Learning to care for Kipper

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When my now 19-year-old son Alyosha was little, the search for an appropriate pet was one of the running themes in our home. A dog was out of the question - neither of us could see him getting up at 5 a.m. to stumble with Fido through the dark, cold, and snow of a Maine winter. We eventually settled on a guinea pig, the most dependent of animals, which, after a week or so, lost its "glow" for Alyosha and became, by default, my pet.

Now I have a second son. Anton is uneasy around dogs, so there was no pleading for a Pekinese. But a couple years back, he developed an absolute fascination with rabbits. He even built a sort of shrine to rabbitry in his bedroom - drawings, odes, and books celebrating the virtues of this arguably cutest animal on the planet. Hmm, I thought, maybe this is the real thing, and Anton does have what it takes to care for a living creature.

I eventually decided that two years of longing was probation enough.

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As serendipity would have it, I discovered an offer of rabbits in a weekly shopper. "All colors," read the ad. "Five dollars each."

We drove deep into the woods until we came to a modest home set in a clearing of fir and pine. The breeder took us to the hutch, and I must admit that my heart skipped a beat when I saw the five small bunnies, all calico.

"Well," I said to Anton. "I guess you'll have to choose."

Anton froze with indecision.

"Just slip your hand inside," I encouraged him. "See which one chooses you."

He did as I directed, and while four of the babies scurried away, one crept into his palm and nestled there. Anton withdrew the small thing and cradled it lovingly against his chest.

"This is the one," he said.

"OK," I agreed. "Now you have to name it."

Just as "Spot" is the prototypical dog name, and "Frisky" the domain of cats, why would a 9-year-old name a rabbit anything other than Kipper? Bearing in mind the affair with Alyosha's guinea pig, I offered one last admonition to my son: "This is your animal. You have to feed it, clean its cage, and give it love."

Anton, still holding the rabbit, nodded aggressively.

In truth, no rabbit ever had it so good. We obtained a used, but extremely good, steel cage. The water bottle was full, the feeding bowl a cornucopia of tidbits touted as being "premium" and containing "special supplements" intended to enhance the quality of a rabbit's dining experience. The grooming brush hung on its special hook, and a nesting box provided privacy for those moments when, Garbo-like, Kipper wanted to be alone.

I quickly learned that a rabbit is a cut above a guinea pig when it comes to awareness of its environment. Alyosha's guinea pig didn't seem to have any wants at all. It was even equivocal about being held. When placed in the yard, it sat in the grass like a lawn ornament.

But Kipper soon developed a real spark of recognition. Whenever someone walked past the cage, she ran to the bars for a head scratch. When picked up, she nestled in our arms like a newborn. And when brought outside, she hopped about with something resembling glee. This scene was made comical by her initial inability to coordinate her front and hind sections, so that when she jumped, her tail swung out to the side, as if cantilevered off the rest of her body.

All of this provided utter fascination for Anton - for about a week. Then one day, he didn't change the water.

"I forgot," he said, and made up for lost time. The next day it was the food that didn't get replenished. "Sorry!" my son pleaded before making amends.

Slowly but surely, I found myself taking over these duties, punctuating my work with threats to give the bunny away. At first, such admonitions brought Anton to redouble his efforts on Kipper's behalf, but then, oddly, Anton's loss of interest in Kipper stopped bothering me.

It happened one afternoon, when Anton was at a friend's house. I looked at the empty water bottle and the all-but-empty food bowl, not to mention the malodorous cage. What could I do? I placed the rabbit on my shoulder while I replenished food and water and cleaned its habitat. By the time I was done, Kipper had fallen asleep, her paws embracing my neck with devotion and trust. I gently moved her from my shoulder to my arms, where I regarded her closed eyes and brisk respirations. I lay down on the sofa and placed her on my chest, where she - we - took a nice, long snooze.

When Anton came home and saw us, he said, "I'll take care of the rabbit later."

"OK," I said, although I realized that it really didn't matter anymore. Nagging my son about caring for Kipper was burdensome, whereas caring for such a placid, uncomplaining little creature had become my pleasure - after discounting the fact that, once again, I'd been had.

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