Upon graduating from the University of Hawaii in 1978, I moved to the DC area, the ink barely dry on my spankin’ new degree. My first couple of apartments were in high-rises, so there was no chance of any pets, rabbit or otherwise. Eventually I moved into a three-unit garden apartment in South Arlington, which boasted a back yard. The yard had grass, and the grass made me think it was time for a new bunny friend.
I found Zachary at a pet store – yet another brown bunny. I didn’t have Zack long and still don’t know what happened to him; he lived in a prefab hutch in the back yard, and one morning he simply wasn’t in the hutch. Maybe he got out and ran off (or one of the neighbors’ free-ranging dogs got him). Maybe someone stole him. Regardless, I was in a Bunny Free Zone once more.
I had, by this time, acquired a boyfriend named Bill. Bill was an amiable goof with a wacky sense of humor and a broad streak of kindness. He took pity on my bunnyless state and for Valentine’s Day, announced that he was buying me a new rabbit (I still had the hutch, after all). Off we went to the pet store, where there were three dwarf rabbits available for purchase: one black rabbit and two brown ones. One of the brown rabbits was small and nervous; the other brown rabbit was the biggest of the three and seemed to a bright, healthy fellow. I decided he was the one I wanted. Unfortunately, Bill had fallen in love with the black bunny, who had a certain charm. We were at an impasse. Finally Bill announced that he was buying both rabbits, one for him and one for me, although they’d both live at my house. Fine. The clerk at the store bundled the large brown rabbit and the black rabbit into traveling boxes, leaving the one small brown rabbit alone in the cage. Bill looked at it miserably. “We can’t just leave it there,” he said, “It’s all alone now.”
“I don’t want three rabbits,” I said. “I don’t want two rabbits.”
“But what’s one more?” Bill pleaded. “Look at him. He’s so small and now he’s alone.”
We walked out of the pet store with three rabbits. Bill was pleased. “I’ll build you a special hutch for the three of them when they get old enough to live outside,” he promised.
Bill and I had recently attended a lecture by WWII RAF aces Douglas Bader and Robert Stanford Tuck, and had been impressed by both gentlemen. The big brown rabbit was therefore christened Douglas, the small brown rabbit became Tuck, and since the only other fighter pilot we could think of was Manfred von Richthofen, the black rabbit was named Manfred. Since it’s difficult for amateurs to sex rabbits when they’re babies (and because breeders rarely sell their breeding stock; i.e. females), we assumed that the bunnies were boys. About a month later they all developed testicles, which is a good thing because I shudder to think how those names would have been feminized.
Since Douglas, Tuck and Manfred were not only dwarf rabbits, but youngsters at that, they were too tender to live outdoors in February weather. For a while, they lived happily together in a single cardboard box in my bedroom, but the box rapidly became unhygenic and they graduated to an newspaper-lined enclosure (also in my bedroom) cobbled together out of planks. They quickly became bored with that and would scrabble and chew at the planks and the newspapers in the middle of the night until I was ready to shriek. I discovered that if I took them out of their enclosure in the morning and let them have a good half-hour run in the living room, they wouldn’t destroy their enclosure before I got home from work in the evening. This entailed having to get up very early in order to give them their exercise, and I spent many a bleary morning shooing them away from the various electrical, telephone and stereo cords that made the living room such an interesting place. (One rabbit did manage to chew through the phone cord; since this was before you could readily buy phone equipment in stores and had to rent it from the phone company, I had to take the chewed cord to the local phone office for a replacement. I still remember the clerk’s expression as he carefully wrote on his form in the Reason for Replacement line: “eaten by rabbits.”)
Eventually even their morning and evening romps were not enough to keep growing rabbits from disturbing my sleep and wrecking my room. Fortunately this coincided with spring, and I moved Douglas, Tuck and Manfred out to the hutch formerly occupied by Zachary. It was a big hutch and they were small rabbits, but not only did they rapidly outgrow the shared space, they started having their own miniature Rabbit Stampedes. They also developed the disturbing habit of humping each other. As the smallest, poor Tuck always seemed to be on the receiving end, and the day I discovered Doug merrily humping Tuck’s face, I decided that it was time for separate hutches. I drew a design for three adjoining spaces with common walls and showed it to Bill. “Ah, the Cottontail Condos,” he said happily, and one Saturday soon after, along with my father, my brother John and John’s friend Peyton, Bill made good on his promise to build the hutches.
They really were nice hutches. They stood on legs about two feet high. The roof and rear part of each condo unit was made entirely of weatherproof wood, so that the rabbits could get out of inclement weather; the front part (floor and walls) was made of hardware cloth, of a gauge large enough that the rabbits’ droppings fell neatly through to the ground below, but small enough that they couldn’t bite each other through the walls (yes, they’d started biting each other, too). Each unit had a separate hinged door that swung up and could be propped open with a stick, and there was a ramp down to the ground as well, so the rabbits could clamber down to romp in the grass. Each unit had its own water bottle, food bowl and baffled nesting box, so if the weather got bad, the rabbits had a snug place to wait it out (true to form, all three bunnies preferred to sit on top of the boxes and only went inside during the very worst storms). We surrounded the condos with narrow-gauge fencing, giving the rabbits their own little pen.
Before leaving for work each morning, I’d select one rabbit to have the day “outside,” since they would fight if I let them all out at once. I’d step inside the rabbits’ pen, unlatch one hutch door, prop it open with the stick and set the ramp in place. Down the ramp would come Douglas or Tuck or Manfred, while the other two stomped their big hind feet on their hutch floors in frustration. During the day, the “outside” rabbit could either stay in the pen or use the ramp to go back into his hutch when hungry or thirsty. When I came home in the afternoon, I’d pick up the “outside” bunny and put him in his hutch, remove the stick and ramp, close the door and latch it. In the morning, it would be the next rabbit’s turn. The rabbits got so used to this drill that when I came home from work, they’d see me coming and run up the ramp on their own.
One Friday evening I was invited out for drinks after work. It happened to be Manfred’s day out, and I told myself he’d be okay until I got home that evening, since he could get into his hutch whenever he pleased. I ended up staying out far later than I’d planned, and when I got home went immediately to bed, forgetting about Manfred. I woke up at first light, realizing that Manfred had been out all night. I looked out my bedroom window and was horrified to see a little black body stretched out, still and silent, on the ground next to the condos.
I threw on some clothes and ran outside. Manfred was dead, stretched out full length as if he’d died in mid-leap, with not a mark on him. All around the outside of the rabbits’ yard, the grass was torn up, as if something had run around the pen’s perimeter, harrying poor Manfred. The ramp was knocked aside, the stick was on the ground, and the hinged door had slammed shut. I can only surmise that one of the neighbor dogs, roaming free at night, had come into our back yard and discovered Manfred loose inside the pen. Frightened, Manfred probably bolted, knocking down his stick and ramp and shutting off the way to his safe haven. I guess the dog chased Manfred around and around the pen, until the unfortunate bunny died of fright. I wept tears of sorrow and guilt for not taking better care of my little friend. I buried him in the back yard, only to find him dug up and dismembered the next day, probably by the same rotten dog that had caused his death.
Tuck and Douglas outlived my relationship with Bill. Tuck lived for another year beyond that, then succumbed to a respiratory ailment. He’d always been a sickly, nervous bunny, never liking to be held or petted, so his passing didn’t harrow me as much as Manfred’s violent end. Douglas lasted a good bit longer, finally passing away quietly about four years later. Doug remained the sole occupant of the Cottontail Condos until I moved to a house in Alexandria, leaving the oversized rabbit accommodations behind. At our new digs, Douglas was presented with a smaller hutch, placed in bucolic splendor next to a fishpond complete with waterfall. Since our new yard was completely surrounded by a six foot privacy fence and there were no roaming dogs in the neighborhood, I was able to simply open the door to Doug’s hutch and let him out while I was working or lounging in the yard. He would potter around quite happily until I was ready to go inside. Then I’d say to him, “Doug, get in your house,” and into his house he’d go. There were days when he was stubborn and wouldn’t go in; on those days, I had a long stick that I’d use to herd him back to his hutch. After a while, he was smart enough to realize that if I picked up the Bunny Stick I meant business, so if he saw me pick up the Stick, he’d turn tail and head into his hutch before the herding could commence. When I remember Doug, it’s always an amusing rear-view image: his white cottontail bobbing insolently ahead of me, before disappearing into his hutch.