I feel I should explain some more about the destructive lagomorphs I share my house with: Debbie and Ian. I also have three rats (no, I’m not a goth and they’re not weird pets. Snakes are weird pets). Maureen and Pamela are mink Berkshires, and Agnes is an overweight Agouti Rex.
Rats are intelligent, engaging and affectionate. They actively enjoy and seek out human company, yet I get called a weirdo and am frequently told how rats would be OK if it weren’t for their tails. Yes, and tigers would be OK if it weren’t for their huge fangs and claws. The tail is part of the rat, I’m afraid – it’s semi-prehensile and sometimes a rat will twirl it around my finger or wrist to steady herself. I’ve also seen rats pick up their tail in both hands and clean it, which is nearly as cute as when they stick one of their ratty fingers in an ear, wiggle it around and then have a look at what comes out before eating it. Rats are victims of negative PR from endless horror movies and the Black Death.
Two things about the plague – humans caught it off fleas because of their own mucky habits, and the *black* rats that transmitted the fleas died of the plague first. Then the fleas jumped onto people. One last thing – the next movie you see with a big, squeaky swarm of rats? Nonsense. Rats usually only squeak when frightened or hurt.
Rabbits, on the other hand, are victims of their own fluffy, twitchy nosed cuteness, and plenty of positive PR from Beatrix Potter, through Disney, to nursery decorations, but a visit to any animal sanctuary will reveal dozens of bunnies, abandoned there by disappointed owners.
A rabbit is a popular choice of pet for children: but many adults have childhood memories of a reticent, sometimes cantankerous creature kept in a tiny hutch at the bottom of the garden. A child’s belief that
their bunny will enjoy being cuddled and fed carrots and lettuce is usually dispelled after a couple of days spent with a prey animal that will instinctively resist being picked up (because in the wild, this
generally means you’ve become lunch for an eagle), will kick out with back legs powerful enough to disembowel a dog and which can die of diarrhoea from eating too much lettuce.
Bunnies aren’t particularly demonstrative of affection, unless kept alone. It’s a matter of personal conscience whether it’s better to have a lonely bunny that likes being petted, or a couple of rabbits that prefer their own company to yours.
Debbie and Ian are dwarf French Lops. They are dwarves, despite being about the size of cats – the original French Lop is a meat breed the size of a carthorse. Debbie is a classic fawn rabbit colour, and Ian is black. They were rescued from some idiot who kept them in a teeny tiny hutch on a balcony somewhere near Kensall Green. Both look quite cute, but the best way to look at them is as animated furry cabbages. They are happiest if they have something to destroy and like to steal food, either from the table if they can reach it, or from the bin. If you doubt the destructive nature of bunnies, visit Australia, Hawaii or New Zealand, where their nibbling has endangered many rare species of bird and small mammal.
I think the most you can hope for from a rabbit is a sort of baffled tolerance. They can be housetrained, and persuaded to not despise being groomed, although it takes a while. Whilst I feel affection towards the rats, I mainly feel obligation for the rabbits. They’re not easy to maintain (they like hay, which is dusty and messy, and their larger housing means they’re hard to clean out), they’re not cheap to look after and the experience isn’t tremendously rewarding.
I wouldn’t recommend them as a pet for children: buy them a couple of rats instead. Jack Black, ratcatcher to Queen Victoria, felt a certain admiration for these intelligent creatures and began breeding the more unusually coloured ones to sell as pets in the 1860s:
So it’s not weird, OK. Beatrix Potter kept rats too, and it’s a shame Samuel Whiskers didn’t do for Rattus Norvegicus what Peter Rabbit did for Oryctolagus Cuniculus. The rest of Europe has the right idea: they keep rats as pets and have rabbits for dinner. Visit your local game dealer (they would probably appreciate the business) and get some tomorrow.