He raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to me?”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow, the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint, silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said. “Yes, I know you.”
“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”
They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention… It seemed to Hazel he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him and into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be alright–and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
–Watership Down, Richard Adams
A week ago today, we lost our beloved Sophie. Just a week before that, we’d taken her to the vet for a stomach problem that seemed much like something she’d had several times before over the nine years we had her. But while examining her belly, the vet found a huge tumour, which the x-ray showed was almost entirely filling her body cavity. It sat near but not quite touching all her internal organs.
The vet was blunt: he said we wouldn’t have her another year; he also said he was pretty sure it was lymphoma but we couldn’t subject her to a biopsy because she was so elderly. The result would be the same whether the mass was malignant or benign anyway–it would grow enough to start pressing against her organs or spine and that would cause her pain; it would also eat all her calories. He said, and we agreed for we’d already decided, that when she stopped enjoying her food or her friends, or when she couldn’t get around, we’d end it. He prescribed painkillers and we took her home.
At first, she was fine; she even excitedly ran over to Brook to get her painkillers and the banana slices we gave her with them. But on Sunday, she started to lose her appetite. On Monday, I took her to the vet again; she’d lost almost a pound in those five days and he heard hiccups in her heart that hadn’t been there the last time he’d seen her. He thought the mass had spread but sent us home with antibiotics just in case. But she stopped eating and her energy began to run down even faster.
From Sunday night to Wednesday morning, I barely left the house, spending most of my time trying to get her to eat and petting her; Brook relieved me when he got home from work. She loved me petting her, until Wednesday morning, when a couple of times she nosed my hand away. We already knew by then that it was over and had an appointment for that morning, for sometime over night, her back legs had stopped working. We let her go sometime before noon on July 19 2017.
Sophie was a rescue and rescue animals can be challenging for a variety of reasons, but she had particularly high odds against her. She was born sometime around the beginning of February 2008 in a rabbit meat farm. When she was maybe three months old she was rescued from that farm, along with 300 of her closest family members and friends. The OSPCA was part of this rescue which means the conditions in the farm must have been beyond horrifying; then anyway, and I suspect still, rabbits raised for consumption had fewer legal protections working in their favour than even chickens do, and they have it bad enough.
After this rescue, Sophie was fostered and her foster home had a rabbit that she really wanted to be friends with, but who didn’t want to be friends with her. So we adopted her to bond with our bunny Gregory, who had a month or so before lost his beloved mate Penny. Enraged with grief, Greg spent the first month of his solitude growling at and charging everyone in the house but me. But when we brought Sophie in, he perked right up. We had to keep them separated at first because rabbits can fight viciously if introduced too quickly; but it was easy as anything to bond them and we knew there was no point in keeping them separated when Sophie discovered she could jump over the barrier and we found them nestled together.
Soph’s past caught up right away, however. Less than a week after we got her home, I came into the dining room to check on her; because she happened to be sitting up, I saw a large pustule on her neck that hadn’t been there even an hour before; it exploded shortly after. The next day, she had major surgery because she was covered in these things, symptoms of pasteurella, something rabbits get in severely crowded and unhealthy situations.
She came home from the vet healthier but in new and profound fear of us–and who can blame her, we’d subjected her to such stress and pain right after she arrived; and before she met us, she didn’t have a tonne of cause for thinking people were okay. But she bonded deeply and completely with Gregory, as well as to a point with our cat Jeoffy, so as long as we didn’t interfere with her too much, she was happy for the next several years.
When Gregory died in 2014, Soph spent the next month or so hiding but later started to socialize again, mostly with Jeoffy but also a little with me, even though she was obviously still afraid of me and Brook.
We spent the last 3+ years trying to win her trust and make her happy again. And in spite of being both naturally docile (the larger the rabbit, the less pith and vinegar they have) and traumatized by humans, she made slow but incredible strides over the years. When Greg died, Sophie was six years old; it took her a full year to find the courage to come out of her safe spaces of living and dining rooms and explore the kitchen (she was fully cage-free). Jeoffy helped with this by running over to head-butt her and herd her along like he was a sheep-dog; all we had to do was say, “Jeoffy, where’s Sophie? Go get Sophie!” and he’d emit this adorable squeak and go get her.
A few months after she became comfortable in her longer wanderings through the house, she began sometimes letting me sit beside her on the floor to pet her nose and ears. When she almost died in April 2016, Brook was away, so I took care of her alone and we really bonded. After that, I was hers: she would often run right up to me and demand that I sit down and pet her, nose to tail; she sometimes ran towards me when I came home and when she saw it was me, she’d jump for joy. And just six months before she died, she began giving me bunny kisses (i.e., chinning my hands), making it even clearer that I was her very own.
She was a miracle unfolding in slow motion; it’s excruciating, but I’m finding it hard not to speculate about what further boundaries of fear and shyness she might have broken through had she not died when she did.
Since Sophie died last week, I’ve felt more stunned than grieved; it all happened so quickly that until today, I was having a hard time realizing that she’s really gone forever. I’ve felt like I’ve been having a very long, cold, and heart-breaking dream. We’ve just been trying to keep to our regular routines.
This morning, my husband got up and went for a bicycle ride before work. A little while after he left, I was getting ready to go for a ride myself when he called: he’d found a leveret he thought might be injured on the Cherry Beach trail. We don’t have a car, so I rode down and she was still there with him; in my experience riding along these trails, even young rabbits more naive than their world-weary elders always bound away to safety when you get within a few feet of them.
While waiting for the Toronto Wildlife Centre to open, we tried to encourage her into the shade and safety of the longer grasses. When the centre was due to open, I called and left a message; in the meantime, my husband had to go to work, so I stayed with her, if nothing else to help her get across the trail in safety (some of the cyclists using these trails seem to labour under the misapprehension that they’re participating in the Tour du France).
I kept her in sight but also kept my distance; as I was waiting, I was searching the web on my phone for info on how to tell if a leveret is in trouble or not. It wasn’t immediately clear to me that she was, for their mothers often leave them to themselves during the day; I also read that I should be careful not to leave my scent on her or her mother might abandon her.
The wildlife centre never called me back; but because I and other people I know have found them responsive in the past, I didn’t give up waiting them soon enough, in the end. For, of course, it did end. When my husband first saw this wee baby, she seemed to limp; but then when we prodded her, she hopped, which made us hopeful.
But as I waited for that call that never came, she kept coming close to me, within an inch of my leg, the very leg Sophie used to love to cuddle under, and settling down beside me. I moved a few times, again because I didn’t want to ruin her chances with her mama, but she kept coming back and each time she struggled more. The last time, she was dragging her back legs so I just picked her and held her to me and she snuggled in; I was going to take her to my vet, who I’m pretty sure can’t legally treat wildlife, but it became clear pretty soon after I began holding her and she accepted my hands around her tiny, soft body that we wouldn’t make it to my or any other vet in time. She died curled up with me; I placed her in the long grasses and made her a blanket of thistles and clover.
All the unreality of Sophie’s death left me when I felt the sweet leveret’s heart stop beating; my heart feels like it’s being crushed from the inside. I hope the baby bunny didn’t suffer and that it was easier for her with me there. My darling Soph, I miss you so, so much. I hope there was a stranger with faintly glowing ears to meet you and take you to a place where fear and pain don’t exist.