Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bedtime for Regina

When I get home from the lab, I set my things down, put out the baby gate, and let Regina out of her cage. On the ground floor of my house are a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen, in a row; Regina’s cage is in the living room. At first, when it was time for Regina to play outside her cage, she would mostly stay in the living room and sometimes go into the dining room, but never the kitchen. I live in a Baltimore row house that was built in the 1890’s, before indoor plumbing was common, so the kitchen was an addition. It sits two steps down from the rest of the ground floor, and Regina, being a rabbit, does not, generally, find steps worth risking.

One time, I was cooking, and thought that it might be interesting to see how Regina liked the kitchen. She immediately hid under a cabinet, tucked behind some molding such that I couldn’t see her. I ate supper, and she was still hiding under the cabinet. I didn’t know what I could try to get her out, and I didn’t think she was in danger if I left her under the cabinet, so I went out for the evening to see some friends. When I got home, she was still under the cabinet, but when she saw me turn the light on, she hopped out and let me pick her up and take her to her cage.

After that, she understood how those kitchen stairs worked and knew that the best hiding place around is under the kitchen cabinets, so I have to put up a baby gate to keep her out of the kitchen.

It was annoying for me to set up the baby gate the first time because the house is so old that there are no parallel lines in it. So, I tried to set up the baby gate in the doorway, the proper way, with the little rubber stoppers pushing out on the doorway, but the doorway flares out at the bottom, so the baby gate wasn’t stable. I settled on just leaning the baby gate in front of the doorway to the kitchen.

One time, Regina got around the baby gate and into the kitchen, and I was scared and chased after her and she hid under the cabinets. I was scared because I had a rat trap in the kitchen; at the time, I had a rat infestation. I quickly put the rat trap away, because I didn’t want it to harm Regina, and I didn’t know how long I would have to wait for her to come out from under the cabinets. This time, I sat in the dining room, reading, and she got bored and came out in fifteen minutes. Ever since then, I have propped a chair in front of the baby gate, to keep Regina from slipping behind it.

Regina and I used to have a different bedtime routine than we do now. She likes to hide under furniture, especially the futon in the living room. I put some phone books under the futon, and she likes chewing on them and tearing the pages out. Also, I have a fireplace that doesn’t work; it’s set up for a wood-burning stove, but I don’t have a wood-burning stove, so instead I have a cinderblock that props up a flue for a wood-burning stove. Regina likes to hide in the fireplace, with her head behind the cinder block but her tail sticking out.

Regina, being a rabbit, is a prey animal; this dominates her behavior. To survive and procreate as a rabbit, one must forage and groom and burrow and make friends with other rabbits, but all of that is easily destroyed in a moment by a predator; I think that Regina’s strongest emotion isn’t greed or love, it’s fear.

It is difficult to take care of a rabbit because rabbits can run much faster than I can. So, when it was time for me to put Regina to bed, I would shake the back of the futon, and she would run out from behind it, randomly picking her next hiding spot, maybe under the cage or under the coffee table or under the china cabinet in the dining room. I would follow her around and nudge her out of each spot until, checkmate, she would hide in the fireplace and I would have her cornered and could pick her up and put her in her cage. Then I would have to hold her very tightly as I would lower her into her cage; if I didn’t, she might jump right out of my arms, being excited to get back into her safe place. One time, she got her paw stuck in the bars of her cage, and it was difficult for me to lift her paw out of the bars because rabbits tend to kick when they’re scared, so she was starting to flail a little bit and I wanted to make sure she didn’t break a bone.

Canines, like wolves and foxes and dogs, are the main predators of rabbits. When a canine catches a rabbit, the canine doesn’t kill the rabbit on the spot, it picks the rabbit up and takes it somewhere secure to break its neck by shaking it. Regina is not a fully socialized animal; she isn’t wild, but she also isn’t docile. My sister has a rabbit, Shadow, that was reared by a breeder who would make sure that all of the baby rabbits were handled a little bit every day, and so my sister’s rabbit is very docile, she seeks out human touch. Regina, though, is not accustomed to being held, and her instincts make being carried scary for her. When I’m sitting on the futon, she will sometimes hop up and let me pet her a little bit, but then she’ll hop away; that she gets close to me at all makes me think that she understands that I’m safe for her. Even so, at the age she is, I don’t think she will ever feel safe being carried by a human.

Regina and I visited my family for Christmas last year, we stayed for a few days. My sister has a big rabbit pen, and we put both of our rabbits in it and tried to introduce them. Regina and Shadow hopped up to each other, sniffed each other, nose to nose, and then, suddenly, Shadow ripped a tuft of fur off of Regina, who, startled, ran to hide behind me. We separated them quickly. Evidently, this is not how to introduce rabbits.

While visiting my family, Regina stayed in a borrowed cage that sat on the ground; this was different for her, because her cage at home is like a little cart, with the base about a foot and a half off the floor. The last night of our visit, my sister and I tried to gradually introduce our rabbits to each other, and it was helpful for Regina to be in a cage that she could hop out of and into as she wished. She was nervous, in a strange place, and she had been harmed by Shadow. We put the two cages close together, maybe a foot apart. We left Shadow’s cage closed but opened the door to Regina’s; after a couple of minutes, when she felt safe, she hopped out and put her paws up on Shadow’s cage. They sniffed at each other. Regina then went back into her cage, and we shut the door. Then, Shadow took a turn coming out of her cage on her own, with Regina staying in her cage, and they sniffed some more. This was safe for them because if one was scared of the other, she could step back, and the wall of the cage would protect her. Next Christmas, if we spend more time letting the rabbits get acquainted, maybe they will be able to play together.

After we got home from being away for Christmas, I thought of how scary it is for Regina to be picked up and taken to her cage when she is done playing. Even though bedtime was scary for her, I thought that it was worth it for her to get good exercise and to have more space to explore in. I wanted to see if there was a way for her to play outside her cage without having to be picked up. On a snow day in January when I was home, I stacked some boxes and phone books to make stairs leading up to the door of her cage. She didn’t try standing on them at first, so I picked her up and set her halfway down the stairs, and she figured out how to get down from there. After I helped her practice some more, she would enter and leave her cage at will. Not long after that, I got her a little stool from Ikea that has two steps, and that works fine as stairs to let her get up and down from the cage.

It’s often the case that I have to go to bed before she would go back to her cage on her own, so I have to coax her. I might nudge her out from under the china cabinet, or lift the back of the futon, but now, instead of me trying to corner her in the fireplace, our routine looks like her taking a couple of steps and me following her very slowly so as not to startle her; if I startle her, she looks for the best hiding place she can and we have to start all over. If I’m careful enough, we walk in circles around the coffee table a couple of times, and then she looks at the stairs and decides that it is a good time for her to climb them and enter her cage. I close the cage door behind her and tell her that she did a good job.

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