Harrigan is desperate for attention again, persistently head-butting my leg as I sit on the floor, while also trying to get through the Sunday paper. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he climbs up into my lap and digs at my sweatshirt with his paws to better get his message across.
Meanwhile, Harrigan’s partner in household crime, Caramel, is energetically patrolling the perimeter of the kitchen. She pauses in front of the sliding glass door to glare at the sparrows out on the deck, before returning to her part-time hobby: deconstructing a cardboard box that I’ve been meaning to recycle for ages.
Contrary to what you may have assumed, Harrigan is not a cat and Caramel is not a dog. They are both indoor house rabbits — hoppy little pets with big, big personalities.
Harrigan, a neutered male Dutch, is the more chilled-out of the two, preferring to spend his free-range hours seeking affection from humans or sitting in the shoe rack. Caramel, a spayed female harlequin, is bossy, restless and always getting into trouble for chewing things. When she’s told “no!” about something, she often thumps her back foot on the floor and runs off in the other direction.
Bunny Personality Check
One of the biggest general misconceptions about rabbits is that they just sit there in the cage gnawing on stuff — like great, big hamsters — and don’t do anything interesting all day.
But, as veterinarians, rabbit advocates and the ASPCA advise, rabbits shouldn’t be cooped up in a cage all of the time, because they are active animals who need to run, jump and play. (They can even be litterbox-trained.) It was during one of these out-of-cage experiences that I first got to know my rabbits, discovering that they had very different temperaments in the process.
“People tend to think of rabbits as all one personality,” says Mary E. Cotter, Ed.D, who runs the New York City–area chapter of the House Rabbit Society (HRS) and serves as the vice president for the international HRS organization. The group rescues rabbits and provides education to new or prospective bunny owners. “Rabbits are as distinct from one another as dog or cats,” she says.
Bosom Buddies: Vienna and Punch
“Admittedly, I was one of those people who thought rabbits were bereft of personality,” says Shaun T. Gorman, an engineering consultant who’s been living with house rabbits for about seven years. “I figured that as animals of prey, their short life spans short-circuited any hereditary ‘personality’ traits and left them with a pretty basic eat-sleep-poop-survive life structure.” He continues, “Ahh, I know differently now — they are little people, with huge ears and lots of body hair.”
Gorman and his wife, Ilona Fabian, a print production artist, have two rabbits: Vienna, a female chocolate Rex, and Punch, a male harlequin Dutch. “Vienna needed a new bunny friend after her bonded partner Stretchy Pete, a brown English Spot, passed away when he was 10 years old,” says Fabian. “We took her to a farm with several rabbits to let her find her new buddy herself, and she picked Punch.”
Both Vienna and Punch have their own distinct behavior. According to Gorman and Fabian, Vienna is a bit of a diva, the dominant one of the pair. She’s very vocal (for a rabbit), grunting and honking when something displeases her, and offering murmurs and happy clucks when she’s pleased.
She’ll leave a toy in her food bowl when she’s hungry, or toss it into the litterbox when she’s not satisfied with the cleanliness factor. She also hates to be held. “I have never seen such strong personality in an animal,” says Gorman.
Punch, on the other hand, loves to be held when he’s not tearing around the house, exploring and getting into things. He went through a phase of pulling things off tables for a while, including a plate of spaghetti that landed on top of himself. “It’s tough cleaning tomato sauce off a rabbit,” observes Fabian, who has had rabbits as pets continually for about 25 years.
“Punch’s favorite thing to do — and we let him do it every day — is make the bed,” says Gorman. “He smoothes the wrinkles and straightens the blankets with such focus and energy, we are thinking of getting him a gig at the Ramada.”
Advice for Would-be Bunny Owners
If you get a new rabbit, how do you get to a place where the animal is comfortable enough to bond with you and show off its relaxed self?
You start slow. And you do some research. Prospective or new rabbit owners would do well to check out two guides, "9 Common Rabbit Myths" and "A 10-Point Primer for New Bunny Families," from the House Rabbit Society — along with a helpful overview video called "Rabbits, Revisited" that actress and rabbit owner Amy Sedaris narrated for the organization last year. It’s also important to keep an open mind and not generalize because every rabbit is different.
“A big thing I tell people is don’t impose yourself on the rabbit,” says Cotter. “Let the rabbit have time to learn about you, your household, your habits, the sights, the sounds, the smells and the vibrations of the house.”
She notes that many people try to play with a rabbit too quickly after the animal arrives, which can often frighten a rabbit even more. “This is a prey species that takes a while to settle down and learn that you are not a predator,” she says. “The best way you can convince the animal that you are not a predator is to stop acting like one — you want to be laid-back and let your rabbit come to you.”
Fabian has also found that getting down on the floor, and letting the rabbit make the first approach, can help with forming a bunny bond. “Talk gently to them, and when they are comfortable, they’ll circle you and lick your face,” she says.
When their rabbits are stressed about something, Gorman sings to them to calm them down. “They prefer low-register singing, like Elvis or Johnny Cash, because the reverberations soothe them,” he says.
“A wonderful thing to do, especially if you have children, is to sit on the floor and read to the rabbit,” says Cotter. She advises telling kids not to touch the rabbit in the beginning. Read out loud to the rabbit for the first few weeks in the new home, so the rabbit gets a feeling of calmness and connects to the sound of your voice. “If you do that for a while," she explains, "you earn the rabbit’s trust.”
And once you've earned a rabbit’s trust, that's when the fun really begins. So work on your rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” grab a copy of Pat the Bunny to read out loud — and start getting to know your new, long-eared housemate.
J.D. Biersdorfer writes about computers for The New York Times and is the author of iPad: The Missing Manual and several other books from O’Reilly Media.
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