San Diego chapter of the House Rabbit Society sets me straight

It's way too late to corral Boo

— Each throw rug is neatly rolled into a sausage. The small gray rabbit dozes in a fluffy lump under a rattan plant stand, a half-lidded sleep, alert for any coyote that might leap from behind the couch. A rabbit can't rest until his daily chores are done. Most important, apparently, is rolling the rugs -- digging frantically at one corner until it flops over, then furling it into a tube with a well-coordinated dance of scratching and retreating, scratching, retreating, until the offending rug is secured. Larger, heavier rugs are simply dog-eared at each corner. Rabbits are orderly, compulsive pets.

This particular rabbit arrived in this particular house, my house, unanticipated. It began when a friend with more kids than good sense surrendered to weeks of whining. "We'll take care of him. Pleasepleaseplease? We'll feedcleanbrushwalkplaywithhim, keephimoutofyourway, takehimtothevet... Pleasepleaseplease! He's so tiny! He's so cuuuuuute!" Eventually the rabbit seemed like less aggravation than the children. Soon my friend's neighbor was $10 richer and one rabbit lighter, and the kids had something to chase around the house after school.

When I first saw the rabbit, he was hunkered in a hamster cage with the remains of cartoon rabbit food -- a flaccid carrot, desiccated lettuce. He looked grumpy and hot. And cute. "Oh, yeah, isn't he cute?" my friend said casually. "But the kids aren't taking care of him, of course." (The children would later deny this.) "If you'd like him for a while, until I can fix up a place for him, go ahead and take him. But you don't have to, of course..."

Of course I didn't have to, but I did.

Pet-wise, I usually don't fall for "cute." An energetic, alert working dog, a Springer spaniel, perhaps, would be the ideal. Rabbits figured nowhere in the mix, real or ideal. They were storybook characters or things people bought in pet shops as doomed Easter gifts. Education was a necessity.

Lesson one came right away. Freeing the bunny from his tiny cage as soon as we were in the house, I learned: Keep the Doors Closed. The neighbors' terrier had come in through the patio. Spotting the rabbit, the dog was galvanized into a yelping, bunny-seeking missile, the rabbit a wide-eyed gray streak frantic for a rabbit hole. He hid behind a bookcase. The terrier quivered and snuffed, his nose wedged into the tiny space. Is it true that rabbits can die of fright?

Boot out dog, put down water for electrified bunny, go to pet store for alfalfa pellets, take bunny to vet to check his runny nose, go to library and find out what's up with house rabbits.

Finally, some peace and order. He dove into the dish of pellets as if he hadn't eaten in a week. The library was illuminating. Books in the adult section bear titles with words like "breeding," "farming," "profit." How to fatten, kill, and skin them. Rabbit-in-wine-sauce recipes. Books on rabbits to be pampered and played with are on the kids' shelves, full of colorful pictures and general advice. The vet's prescription had bunny back to what apparently was his old self.

It turns out the rabbit is a chinchilla rabbit. Full adult fighting weight: two pounds, maybe two and a half. Short, straight-up ears. Silver-gray on top, pure white undersides from chin to butt. Huge, round black eyes. Fat cheeks. One of the smallest of the domestic rabbit breeds, and the liveliest, with an air of perpetual childhood. Enough to turn a trucker all baby-talky.

His name, apparently, is Boo. It just evolved somehow and stuck.

He settled in and made himself even more adorable, if that was possible. At sunset he'd rouse himself from a nap under the plant stand, stretch, yawn, and race around the house, chased by imaginary wolves. He'd bound over furniture and execute little midair dance steps. He begged like a puppy for anything edible. Up on tiptoes, front feet on your shin or pawing the air, eyes huge, nose twitching. His favorite game -- picking things up in his teeth and tossing them over his shoulder: cat toys, strawberry baskets, hay, a piece of stiff netting from a Halloween costume.

He woke me up one night when he sat on my head. He'd taunt the neighbors' dogs by stretching out full length in front of the patio door while they woofed and pranced in frustration on the other side of the glass. Pick him up, and he'd wiggle free and launch himself across the room. But scratch his face and ears, and he'd close his eyes and lick and groom your hand like a long-lost love. When totally relaxed, he'd suddenly fall over on his side as if he'd been shot, rabbits not being rigged up to lie on their sides very gracefully. Dinner guests were wowed, reduced to kitchy-cooing idiots.

On the other hand, from all indications, Boo was about six months old, in the prime of his adolescence. With full run of the house, he indulged in every terrible-teens activity he could. Rabbits' front teeth grow continuously. They must gnaw to keep them short. Baseboards were Boo's favorites. The day the phone and modem stopped working, I learned that rabbits love to chew cords. If it's a lamp or a TV, electrocution is a real possibility. Despite their cat-like preference for a litter box, rabbits drop random pellets to mark their territories. And Boo had a lot of territory to cover. He turned the throw-rug fringe to stubble. He even had friends in while I was gone -- Boo and a wild cottontail in the den, sitting on their haunches, staring at one another. He shredded towels and phone books, grazed on rugs, ate each new baby off the huge spider plant. Then he started farting. Just occasional and odorless, but surprisingly loud.

I gave Boo away to live in an outdoor hutch with a couple of big, hulking specimens. Filled with guilt, I took him back the next day, maybe saving his life. Rabbits can be bloodthirsty fighters. Things were definitely out of control.

The vet had given me the business card for the San Diego chapter of the House Rabbit Society. Their Web site is full of scientific papers from rabbit vets, food lists, symptoms of terrible wasting diseases, personal pet stories, adoptable animals. No wonder Boo was in heaven. I was falling for "cute" and indulging every bad instinct he has. No more raisin bran, potato chips, popcorn, or (horrors!) marshmallow, no matter how irresistibly, frantically he begged. Ease way up on the alfalfa pellets. Too much calcium and protein. No spinach (toxic). Rabbits are like horses. What goes in the mouth must keep going south. They can't vomit. The balance of intestinal flora is critical. And having been bred as domestic pets, now so far from their wild European ancestors, they've lost natural instincts to avoid harmful food. It's a miracle Boo was still alive. Perhaps we need to see how some other rabbits live.

At one point in the afternoon, Larry Dudus is lying on his bathroom floor with his head in a rabbit cage, scratching the chin of a big gray-marked white Dutch. In response, Shelly sticks out her little pink tongue and frantically licks Larry's nose and cheeks. "See? She's so affectionate and loving." Larry beams, then rinses his face. He picks her up and cradles her on her back along his arm. He strokes her ears. Shelly is motionless, hypnotized. Blissed out like a soft, supine Buddha. Then he does the same with Pete, a round, white-and-orange lop, with a pug-like face and long, sad lop ears. Five minutes later, I'm lying on the den floor as another Dutch-lop pair lick mashed banana off my fingers. An eight-pound Dutch lopes around her enclosure in the kitchen downstairs.

Larry is a rabbit society volunteer who has two of his own and three fosters recovered from a local shelter. Owner education and rabbit rescue and adoption are two of the society's main aims. His pristine new house in Oceanside, with oyster-white wall-to-wall carpeting, hardly looks like the home of livestock. Only the elegantly goofy brass Bugs Bunny door knocker gives a hint. I confess my sins with Boo, and Larry says I'm an unfortunately typical new owner.

Larry acquired his first rabbit when he rescued it from a cat attack. His second came as an adopted companion for the first. Until then, he hadn't given rabbits a thought. "At first I did everything wrong. My original rabbit was very good as a bunny, but as she got into adolescence she started peeing on the couch and peeing on the bed, peeing everywhere. I had no idea about having them spayed. Then one day I was going to buy pellets at the pet store -- the extra-special rabbit food with the banana chips and the peanuts and dried fruit -- and there was a volunteer there from the House Rabbit Society, and I ended up talking to her for an hour. She gave me the lowdown on how important hay is for them and how bad pellets are and how serious obesity is to their health. So I panicked. I ran home, grabbed my rabbits... Are they okay? Are they too fat?"

Well, Boo looks like a lean, mean fighting machine. But his gut is full of the wrong stuff. I'd considered buying hay, but a bale weighs 120 pounds, a supply for ten lifetimes. The society funds its adoption-spay/neuter programs with a hay exchange, Larry says. You can buy it from them by the box. Fresh timothy and oats. I perk up. Boo watches his beloved pellets and Wheat Chex fly away.

Rabbits are active, curious, easily bored. Larry's charges have their own rabbit cities with cages; tubs of hay; water dishes; round toys to push with their noses; stacked cardboard boxes for climbing and chewing; wide cardboard tubes designed as concrete forms, which make perfect bunny tunnels to hide in. Linoleum flooring protects the rug. The areas are enclosed with folding gates. They get out-of-cage run time every day.

It's way too late to corral Boo. I've tried. He's a fantastic leaper, even from a standing start. And what's the point of owning a pet that's always in a cage? But Larry admits that full-time run-of-the-house is ideal, if the place can be rabbit-proofed. Well, score at least one point for me and Boo.

How about adopting a companion rabbit? It's rabbit dump-off season, beginning a few months after Easter. "It's then that the rabbits bought for Easter hit their adolescence," Larry says, "and families start going on vacation, and kids have soccer and stuff, and nobody has time to take care of it. Starting about June and going right through September they get left at shelters. We try to rescue as many as we can, have them neutered, put them in foster homes, and then adopt them out. In the last six months we've adopted out about ten."

Larry volunteers in rabbit care at the Oceanside humane society. "They called us, they were full, and, of course, the first one in is the first to be put down when they get a new one. The folks at the humane society do the best with what resources they have. But they have so many dogs and cats to adopt out, rabbits are really at the very bottom of the totem pole. I had my hesitations about volunteering, but when you get in there and start working with the rabbits and exercising them, and showing the caretakers how to clip their nails, what to feed them -- when you're there week after week, you really do put a value on the rabbits. The Oceanside humane society and the House Rabbit Society are now cooperating on an adoption program in one of the local pet stores. Our first rabbit was adopted by two people who had actually come in looking for a kitten." Larry's a rabbit's best salesman.

I try to imagine King Boo sharing his turf... And we can't just pick up the cutest one and take it home. The society lets the rabbits select one another. Introduce Boo to a collection of adoptables and see which ones instantly hate each other, which are indifferent, and which find love at first sight. That's the rabbit nature. No long courtships. And speaking of courtships... Many of Boo's troublesome habits would be tamed by having him neutered. He'd stop circling my feet endlessly in fits of passion. He'd be a little neater with the litter box. His chewing would subside. And he'd be companion-ready.

Neutering was no tougher than a trip to the dry cleaners -- in by nine, off by four. But having lost that critical ounce, he leaps more, sleeps less, no longer stares wistfully at the wild, lawn-eating rabbits. Next stop, "Bunnyfest" this Saturday in Heritage Park, Old Town, so Boo can pick a pal.

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