I’ve noticed the requests to bring back Furry Friday, and what can I say other than it’s been a crunch of busy news cycles that bring me to 8 p.m. on a Friday with no furry text and work still left to do. There’s also been a lot of bad news out there, so what better to interrupt our cycles of chemical weapons, terrorism, and perpetual Washington infighting with something every lover of furriness can appreciate: bunnies.
Last year I moved into a bigger place along some of the Beltway’s ubiquitous urban woods, and also lost a few of the animals I’d previously written about due to old age: rat, guinea pig, hamster. Instead of getting more rodents, I wanted to bring different critters into the mix.
Checking out a new pet store in the neighborhood a year ago, I paused by their bunny pen, surprised that a chain pet shop was selling rabbits. The enclosure was tiny, the bunnies were without any hay, and the workers didn’t know which were male or female. Naturally, they called every breed thrown together “dwarf bunnies,” to lure kids wanting a tiny fluffy thing and mislead parents into thinking they wouldn’t get too big or take up much space. I noticed one cowering in the corner away from the lops and lionheads — a little Havana rabbit with grey feet bottoms that looked like he hopped through dust. The saleslady handed him to me, and as I rubbed behind his ears he gave me this definite look: Get me outta here. I always believe in adopting before buying, but I considered this a pet-store rescue: not only was I going to get him the nutrition, healthcare and space he needed, but I was saving him from being bought for some kid who’d probably pick him up by his cottontail before the family decided he was past his 15 minutes of Easter-gift fame and turned him into a shelter, like so many other unfortunate bunnies.
So Napoleon Bunaparte came home with me. The next morning, I took him to the best exotics-only vet in the area, which happens to be close to my home. Napoleon weighed in at a pound and was estimated to be eight weeks old. A couple months later he was old enough to be neutered, and lost an entire ounce when they took those away from him.
One word for Napoleon: mischievous. See that gleam in his eye. And not afraid of anything, for better or worse: I took him to PetSmart for a photo with Santa last Christmas, and he wasn’t fazed even though the store was packed with dogs for adoption day. Very friendly yet trying to catch him is usually futile as he bounces around at the speed of light. Let’s add mildly destructive to his descriptors as well, as he’s gnawed up a baseboard, torn up a bit of carpet and chewed a few book bindings, but thankfully grew out of his interest in cords and wires. (See BuzzFeed’s “Bunny Shaming” collection.)
Even if the very appropriately named Napoleon — he maxed out just over four pounds as a little compact guy, and clearly wants to invade Russia — has been a handful in some ways, he’s been a great introduction to bunny owning. For starters, who knew these little guys were so easy to litterbox train? That means no more ugly cages, an attractive small-animal environment, little mess and a bunny who can have playtime in the rest of the house without accidents. Though his living quarters evolved as I learned more about bunnies, he now lives in the perfect bunny home in my home office. I used a 4×6 area rug from Target and a 12-panel x-pen 28 inches high formed with two panels each as the smaller ends of the rectangle. The ends of the pen hook together and open as a gate. Inside the pen is a cardboard multistory “Cottontail Cottage” playhouse, a small litterbox filled with Carefesh, a donut cat bed, a toybox and a hay box. A water bottle hooks onto the side of the pen, and those $1 souffle crocks from Pier One make perfect food bowls (put in a low box to prevent pellet spills). Napoleon is a “jumper” who can clear the pen height, so that’s solved by making a roof with a polar fleece throw and binder clips.
I change the litterbox every other day — nice and easy — and then vacuum the throw rug that comprises the pen floor to suck up any hay residue, hair and the perpetual few poop pellets that bunnies leave outside the litterbox just to mark their territory. I quickly realized that I needed to produce-shop a lot more often: favorites are carrot tops, escarole, endive, arugula, parsley and radicchio. Laxatone helps prevent GI stasis, per my vet’s instructions, as well as Oxbow papaya tablets. Treats include Oxbow veggie cookies and a bit of strawberry or apple. Oxbow pellets are in the mix but I don’t feed them until the end of the day so that the timothy hay pile gets eaten first.
His only health concern has been rabbit syphilis, picked up from his mother in the bad breeding stock that the nasty pet store used. This cleared up quickly with penicillin injections, though I was horrified when he once managed to hop away from me during the shot, needle still hanging out of the skin between his shoulders.
This summer, though, I began to fear that my company and the occasional sniff/growl from the puppacita (Chi-Chi, my beloved Chihuahua) wasn’t enough for Napoleon. When he was out of the pen, he was more destructive; when he was inside, he was rattling the pen with his teeth and generally acting bored. Maybe it was all of the bunny information websites that send you on a major guilt trip by noting your bunny will be miserable without one of his own kind, but I began considering matchmaking Napoleon. At this point you’re then warned that the wrong match will result in bunnies torn from ears to cottontail. So I contacted a couple of rabbit rescues to set up a matchmaking appointment; no response from either (I’m starting to have opinions about many animal rescues and their practices, but another column).
I looked online for potential bunny meetup spots and found a large selection available for adoption at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria. This is one of the best shelters in the area; clean, organized and offering a free check-up after adoption. Napoleon was able to hang out in an enclosed playroom to meet his potential match. The shelter had several angoras that were left in their parking lot one night. I first had my eye on a friendly German angora who had been recently neutered. Unfortunately, he aggressively mounted little Napoelon’s face.
The bunny in the next cage over, who had been recently spayed, was a French angora who recoiled from people. That shyness disappeared when she was put in the room with Napoleon, though. The two began playing, Napoleon rolled back a bit on his butt and began washing her face, and the shelter employee and I confirmed it was the cutest sight ever. The big blue angora even ran up to me and happily stretched up against my leg to say hi. “Maybe she needed another bunny all along,” the shelter employee mused.
So Josephine Bunaparte came home.
Now considering Napoleon’s neuter cost about $250, a 4-year-old, $50 bunny that had just been spayed by the shelter was a great deal. Plus I got the free checkup the next day, and then of course there are the big piles of long angora shed that I should probably sell. She obviously requires a lot of combing. But the biggest plus is how much Napoleon and Josephine love each other — though I realize that historically they’re supposed to have a torrid, epic falling-out.
I separated them for the first night, as the guides about cautiously introducing bunnies urge a weeks-long process. By the second night, she was in his pen. And — big bonus — she was litter-trained, by his example, within about a week. Plus, watching a big bunny do a “binky” — that crazy-happy twist-jump in the air — is pretty funny.
I recently was introduced to a bunny owner at a local mom-and-pop feed store whose rabbits are pushing 20 years old. The secret, she said, is the philosophy of not making them sit in a cage: a house bunny that runs and plays and hops and eats its veggies and explores your every activity is a happy bunny with serious longevity. I might not have ever considered this had I not learned they’re so, so, so easy to litter train.