Along with other diverse and mostly unsuccessful jobs, I once held the position of receptionist in a local veterinary clinic. Two months into the job, my experiences had been limited to the care of cats and dogs, and I’d been feeling on fairly safe ground. This state of comparative complacency was soon to end, with the arrival of my first rabbit patient, and my introduction to the disturbing world of rabbits.
In my extreme youth, my acquaintance with rabbits was strictly limited. I usually met up with them after they had been casseroled with onions and carrots so knew little about their habits and hobbies, but I was also aware of a different breed which had been singled out for its unusually soft and fluffy fur. This type we didn’t eat; instead we wore its fur, often dyed pale pink or blue and knitted into tiny cardigans to be worn on special occasions, such as birthday parties. So it was that my first real encounter found me woefully unprepared for the hazards involved in rearing a domestic rabbit.
The owners of this particular pet – a charming lady with two young children – brought in their charge in a cardboard carrying case. I was relieved to hear that Bunny was full of verve and vitality, but this was in fact at the heart of the problem. Bunny was a red-blooded male, and was proving to be too much for his fellow male rabbit with whom it had been expected that he would live in close harmony. His owner, glancing briefly at the children, seemed reluctant to enter into details, but eventually I heard the word ‘castration’, so I presume that some very un-Beatrice Potter type behaviour had been observed, and that this radical step was being proposed to protect the sensitivity of his fellow rabbit.
One of the children, with a catch in her throat, asked about the risks involved in this operation. I, expecting from the vet the response ‘Oh, almost none’ that was routine for cats and dogs undergoing similar surgery, was shocked and alarmed to hear the vet tell her that general anaesthetics for rabbits are generally regarded as really bad news, and that they have a disturbing tendency to react by turning their toes up. Both children turned white, but the situation at home appeared to be serious enough to warrant risking Bunny’s neck in this way, and an appointment was made for the following day.
Though doubtless sympathetic, you are probably a little vague as to why I was so concerned, so I must explain the procedure on days on which an operation was performed. At the end of the morning consultation period the vet would go into surgical mode, which usually meant a fourth cup of coffee and the donning of yet another unattractive garment before disappearing into the theatre. When the deed had been done, both vet and nurse would rush off – notionally to work at another branch but frequently to catch up on the latest fashion to arrive at the local factory outlet – leaving the receptionist to clear up after them, and to keep an eye on the recovering animal. When it was a cat there was no problem. Cats are sensible creatures and not given to histrionics, so the occasional ‘There, there’ accompanied by an attempt to stroke them through the bars of the cage usually met with approval, and sometimes quite an enjoyable working relationship could be struck up. Dogs are all wimps, and lie huddled in a corner trembling and sighing and clearly convinced that their days are numbered, but can sometimes be heartened by being addressed briskly by name. All animals, as they gradually recover and remember that their last meal was yesterday evening, seem to think it the height of bad manners for me to eat my tuna sandwich in front of them, and occasionally tears will come to their eyes, but I’ve learnt not to be too concerned. Working in a vets’, you learn to eat when you can – postponing a meal for reasons of tact can result in having to gulp it down later in the day when some poor creature is being given an enema only a few feet away.
I had been happy to be left in charge of dogs and cats, in the knowledge that almost invariably they would recover and could be returned to their owners with great excitement and joy. It looked as if it might be quite different though for rabbits, and certainly Bunny’s family were thinking along the same lines to judge from their demeanour when they brought him in the following morning. There were tears in their eyes as they handed him over to me, saying ‘Please take great care of him – we’d be devastated if anything went wrong!’ Horribly aware that Bunny was going to be left in my sole care after the op, I made a final attempt to secure a reprieve for him, but his owner was adamant..
Bunny was duly settled in a cage to await operation time, and retreated to the back, trembling and gazing out with big, sad eyes. I retreated to the other side of the room and tried to avoid eye contact, just in case my feelings of doom might be transmitted and affect his chances of recovery. While the nurse was setting up the theatre, I thought I’d better adopt a more pro-active approach and ask the vet for more background information about rabbits. More bad news followed as I learnt that, apart from their tendency to overreact when faced with anaesthetics, rabbits have to eat constantly and go into a speedy decline if they don’t. Not for them the usual 12 hour fast, no, they are encouraged to keep putting it away right up to the vital moment, and to resume munching the instant they come round (if they come round!).
Being of a fairly squeamish disposition, and also keen to get my lunch before being compelled to face my responsibilities, I left the theatre, and tried to concentrate really hard on my other duties, such as beating my previous record at Solitaire. Only too soon though I heard sounds of Bunny being returned to his cage, and of the others preparing to leave the premises.
Keen to show my willingness to face a challenge, I hurried out to catch the vet and press her for more detailed instructions on the care of Bunny, who was now all mine for the next four hours. In what I thought was a callously offhand manner she replied ‘Oh, just keep him stimulated’ before disappearing out of the door and into her car.
‘Keep him stimulated?’ I muttered to myself as I observed Bunny. There seemed little scope for that at the moment as he was prostrate on the floor of the cage, doing a reasonable impression of a very dead rabbit, but he surely couldn’t have lost the heart to struggle on in the last couple of minutes? Advancing a little nearer I was relieved to see some evidence of breathing, and, heartened by this small triumph, I returned to my desk to consider how best to stimulate a rabbit.
Clearly the playing of games was a non-starter, for which I was very relieved. I reviewed my small repertoire of jokes, but found a surprising number of them began ‘A rabbit went into a bar’, so were probably intended for quite a different audience. Should I try singing to him, perhaps? Or maybe he’d appreciate a story being read to him?
With a shock I realised that I’d been pondering on this dilemma for some twenty minutes, during which Bunny might have given up all hope. With a rapidly beating heart I returned to his cage, but thankfully there were still unmistakeable signs of life. No one could have called him animated but at least he was now the right way up though showing no signs of getting to his feet and making for his lunch. Uneasily I reflected that it must now be around three hours since he’d last eaten – for how much longer could he survive?
Clearly stimulation was the thing. Still with no clear idea of what form this might take I edged closer to his cage, and to my consternation saw Bunny react with obvious terror, backing as far as he could into the corner furthest from his food. I reversed out of the room, but dared not leave him for long in case fear pushed him over the edge while I wasn’t there to look after him. The image of his stricken family appeared before me, and I could almost hear the recriminations. Could I live with myself if I allowed this poor Bunny to die in my care? The responsibility weighed very heavily on me (though actually that might have been partly the really huge baguette I’d had for lunch).
Again I peered around the door. Still alive, still a long way away from his food bowl, and still trembling. What a quandary! How could I stimulate an animal who almost passed out with fright whenever I got within ten feet of his cage? The situation became almost farcical as I spent the next half hour alternately retreating from the room, then, bent double, creeping back in, just far enough for him to see me, but not close enough to strike terror into his little heart. It might perhaps have looked a little odd, but at least I felt that I was doing something constructive. Certainly he was managing to cling to life, but still not a stalk had passed his lips. How could I explain this to his family, those poor children? How would it affect them? Would they no longer trust anyone, play truant from school, and wind up living in doorways in London all because of the trauma of losing a dear one?
I could stand the responsibility no longer. With a shaking hand I dialled our other branch, and to my relief it was answered by a nurse with years of experience. She of all people would know what to do.
‘This rabbit,’ I said, ‘I’m making no progress with him. He never stops trembling and hasn’t eaten for hours!!’ I could hear my voice sounding hysterical. ‘What can I do? I’ve tried everything I can think of!’
Gentle and reassuring she replied ‘Is he upright?’
I dashed over to have another look, risking another fit of the wobblies by Bunny.
‘Yes, but he’s not walking and he’s not eaten a thing and he has to keep eating or he’ll die!’
‘Oh, he’ll be alright, as long as he’s upright he’ll be alright now,’ she replied, ‘he’ll start eating again when he’s ready’.
‘But I was told I had to stimulate him to keep him alive?’
Her only reply was to collapse into waves of laughter, and I put the phone down.
A little later when the vet returned I met her at the doorway.
‘He’s OK!’ I said. ‘He’s still alive!’
‘Who?’ she said, walking past me and putting on the kettle. ‘Hey, look at this Armani dress I got, for less than a third of the real price!’
My responsibilities over for the day, it was time for me to go home. I took a last look at Bunny. Still he crouched in the corner of his cage, his food untouched, but he’d stopped trembling and his eyes – calm, clear and bright – met mine. Bunny was absolutely fine, it seemed, but someone had been making a monkey out of me.