Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Rabbits, Gerbils, and a Meditation on Power

Whenever I visit Brno these days, a significant amount of my attention goes to Jesse's neighbors, the rabbit and gerbil who live in a too-small cage just outside his front door. We aren't sure whose pets they are, but we feel a responsibility to do what we can to better the lives of this mostly neglected pair.
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 Stra┼żnice 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.


Blogger Rabbit Girl said...

This is very powerful writing. I strongly feel that we, as humans with huge amounts of power relative to animals, have a responsibility to animals to, at the very least, treat them with dignity. Nicely done!

July 11, 2006 10:40 PM  
Blogger P'tit-Loup said...

Unfortunately the use of power, often unintentionally, over children definitely parallels what you describes. I work with many families whose parents have suffered greatly, from abuse or neglect, in their upbringing. Unfortunately, that is what they know they inflict the same treatment upon their children, and any pets they may have as well. :(

July 12, 2006 6:43 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

Thanks for the supportive comments. One reason I do post about rabbits (and other animals) is in the hopes of encouraging greater public awareness.

The issue of families and how people treat children is a whole huge topic... last night Nathan and I were talking about how to intervene in abusive incidents in a manner that is kind to both parties. So often a person does think of the right thing to say or do, but hours later, when the people on the bus or in the park or whatever are long gone.

July 12, 2006 12:20 PM  
Anonymous Amy said...

It's taken me a couple of days to make a comment; this subject is quite upsetting. It sounds as if you're already doing far more than many people would to make their lives better. It's heartbreaking to think about little beings that are being neglected, and can't even tell anyone. If only there were a process for placing pets that would make the situation safer for the poor pet! Is there a way to affix a second water bottle to the cage?
This makes me think of a vigilante solution a friend resorted to: at an apartment where she lived briefly, she saw a small dog get tossed off of a balcony by its drunk redneck owners. As she was moving out, the dog approached her car, so she let him in, and gave him seven happy years at her new home. The means were more than justified!

July 14, 2006 6:35 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

I think a second water bottle could easily be added. I've also instructed Jesse on the wide variety of juicy treats that can be fed (apples, bananas, tomatoes) since rabbits don't need as much water if the food is moist, although they need to have plenty of hay for roughage and need to have their moist foods introduced gradually to avoid digestive problems.

July 14, 2006 7:10 AM  

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