In 2008, my best friend and I brought our bunny Archie to an adoption day run by a local rabbit rescue. We were hoping we would find a compatible friend for him. The other half of his bonded pair had died two months before, and Arch was depressed living alone. So we arrived, placing Archie in a pen for some rabbit-style speed-dating. The bunny we came to call Veronica was an immediate stand-out. When she was placed in his pen, he hopped over to her as if he’d recognized an old friend — and it made sense: she does look remarkably like his first partner, Horatio.
But then there was Betty. Her sideways ears showed some lop-rabbit background, and her round shape and brown spots reminded us of a ladybug. She was adorable, and, we were told, her partner had also died recently. She and Archie met quietly, sniffing each other’s face, and then they sat down together, clearly enjoying each other’s company. It left us in a quandary: who to pick? Finally one of the volunteers suggested we put all three of the rabbits together to see if they would get along as a trio. When the girls didn’t show any aggression toward each other, my friend and I looked at each other. It was clear. We were going to have three rabbits.
At home, as they adjusted, the rabbits’ personalities began to truly show. Veronica lived up to her name, hungry for attention, both rabbit and human. She’s also curious, an explorer, although the most skittish. She is the first to hop over when anyone approaches the pen, checking to see if you have a treat, but accepting some ear massages even if you don’t.
Betty, on the other hand, was the most laid-back. It was obvious that she was low-girl on the totem pole. Veronica was able to chase her away from dinner or from Archie when she wanted to assert some dominance. Betty didn’t seemed to mind too much. She could always take a nap and come back later. The only time Betty became aggressive was when banana was involved. Then she was quite willing to challenge the other two for extra bites of their favorite treat. Yet Veronica was obviously fond of her fuzzy round “rival” too — Veronica groomed Betty as diligently as she did Archie, and snuggled next to Betty when Archie was busy grazing or destroying a wicker drawer. Betty had a slight head tilt all her life, and Arch and Veronica took turns acting as her prop when she fell asleep. Or all three of them piled together for naps, Archie in the middle.
When she had the space to run and hop, Betty was our champion of the “binky,” a bunny leap of joy that goes straight up and changes direction mid-air. When she did this, landing with an expression that suggested she’d surprised even herself, we’d cheer “Betty!” and know that today was a good day. She also liked to hurl herself around the living room, pushing off the walls or the closet door with an audible thud, then stopping short to listen for the noise. Her ears never went in the same direction two days in a row, sometimes one up and one down, sometimes both stretched out to the side like she was prepping for take off.
Though she snuggled and groomed with the other rabbits, it was Betty who was most often by herself, dreaming her bunny dreams. I sometimes thought of her as a little yogi, contemplating secrets of the rabbit universe that not even Veronica or Archie had encountered. Having seen with Archie what rabbit grief is like, I often hoped as our trio got older that the last bunny would be Betty. She seemed the most independent, the most content in her own company.
It wasn’t to be. In late January of 2013, she became noticeably sick with sneezing fits. Archie was recovering from GI stasis (a serious condition in rabbits), and we, the human caretakers, were focused on him, our oldest and now geriatric rabbit. My best friend had recently moved to her own place, and my human partner had moved in. The changes surely were stressful for the rabbits; they were stressful for us, too, though exciting.
Betty’s sneezing wasn’t enough to set off alarm bells. We thought it was a cold. We took her in for a check-up in February, and our vet found two lumps on her body. Still, there were no alarm bells. These were probably benign bumps that rabbits often get as they age. We took her home without asking for a biopsy. That will weigh on me forever.
Over the next two months, we treated Betty for her sneezing, first trying to humidify the air in the apartment. Then we considered a bacterial infection and tried antibiotics, then anti-histamines in case she had an allergy. We also treated her for a common parasite, E. cuniculi, that can cause head tilt and other neurological disorders in rabbits. In the meantime, I’d noticed other lumps on her body, but somehow couldn’t bring myself to think “cancer.”
It was cancer. By the beginning of April, Betty was noticeably weaker, unable to get traction on the floor of the rabbit pen. Our vet thought it could be arthritis, but when I brought her in and he did x-rays, what he found was more masses inside her.
By the time we knew for sure, the options were not good. Possible treatments — surgery to remove the masses, chemo, radiation, injections that might shrink the tumors — were expensive and, unless we opted for the very risky surgery, not immediately available. Veterinary oncologists are rare; veterinary oncologists who treat rabbits are even more rare. Our vet said we would have to travel to a university with a veterinary program, and Betty might not even survive the trip; nor was there a guarantee that any treatment could help at this advanced stage. We knew the stress of the car ride wouldn’t be good for her, and long absences wouldn’t be good for Archie or Veronica either. They were quite aware when that a member of their small warren was missing.
With very heavy hearts, we brought Betty home and turned our apartment into a rabbit hospice. We couldn’t think about euthanasia yet, though our vet suggested we might. We wanted more time. We wanted the other bunnies to have a chance to say good-bye.
It’s very hard to think about those last few days, watching our furry ladybug grow weaker and weaker. In those days, though, Betty taught me a lot about love — what it means to really be responsible to someone, to pull together with a team to give someone the best, most comfortable existence they can have. My best friend and my boyfriend were amazing — feeding, cleaning, administering fluids and medication to keep her comfortable, petting and reassuring Betty. And Betty surprised me. She was too weak to hop anymore, but our little loner desperately wanted to be near the other rabbits. Looking like a sea turtle on land, she continually angled herself to where she could see the others, even presented her face to be groomed, though we often had to keep them separated. Our vet warned us that Veronica and Archie might be aggressive toward her when they realized she was sick, but we never saw any of that behavior. Archie and Veronica sat with Betty, and groomed her face as she lay in her hay box.
And when she went, just a year ago today, she went gently, early in the morning, with a belly full of celery and surrounded by the people who loved her the most, rabbit and human. We left Archie and Veronica alone with her, to say good-bye and understand that she was gone. Hours later, we bathed her body for the last time and prepared to take her to the vet, for cremation.
Much has changed in the last year, but much is the same. Archie and Veronica are still with us, Veronica demanding attention and Archie well into his wise-old-man phase. My best friend brings them newspaper to chew on, and grass mats and banana. My boyfriend takes pictures of them at their best. And yet the dynamic is so changed. Where once they were three, now they are two. The pen seems a little too large. Veronica has too few ears to clean. Someone is missing in those pictures.
When we talk about animal rights, we are so limited. We think “rights,” and we mean that an individual’s life has meaning to that individual. Yes, yes, it is so. But this is atomistic. It is impossible to understand the full meaning of a life, the true importance of it, without understanding the way every individual is part of a group. Part of a social ecology. Part of a home and a family. Part of a warren.
It is so important that we honor Betty today. For her. Yes, of course, for her. But for us, too, the ones who are left without her.