In Hawaii, we didn’t stay petless for long. We lived near a major dumping ground for unwanted animals (sad but true). My youngest sister Joan was responsible for both our little poi dog, Barky (who “followed” her home) and for Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, a large brown rabbit that she found sitting confusedly on a nearby beach. She bundled him under her arm and trotted home with him. The fact that she got him home without losing a pint of blood or a major limb in the process is a minor miracle, since she was pretty small and Beau was the kickin’-est rabbit I ever ran across.
Although Beau looked superficially like Sooty – he was a big male – he had nothing like Sooty’s laid-back temperament. It wasn’t that he was mean; he was a nervous rabbit, and nervous rabbits kick. Although he’d tolerate being stroked, Beau didn’t like being held. He lived in a hutch in the back yard, and we kept him well-fed and watered, but he never turned into the house pet that Sooty had been. We kept him until we left the Islands in 1978; I know we gave him to a neighbor, but I’m damned if I remember who that neighbor was.
While living on Oahu, I became friendly with a family that put on shopping center promotions, including seasonal puppet shows and the like. Their springtime event was held in the large (and then outdoor; I believe it’s an enclosed mall now) Ala Moana Shopping Center in downtown Honolulu, and it was a rabbit “village” called Bunnyland.
Ah, the tales I could tell about Bunnyland. I worked there as part-time employee, responsible for the care and maintenance of the animals. Bunnyland was comprised of several large pens, each with a clever little building or two (I remember in particular a rabbit movie house that was showing “Forty Carrots”). Into these pens went approximately seventy baby bunnies. There was also a chicken-wire enclosure with baby chicks, and a very small portable pond for baby ducks. Ducks, chicks and bunnies were all under the care of my college-age self, wearing blue jeans, a red and white-checked shirt and a big straw hat. Yeehaw. I had to make sure the livestock had food and fresh water, which was not a problem except where the ducks were concerned. Every hour, I would wash out their plastic pond and refill it with clean, clear water, whereupon the ducklings would quack happily, waggle their tails in unison and crap in the pond. This event was always followed in short order by some bossy matron who would scold me for the “filthy” water in the pond, regardless of my protests that I’d just cleaned the damn thing.
In contrast, caring for the rabbits was (initially) a breeze. They were secured in a traveling crate at night, where they’d all snuggle together to sleep. In the morning they’d be lifted out and dispersed among the pens of Bunnyland, where they were free to eat, drink, run in and out of the buildings and otherwise entertain shoppers by being cute little baby bunnies. At night we’d gather them all into one pen, count them to make certain no stragglers had been left behind, and put them in the traveling pen for the night. They were virtually maintenance free, except that I had to keep an eye on the brilliant members of the public, who would try to pick the rabbits up (forbidden, per the numerous signs) or feed them peculiar things, such as cigarette butts.
I said caring for the rabbits was (initially) a breeze. Did you know that rabbits mature very quickly? Did you know they can reach sexual maturity as early as three months old? I didn’t know that either, until the night when we were gathering the rabbits into one pen preparatory to counting them. I was on my knees in one of the other pens, pulling a recalcitrant bunny out of the movie theater, when I heard a sudden rumble. I looked up and saw the rabbits in the central pen stampeding. Stampeding. They were chasing each other in a swirling circle, a mass of brown and black and white and red and gray, and the rumble was the thudding of their feet as they ran. “Hey!” I yelled to my boss, who was in another pen, “what’s going on?”
He looked over his shoulder and sighed. “Rabbit stampede,” he said. “They start doing this when they’re becoming mature. Two will start to scuffle and it sets the others off, and everyone starts running. It’ll happen more and more. When they get uncontrollable, we’ll get a new bunch of rabbits.”
(Here, dear readers, I should point out that the Bunnyland rabbits came from a rabbit farm. By that, I mean a rabbit meat farm. The promotions company would rent the baby bunnies for the Bunnyland exhibit from the meat farm, then swap maturing (i.e. slaughtering age) rabbits for more babies. The same huffy matrons who got incensed over the ducklings’ poopy water would often demand to know where the rabbits went once Bunnyland was over. I would respond calmly, “They’ll go back to the farm, ma’am.” Satisfied, the matrons would huff off, not making the connection that Rabbit Farm = Hasenpfeffer.)
Back to the stampede. The boss showed me the proper way to break it up, which was simply to step into the pen where the stampede was occuring and shuffle across it, thus breaking up the pattern of the stampede. The rabbits would retire to the edges of the pen, gasping and eyeing each other, and we’d go back to work gathering up the stragglers. At first I was amused by the stampede and took a lot of pleasure in breaking them up; however, as the days wore on and the bunnies got older, the stampedes became wilder and more frequent, with scratching and flying fur and the occasional rabbit making an astonishing vertical leap out of the swirling mass. It seemed like one stampede had just been quashed when another would break out. One evening, something like the seventh or eighth stampede of the night had just begun, and I was too tired to do the Stampede Shuffle. Instead, I just stuck my hand into the mass of running conies and waved it back and forth. Bad move. I felt a sudden shock of pain, lifted my hand up and found a sex-crazed rabbit clinging to my right hand by its teeth (and I still have that scar). I let out a squawk, shook the rabbit off and stood glaring as someone else broke up the stampede the conventional way. Within the week we traded in the sexed-up rabbits for a new batch of babies, and BunBun came into my life.
The new bunnies were small and soft and sweet, but there was one white runt who was half the size of the others, so small that he was in danger of being trampled by his bigger brethren. We put him in a little carboard box in the “backstage” area of Bunnyland and named him BunBun, and he became the exhibit’s special darling.
BunBun’s head was big, his ears tiny, and he was so little that he fit neatly in the palm of your hand. He was too small to even hop properly; instead, he had a shaking paddling walk that makes me think he was probably taken from his mother too soon. One day I was busy cleaning the duck pond when I heard a little girl behind me asking if she could hold one of the rabbits; a hectoring female voice announced: “Can she hold one? She’s the girl from Little House on the Prairie.” I turned from the duck poop and looked into the face of a very young Melissa Gilbert. I don’t remember what the hectoring, managing woman looked like, but I do remember the mute appeal in little Miss Gilbert’s eyes and the fact that she had a terrible sunburn and her braids were bound so tightly that she looked almost Asian.
“I can’t let you hold one because that’s against the rules,” I said, “but let me get a special bunny that I can hold while you pet him.” I went backstage and returned with BunBun, who sat quietly in my hand while Melissa Gilbert stroked him gently, cooing at his littleness. She had only a few minutes to commune with BunBun before the hectoring woman was hustling her off, but as she was led away, she looked back at me – sweaty, poop-splattered, BunBun-holding me – and breathed, “Oh, I wish I could be you.” Poor kid – little did she know.
When Bunnyland was over for the season, I took BunBun home with me. You might ask how we reconciled the rabbit count with the people at the farm, but it so happened that one day I looked up (from the duck pond, no doubt) and there was a large, adult Dutch bunny in with the baby rabbits. I can only guess that someone thought they were doing the humane thing by smuggling poor unwanted Thumper into Bunnyland, rather than abandoning him somewhere. Ah, well: Rabbit Farm = Hasenpfeffer. Thumper took BunBun’s place, and BunBun and his cardboard box went with me.
I wish I could say that there’s a happy ending to BunBun’s story, but no. Our poi dog, Barky, had just become sexually mature herself, and along with having doggy menses, was also having some crazy mood swings. She had a couple of soft rubber toys that she would drag from place to place, and sit whining over them – a behavior that drove my dad so crazy that we ended up hiding the toys from her. At a loss for something to mother, she discovered BunBun in his box, picked him up in her jaws and carried him underneath the dining room table, where she sat mouthing him and whining until someone realized what was going on. At first I thought BunBun was just a bit moist from being licked, but then I realized that his soft little sides felt wrong, as if there were tiny blisters inside. I can only conclude that Barky must have bitten him harder than we realized, and he was bleeding internally. He was dead by morning.