Rabbit Fever
by Alison Dellenbaugh

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Dusty on his first night home
My parents finally have their first grandchild. He's six months old with brown hair, brown eyes, and two tiny teeth that he uses to chew on everything in sight. Oh, and he's a rabbit.

Until this year, mine was a largely petless family. Except for a few short-lived goldfish (you know the kind), an Easter duck, and yes, even an Easter dog--all of which we couldn't keep because we lived in an apartment at the time--I had a pet-free childhood. And my brother, Gavin--well, he wasn't even around for the duck or dog.

This year, my mother and father realized Gavin was only two years away from leaving home. A scene from the future flashed before their eyes: Gavin in a therapist's office, crying. "It's all my parents' fault! They never let me have a pet!" Pet deprivation would scar him for life; they couldn't stand by and let it happen.

My mother and brother considered the possibilities and decided on a rabbit. My father was disgusted. He'd had a rabbit as a child; it was mean, it was unpleasant, it bit him. A rabbit would be a terrible pet. Maybe so, agreed my mom and Gavin, but it would be their terrible pet.

The rabbit of choice was Dusty, a six-week-old dwarf rabbit. They'd planned to keep him outside in a hutch, but Dusty was so small that they decided to keep him inside until he got bigger. And so he joined their household, along with a cage and an amazing amount of rabbit paraphernalia.

My father was pessimistic about the whole affair. He said they'd get tired of Dusty in two weeks. A rabbit ought to live with "pet people," not people who'd neglect him. Personally, I agreed. But then something peculiar happened.

One day, Gavin found the cage missing from the living room. Horror of horrors, he thought, Dad's gotten fed up and put Dusty outside! By this time, naturally, the idea of keeping him outside was unthinkable--how cruel! Fortunately, careful inspection of the grounds revealed Dusty, playing happily near his cage, in my father's home office. Dad was afraid Dusty might be lonely....

That was only the beginning. Within days, an ordinary family with no particular affinity for animals was transformed into a family of obsessive rabbit enthusiasts. Rabbit fever overtook them and rearranged their lives. Indeed, the rabbit my father didn't want is now his lifelong buddy. Of course, they have other things to think about besides the rabbit. My mother is back in college after more than twenty-five years, and Gavin just returned from Russia. So how come all they talk about is Dusty? Their pictures from my wedding last year remain undeveloped; meanwhile, pictures of Dusty fill their home.

I wonder if my future child will be able to compete. "It's nice that your baby's speaking Spanish," Mom will say, "but guess what Dusty did!" I'm serious--Mom is obsessed. How many women scour sale tables of children's books, looking for books for their rabbits?

Actually, I shouldn't laugh; I had a bout with rabbit fever myself. My husband and I bunnysat for Dusty while my family was out of town, and Dusty gave me my first taste of motherhood. I quickly learned that I will be the kind of woman who bores people silly with all my baby stories and photo albums. Frankly, I was almost as bad as my parents, and he isn't even my rabbit. The week he was with us, all anyone heard from me was bunny lore. I talked about the cute things Dusty did (he jumped about three feet in the air, he sat under my feet while I practiced piano and danced around them madly when I got up), the naughty things he did (he pried past all our barricades to get to our electrical cords, he gnawed big chunks out of all of our wooden tables), and why rabbits make good house pets (I had plenty of information; I read rabbit books all week). I'm sure my friends were relieved when Dusty went home!

So, of course, was my family. They hadn't forgotten him in a whirlwind of vacation bliss. Far from it--they spent the whole trip talking about him. They even sent him a postcard in care of me--just the kind a bunny might like to chew on. And what did they do on vacation? They went to the Puye Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, known to Pueblo Indians as "the ruins where the rabbits assemble." Their vacation souvenir? A clay rabbit, what else!

Since their return, my parents expect more from me in the way of bunnymania. They have even accused me of selfishness for wanting to talk about things other than Dusty. Now that I know him, of course, I have no excuse for not wanting to see him all the time and hear about everything he ever does. And everything he ever eats. And his impeccable litter box habits. And his incontestable status as the world's greatest pet.

Note that this guilt trip is coming from people who lived most of their lives--happily, even--without pets. They rolled their eyes at the fascination of other people with their pets. For that matter, they still roll their eyes at the fascination of other people with pets that aren't Dusty. It's become clear that they're not going to get tired of Dusty and neglect him, though Dusty may well get tired of them. In the meantime, it's become hazy how they ever lived without him. What kind of family were they, after all, that wouldn't have a rabbit?

As for me, I'm just waiting until I have a child. If my parents love their grandchild even half as much as Dusty, we'll all have a wonderful time sharing baby talk. There will be someone else for them to dote on, someone else for them to take pictures of and buy books for...and perhaps most importantly, someone else for them to infect with rabbit fever.

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This article was published in the Austin American-Statesman on December 13, 1994, under the title Crazy as a March Hare over Dusty, with a few slight differences in the wording. This is its original text, circa 1992. My parents were successful in spreading their rabbit fever, by the way, as I later became a mother to bunnies as well as children. Before having kids, my husband and I got involved with the Austin House Rabbit Resource Network and helped my parents adopt another bunny, Smokey, from an animal shelter. Our own bunnies, lops named Holly and Pablo (as babies and at 4), lived 5 and 10 years, respectively.