Rabbits, Gerbils, and a Meditation on Power
It's easy for us to do certain things, like fill their insanely small water bottle, feed them hay and vegetables, and spend time keeping them company (they are quite lonely and become very excited whenever they see one of us). On the other hand, it is hard for us to do much more. The cage is on the landing, and if only the building had indoor stairs, there would be some possibility of letting the pair out for exercise, but the gerbil in particular is very good at escaping if you open the cage door, and does not like to be captured and brought back. It escaped repeatedly when I was visiting prior to the Stražnice festival and went racing down the stairs, onto a balcony, and nearly jumped off the balcony onto a neighboring roof. (Gerbils are pretty acrobatic and can scamper up and down most vertical surfaces.) I nearly had heart failure.
In any case, obviously it's quite difficult to pet them or give them fresh newspaper when such an endeavor could mean that the gerbil runs off and ends up in the street or a neighboring yard. One can hardly blame it for wanting a bit of adventure, but...
This unfortunate situation is very distressing. Ideally, we would speak to the people who bought these animals, and gently suggest that a) the cage is far too small (it is only slightly larger than Ms. Spots' litter box); b) the water bottle is even more inadequate; c) the rabbit needs a litter box, not dirty newspapers; d) there should be a feed dish in the cage; e) they need exercise, companionship, and toys. We don't, however, know who to say this to even if we knew how to say all of it.
This puts us in the position of, to some degree, acquiescing in the animals' neglect.
Not entirely coincidentally, I recently encountered a thought-provoking post in a blog about autism. The author, who has spent excruciating time in institutions, recollects how in her childhood her family kept rabbits in small hutches, unaware that they are social, affectionate creatures who need companionship and mental stimulation. She draws important parallels between how those who cannot defend themselves effectively--whether human or animal--are often treated by people who may bear them no ill will but hold power over them and are ignorant of their feelings.
While nothing the author (a fellow member of the House Rabbit Society) says was a surprise to me, I would probably not have thought to make these particular connections on my own, because circumstances have rarely or never placed me in a position of utter powerlessness.
I imagine most of us can think of times when we neglected or made bad decisions about people or animals who were within our power. No matter how well we may have intended, such recollections can hardly be other than painful once we realize the effect of our actions or inactions.