Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Epiphany at the Petting Zoo

Harvard owns a petting zoo.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not exceptionally surprising. Harvard also owns such disparate objects as a hundred-year-old printing press, a forest in central Mass, and a fleet of Harvard-insignia waffle irons.

In Harvardese, "Veritaffle". You can't make this stuff up.

I don't know how long the zoo has been Harvard's; at least, I remember the bunnies being used to promote Leverett House (whose mascot is a hare) on housing day in March, and the full zoo making an appearance at Eliot House's welcome-back barbecue in September. Nowadays, it's become a weekly fixture in front of the Science Center on Thursday afternoons. To paraphrase one of my professors: "There's no more relaxing way to spend 20 minutes on a Thursday afternoon."

Particularly in need of quick relaxation after Math 131, I made my own stop by the petting zoo. At that point, they were just setting up, and the bunny pen was surrounded by people standing around and looking at -- but not touching the bunnies. No one wanted to be the first one to get down on their hands and knees and pet one.

Having no such reservations, I knelt down and lifted out one of the longhairs (being careful, of course, to support the spine and hindquarters -- I owned a rabbit for many years back home in Maryland). Someone behind my asked "Oh, you can do that? Is it going to bite me?"

Over my shoulder to the woman I couldn't see (I didn't want to turn around with a small rabbit on my lap...), I said "Sure, just keep one hand under his butt, so his legs don't dangle, and hold him firmly. They're too well-trained to bite." And in a few minutes, everyone had a bunny of their own to hold, handle, and coo over.

There's something wonderful about being completely engrossed in a tiny bundle of fur sitting quietly on your lap, and so I did begin to feel more relaxed and happier the longer I held my rabbit. (Well, not my rabbit, he's still in Columbia, MD. But for a few minutes, this one was mine.) I realized, though, that there was more to this one than was immediately apparent. His coat -- for all that it was soft and fluffy on the outside -- was tangled and matted underneath, and I suspect that his toenails had never been clipped. The way he passively lay on my lap spoke of an animal that had long since stopped struggling against humans handling him for hours at a time.

I probably wouldn't have been able to tell, if I wasn't already used to the way that my rabbit would struggle for the first hour or so of his seasonal shearing, before going docile for the second half. (Longhair angora grow an inch of hair a month, and need to be shorn approximately four times in a year.) But I realized then: this was not a calm and happy bunny; this was a rabbit that had given up on life. And the rest -- from the way they would curl inward and huddle together, rather than hopping around or flopping down sideways -- were no better.

If you've been to see Harvard's petting zoo, and you didn't notice, I don't blame you. You wouldn't know to look between the bunny's ears for the knotted mat that invariably forms there (in longhairs not properly groomed), or feel under the outer layers of fluff for the felted mats irritating the skin. You probably wouldn't know the difference between a well-trained 'lap rabbit' and one that had gone limp. For that matter, you probably didn't know that holding a rabbit around the middle and letting her legs dangle can break her back, if she chooses that moment to kick her legs out hard.