort to come and get me because I had come a long way. SPK had a chapter in Poznan, but I came to Warsaw, because there was a special girl who needed a home. She had been at their shelter for so long that no one remembered where she had come from or what her story was. They only knew that she was about a year old. Big bunnies are not popular. People don’t consider them “cute”. I didn’t adopt her out of pity, however. My previous rabbit Gilligan had been a so-called “meat rabbit”. They are the Labradors of the rabbit world. Calm, good-natured, goofy love sponges.
As we rode the train back to Poznan, I stroked her nose and decided that I would call her Flower. She looked like a creature that you would see in your garden, eating your vegetables. By the time we arrived in Poznan, night had fallen. When I opened the carrier, she growled and charged at me. I pressed firmly on her nose, establishing dominance. She made a few rounds of the kitchen, and then hopped into her litter box. She had none of the skittishness of my previous rabbits. I had wanted to adopt a pair, but the shelter’s efforts to bond her had been unsuccessful. “She tries to kill other rabbits,” the lady said.
I knew what it was like to prefer the company of other species to that of my own. By the time my husband arrived in Poznan, a couple of weeks later, Flower and I were best friends. My husband had taken the deaths of our previous three rabbits very hard, so he was determined to not get attached to her. However, he soon succumbed to her charm. And she to his.
I have always felt a deep affinity with little animals. Watchful creatures that scurry around in the underbrush. My very first pet was a rabbit named “Julie”. I’ve shared my life with hamsters, guinea pigs, and even a chinchilla. When I was a child, I tamed the chipmunks that lived in the forest around my grandparents’ cottage. They would come right up to me and eat out of my hand. It takes patience and respect. There’s something very rewarding about gaining a prey animal’s trust and love.
I am fascinated by “the subtle language of rabbits”, as my sister Pebby, another rabbit enthusiast, calls it. It’s so different from that of dogs and cats. You need to quiet down, get on the floor, and observe. Soft snorts of indignation, buzzes of affection. Nose nudges. The grinding teeth of contentment.
And, of course, the thumps. Flower was a formidable watchdog. She could sleep through a jack hammer battering the street, but a homeless person shuffling around the corridor outside our apartment in Poznan, and drunken tourists copulating in the bushes outside our window in Budapest sent those big back feet into a frenzy.
Then there is the body language: ear position, nose wiggle velocity. Stances. She could be so intimidating.
Poznan. Budapest. Bratislava. Prague. Every time we packed up a van and hit the road for a new home, Flower rode shotgun. As soon as we’d arrive, we’d open the carrier door, and she would venture out to explore her new territory. Four countries, all with different attitudes towards rabbits. Our landlord in Budapest loved her. In Slovakia we had a difficult time finding a decent apartment, because most landlords didn’t allow “livestock”. She was spoken to in six different languages. Bunny rabbit, lapin, królik, nyúl, zajac, králík. The Hungarians who knew her called her Virág, their word for Flower.
Yes, she was a porker, but if faced with a choice, she would stop eating and snuggle up beside me. Love was always the most important thing. Whenever I’d have a panic attack, I’d lie down beside her and let her simple love bring me back to Earth. I proudly adorned our holiday greetings with her image. She was our girl.
The feisty girl matured into a tough old babushka. Her gusty, high-pitched snores could be heard throughout the apartment. When she reached seven years old, I was finally able to pick her up. The last three years were difficult. Arthritis, teeth problems. Two types of medication twice a day. She had a massive tumor removed in August, but she was back to normal two days later. The big breeds usually live a maximum of eight years, and she was approaching ten. She seemed determined to make it. Every vet who saw her was impressed.
Rabbits are not low stress pets. Proper care requires vigilance and sensitivity. Often you don’t know that something is wrong until it’s too late. And just when you think they’re about to leave you, they bounce back. You always wonder if you’re doing the right thing.
But when the time has come to let go, you know. A calm resignation takes hold.
On November 30th, Flower went home to the Great Dandelion Meadow in the Sky. Her majestic presence is gone, leaving behind a gaping void. My husband and I are unable to speak. There will be no more bunnies, no more creatures at all.
Happy Trails – Foofie Butt, Her Royal Fatness, Princess Dingleberry, BubbaLicious. When I get to the end of this long and dusty highway, I know you’ll be waiting for me, along with all of the other beautiful beasts who have kept me company along the way.