It was 1995. We were living in Charles Town, a little community of 3500 in the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia. Early that summer, we attended a carnival in the even smaller town of Inwood with some out-of-state friends. Our Maryland friends were delighted with the small-town flavor of the carnival, and were amused to see you could win a rabbit pitching Ping-Pong balls at goldfish bowls. Seeing this, my son (Jonathan, then age 10) could not rest until he had won a bunny.
So after numerous attempts, and spending enough money at a dollar a try to buy an entire warren, the man running the booth took pity on us and gave us a rabbit. Jonathan picked out an all white bunny, and named her Snowball.
In our neighborhood of Tuscawilla Hills there were covenants against rabbit hutches, so we bought a wire enclosure and Snowball became a house bunny, taking a place of honor below the Ping-Pong table (appropriate, don’t you think?). We soon learned that Snowball was very good at figuring out latches. She could get out of her cage almost at will, and frequently displayed a lot of will. Many a morning we would come downstairs to find her hopping around the family room, playing with the cats.
She and our cats became good friends, after a somewhat shaky start. I believe the cats eventually regarded her as some sort of mutant feline, and they were extremely impressed with her ability to leap straight up in the air. I believe they even got a little existential, and considered the possibility that the rabbit was normal and they were the mutants – because it wasn’t long before they started imitating her jumping style, which was quite a sight to see. Picture two cats and a rabbit, rushing each other and leaping into the air, like some invisible juggler was as work.
Through it all she never made a seriously threatening move towards the cats, never bit the children, and was just generally a good all around family rabbit. She enjoyed being outside of the cage, and since I worked at home at the time, I often let her jump around while I worked at the computer.
Jonathan was very proud of his pet bunny. He entered her in the county fair and visited her there often, bringing her little treats of celery and apple cores. Although she did not win anything – for the truth be told, she was a very common bunny, special only to her family – he still enjoyed the experience and carried her around grinning like she had just won the Tractor Pull. He talked of entering her again next year, and wouldn’t it be great if we got a male rabbit too and she had babies?
Then one day a new pet was added to the family. We brought home a long hair German Shepherd puppy named Midnight, and Snowball had to be moved to a different room. Not that Midnight would have hurt her, but she was endlessly fascinated with the rabbit, and had the disgusting habit of pulling out her droppings tray for a little snack. Moving Snowball to another room saddened us all a bit, because she was a social rabbit and no longer got to run as much as she once did.
I planned to do something about that in the spring. We had a playhouse out back that the kids never used anymore, and I thought I might make a comfortable place for her out there that would be easier for the kids to visit, and give her room to hop around in the grass. Towards that end, I moved her cage out to the playhouse. I kept the door open during the day so she could see what was going on outside, and shut it up at night in case it got cold. Since she was so good at undoing latches we had her cage locked three different ways, so I did not feel she was in any danger of escaping.
Unfortunately, one Friday night the kids came home from a Little League game to the sounds of Snowball screaming. If you’ve never heard a rabbit scream, you are lucky. Take it from me, it is a chilling sound. My son ran around back in time to chase off some light-colored predator (probably a fox) that had pushed the cage door wide enough to get his head in and try to bite Snowball.
Snowball had put up a fight, and there was fur all over. They brought her inside and I called the vet, who advised quiet for a day or two to let her get over the shock. After she had rested for a while, I looked her over carefully. Although there were some places around her neck where large tufts of fur had been ripped out along with a little skin, she was not bleeding and seemed to have no serious injuries. I brought her some celery, which she started to nibble on. I thought that this was probably a good sign.
The next morning, she seemed a little better. We tried to take her to the vet, but without an appointment she could not fit her in. The vet did tell us however that if she was eating there was a good chance she would pull through. Shock was the thing to worry about, especially since Snowball was timid enough to have once fainted during a flea bath.
Sunday morning, my eight-year old daughter went to check on Snowball, and found that she had died during the night. The whole experience was just too much for her little bunny heart.
Andrea was very upset and crying, and while Jon tried to hide his sorrow behind anger directed at me (Why did you put her outside!?), he was clearly devastated. We had pets die before Snowball, but the children were younger then and it happened out of their sight, in humane society rooms or at the vet’s office. For them, this was their first confrontation with the lifeless body of a loved one.
We buried Snowball in the back yard next to a flowerbed, along with two stuffed bunnies the children chose to keep her company. We had a brief ceremony that choked us all up, the children put flowers on her grave, and we all had a group hug. For quite a while the kids kept the grave tended, sometimes adding new flowers and straightening the cross they placed there.
I was remembering this little bunny’s short life with us today, and thinking to myself – why do we put ourselves through all of that? Why do we get so attached to animals, when we know their time on earth is so brief? It may just be because we need each other, we need to love, and we need a connection with the animal world. It is hard on us all, especially children, when a beloved pet dies. But I think it is important that children understand that death is a part of the cycle of life.
We had other pets through the years, and when their times came my whole family felt tremendous grief. Is it better to never get our children pets, or at least stick to animals they can’t get as attached to, like fish or something?
I don’t think so.
I remember seeing the pride and love my son displayed for Snowball and how gentle he was around her. I watched both of the children stroking the cats and talking quietly to them, and growing up with a dog that shows unswerving loyalty and devotion to the family. It has to be good to bring so much love into their lives. It is true that if you have pets your children will be shown someday that loved ones die and you must go on, but that is a difficult and important lesson for children (and adults) to come to grips with.
As I think back now on my life, I barely remember most of high school, junior high and elementary school. Christmases all blur together, events of my childhood seem almost like they happened to someone else, and I can barely recall the faces of friends that twenty years ago were important to me.
But I do remember my little Socks, my first dog. I remember the way he looked at me, always knew when I was down, and shared my happiness when things were good. I remember the look in his eyes when I told him my secrets, and I knew he would love me no matter what I revealed to him. And I remember clearly the day Socks was kicked by a neighborhood bully, even though I was only five-years old. I remember his warmth as I cradled him in my lap in the car as we rode to the vet. I can feel him licking my hand, still concerned about me even though his head was bleeding, while I cried quietly and whispered prayers to please God, please make him okay.
Socks came through that experience, and I remember exactly where I was standing three years later, playing catch with a friend when we heard a squeal of brakes and my older brother yelling from the front yard “Socks is hit!”
I swear I can still hear it. I can see the quality of light that afternoon, still remember the smell of my baseball glove, and most of all that terrible sinking feeling inside me when I saw that it was true, that Socks was gone forever.
There are other memories, other pets, other deaths, all standing out in memory like color photos in an album where everything else is fading from black and white to gray. And I know that Snowball’s passing still lives in our children’s memories, just like Snowball will live in our hearts. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I think it is good for us. And it is certainly better than never knowing the unconditional love of a special pet.
About a decade after Snowball’s passing our little family was dealt the worst blow of all, when we lost their mom and my wife of 25 years to cancer. Nothing can make that hurt any less when it happens, and I’m not trying to say that dealing with the loss of our pets over the years made her death any easier for us.
But I do hope that the lesson Snowball taught my children was that life is precious and fleeting, but but the love you create and share continues in the hearts and minds of the ones you leave behind. Love never dies.