Close encounters of the long-eared kind

I've more than appreciated the times when paths have crossed briefly, for a glimpse of another's world has enriched the texture of my own. This experience isn't limited to people; it can come from a timely article, a piece of music, or an animal. The most recent experience had to do with an animal.

It started in a parking lot when I distinctly saw a small rabbit slip from underneath a car to nibble cautiously at some grass near the curb. Not an ordinary rabbit; this one was a soft, dusky color with deep brown ears, tail, and feet, like a Siamese cat, except for a white-booted right front foot and a blaze angling down his nose. As I approached, he disappeared under a shabby blue car.

''How beautiful. He must be someone's pet,'' I said to a young man and woman who were also taking an interest.

''He's been here for days and no one can catch him,'' they responded.

''I could, if I had a carrot,'' I ventured, after a futile attempt under the car.

A bit disheveled after trying to reach the rabbit, I soon found myself in an elevator en route to a friend of the bystanders who, they said, ''would surely love to give you a carrot.''

My mental dialogue ran somewhat like this:

''Isn't this kind of ridiculous? You have to be somewhere in an hour.''

''But I have time. I can't leave that rabbit in the parking lot. I can try to find his owner. If that doesn't work, I'll let him go in a glen I know where wild rabbits thrive.''

The rabbit came eagerly to the carrot. He seemed hungry, tired, and a little thin. I put him on the floor of my car and tried not to talk to him too obviously as I pulled up beside another car at a light.

Where do you put a rabbit you've invited home to a small apartment? The kitchen seemed the best place, and I found enough large cardboard pieces to barricade the entrance. A carton placed sideways with soft shredding inside provided a private shelter, and a thick layer of paper in the corner of the room would encourage the fastidious habits most rabbits have. He liked the idea of a private compartment, but soon came out shyly for a long drink of water and some serious eating.

Later, I made appropriate phone calls. The police had no knowledge of a lost rabbit. The animal experts said a domestic rabbit couldn't fend for himself and shouldn't be let loose. More phone calls to find a good home. One sounded ideal, but I'd have to wait a few days for confirmation.

I called my guest Alexander, just because it seemed to suit him. It was heartwarming to see him refreshed and cleaning his lovely coat with enthusiasm. Even the tips of his long ears did not escape his careful grooming as he pulled down one velvety ear at a time to do a thorough job.

He proved himself trustworthy and so obviously enjoyed exploring the kitchen that I let him continue into the living room. Delighted with the extra freedom, he was curious about everything, hopping quickly from one area, back to the kitchen, on to a new point, then back to the kitchen, as though to maintain his bearings to food, bed, and facilities. He wasn't content to investigate from the floor, but with twitching nose, examined each piece of furniture from a standing position, delicately balancing with one front paw resting against the object under scrutiny.

Alexander was not entirely compliable; he had some firm opinions. For example , clutter was unacceptable. The paper toweling I had ripped in shreds for his bed was vigorously thrust out of the box with feet and teeth. That messy cluster of wires behind the sofa interfered with rapid transit; before I could reach him , a quick chomp dismembered one stereo speaker from the set. For his living room trips, I learned to put all wires out of reach. The only other inconvenience he subtly pointed out was a too-deep food bowl. Gripping it firmly in his mouth, with one hard shake he dumped all the food on the floor.

He loved the living room and resisted going back to the kitchen, sometimes thumping a back foot in rebellion at my herding efforts. Mostly, I respected his independence, but he didn't seem to mind the few times I picked him up. After I inadvertently dropped a pan and set him trembling from the sudden clatter, he calmed readily when gently held and stroked. As the quivering stopped, his dark, expressive ears came up in anticipation of a new venture.

Within a few days, the ''ideal situation'' came through. I turned him over to an understanding young girl who would take him to a large, grassy fenced-in yard where he could frisk. Alexander was obviously very comfortable with her gentleness, and I was, too. When I last heard, he was lively, happy, and banqueting on many goodies.

His brief visit was such a pleasure it delights me to remember his dignity, grace, and resourcefulness. For him it must have been like three days in the city. For me, it had all the spontaneous delight of a weekend in the country.

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