My first rabbit was Sooty, a bunny bought on a whim when I was in my teens. Easter was coming and my mother and I got a wild hare (snicker) a wild hair about finding us a rabbit. We set off in the car, certain that we were not only going to find a rabbit – we were going to find a gray rabbit and name him Sooty. The weird thing is, we did. We pulled into a local farmers’ market and there was a rabbit cage on the front porch, and in the rabbit cage was a rabbit, and the rabbit was gray, except for a ring of white that went halfway around his neck and two white toes on one foot. He was stretched out with an insouciant air, and when we approached, gave us a look that plainly said, “What took you so long?” In short order we purchased him and carried him out to the car. Sooty was such a small rabbit that he fit easily into the little auto trash bucket (remember those? they had a sand-filled saddlebag on either side, so they fit on top of the axle hump that ran the length of the car). He would stay down in the bucket for a few minutes, then lift up on his hind legs and look out, then slide out of sight for another spell. This trick was so charming that when we got home, we slid the trash bucket onto a table next to my father, who’d just gotten home from work and was reading the newspaper. We watched, giggling, for the several minutes that it took my father to realize that there was a small gray rabbit playing peek-a-boo with him. I remember he didn’t seem in the least nonplussed; after years of Army life and traveling every year or two, we had finally settled in one place long enough to have collected quite the menagerie – a large dog, a few parakeets, an assortment of hamsters and a pair of hermit crabs named Ham and Ex. A rabbit named Sooty was no big deal.
Sooty spent his first few days in a box in the house, then graduated to a nice wood-and-wire hutch outside. Inside the hutch was a small wooden box into which Sooty could go if he got cold, but he rarely went into the box, preferring to sit on top of it (this is an oddity I’ve noticed about every rabbit I’ve ever owned; given the chance, they prefer to sit on top of things). Because he was a novelty, Sooty got handled a lot by our large family and as a result, went from insouciant to ridiculously placid in no time. He also grew. Sooty grew and grew and grew, from a little rabbit who could fit in a plastic auto trash bucket to a behemoth who draped from shoulder to waist when I held him. Thank God he was an even-tempered buck; he did, however, have a bad habit of kicking when you started to put him down, and for a long time I had a nice little scar on my belly to prove it. I did rouse him to anger once; I was playing with him one day and discovered that if I tapped him on the nose often enough, he’d growl and scuffle his front paws. I found this so entertaining that I kept doing it, and the scuffling paws graduated to a kind of boxing scratch. Mean kid that I was, I didn’t realize I was hurting Sooty until I noticed his nose was bleeding a bit. Smitten with guilt, I soothed him with petting and his favorite treat, a raw potato (he was also partial to apples).
Sooty was a pleasure to pet. His fur was plushy and somewhat minky, meaning that you could brush it in either direction. I’m told this is a trait of the Rex breed of rabbit, although I doubt Sooty was any one breed. I would sit in front of the TV set with Sooty on my lap facing the screen, and as I stroked his back he would get flatter and flatter, until his ears were the only erect thing about him. My younger brother John liked to say that I stroked all the bones out of Sooty.
Sooty had one less than endearing habit, and that was the occasional jailbreak. I mentioned that he liked to sit on top of his box in his hutch; as he grew bigger, he discovered that from that vantage point, he could push against the hutch lid until it opened enough to admit his head, and once his head was out, the rest of his slinky body followed easily. We didn’t know Sooty had this talent until the morning a neighbor called us and said, “Do you have a big gray rabbit? Well, he’s in my garage.” The lapin Houdini was recaptured and a brick placed on top of the hutch, but apparently Sooty was strong enough to lift the hutch lid, brick and all, as we discovered one Sunday. We were setting off for church when I realized that the hutch was empty. After mass was over, we drove around our neighborhood calling for Sooty, my oldest sister Julie at the wheel and the rest of the kids riding lookout. We were passing by an open field when someone shouted, “THERE HE IS,” and indeed, it was Sooty, lying stretched out and relaxed in the grass. We tumbled out of the car. With my siblings making a cautious circle around us, I crouched down and called to Sooty. He looked at me with interest, eventually getting to his big furry feet. As I continued to sweet-talk him, he hopped slowly toward me, and as soon as he was in reach, I grabbed him by the neck. He gave a couple of half-hearted kicks, but then allowed himself to be gathered up, scolded and petted by one and all. Dad put a tight-fitting hasp on the lid of the hutch, which put an end to Sooty’s wanderings.
In time we received orders once again, this time to Hawaii. Taking pets was not an option. We divested ourselves of all our beloved animals, and Sooty was given to a chaplain and his family. We’d been in Hawaii for about two years when we found out that Sooty had passed on. I hope his bunny heaven is full of open fields, raw potatoes and the odd angel to stroke him until he goes boneless with bliss.