I’m fond of animals, but I’m perfectly happy being fond of them from a distance — I managed many years as an adult without adopting pets. I do my at-home typing in front of a large window, occasionally glancing up to watch squirrels chase each other through our yard. If I’m midway through a particularly arduous pdf, that glance might stretch on to fill half an hour or more (my “to read” folder currently has papers from The George Washington Law Review, The National Bureau of Economic Research, and Philosophical Quarterly, so I imagine at least one will zonk me).
Watching squirrels through the window, and taking my daughter to look at frogs in the lotus pond, and saying “hello” to dogs on our way to the park, felt like a good amount of animal interaction for me. With three full-time residents plus our drop-by guests, our house felt chaotic enough.
Now our house is more chaotic. We’ve been joined by Uncle Max, a seventy pound pitbull, and Kichirou, a three pound dwarf rabbit.
Uncle Max arrived already knowing his name. The “uncle” bit actually infuriated K for a while, until she realized it’s hilarious. Uncle Max was her father’s dog, which in her father’s eyes meant that she and the dog were siblings. When K announced that she was pregnant, he started referring to his dog Max as Uncle Max. Plus, like most pitbulls, Uncle Max is rather scary looking — he’s strong, with a cudgel head, and sufficiently exuberant that he’ll tug on leashes until he cuts off his air and his eyes flush bloodshot red — but framing affects how people see the world. Hearing someone refer to a dog as “Uncle Max,” a ridiculous name, makes him seem less threatening. Or so it’s seemed on the times I’ve walked him.
(Looking scary was an essential part of Uncle Max’s initial job description. Back when K’s father was living in upstate New York, his roommate decided to grow marijuana, and, worse, brag to everyone he knew that he was growing marijuana. Shortly thereafter, a bunch of dudes broke into their house, pistol-whipped K’s father in the face, and stole a bunch of tomato plants. The tomatoes were found the next morning in the middle of the road, as though a driver had shouted “You idiots! That’s not marijuana!” and the dudes simply dropped them and got in the car and drove away. That’s when K’s father’s roommate decided he needed a dog. Within a few months, he died. The roommate, that is. In bed, straddled by an overnight guest. Which meant that K’s father was homeless… and that he had a dog. A few months later K & I were able to drive out to New York and move both K’s father and Uncle Max to Bloomington.)
Kichirou also arrived with a name, but he’d only been living with K’s father for a week or so, and his name was not ideal, so we rechristened him. Kichirou was welcomed into my father-in-law’s home during his final romantic fling, bought as a wooing / moving-in present for the lady friend.
(Note: if you would like to live with an animal, please stop by your local shelter! For pet stores to always have cute young animals ready to go home with you, subject to the temporal vagaries of consumer whims, they have to overproduce … which is an economicsy-sounding way of saying that some animals will go un-purchased and un-loved.)
As it happened, the romance ended a few days before my father-in-law passed. When the ladyfriend moved out, K told her father that the rabbit should leave too. K & I were already sponsoring Uncle Max, among sundry other aspects of her father’s life — his money situation was not ideal, he’d been on Medicaid but was booted when the Affordable Care Act went into effect, trapped in the coverage gap — and we didn’t think we could afford for him to keep another pet. But the ex-ladyfriend was broke, too — she’d had a few hours per week at Big Boy’s, but lost them — so rumor had it that she was selling the rabbit to someone who was gonna fatten him up and eat him.
A grim fate — born in a pet store breeding center, brought to an apartment where the inhabitants barely had enough money to feed themselves, let alone a rabbit, then doomed to somebody’s dinner pot.
Yet somehow, when N’s Auntie Ferret (human) and I went to collect Uncle Max after K’s father’s stroke, the rabbit was there. Auntie Ferret walked across the gravel drive and broken glass parking lot to the house where Uncle Max had been whimpering for the past hour, I stood on the stoop talking to the neighbor Tequila, then suddenly she told me, “Oh, he’s got a rabbit in there.”
I’m glad she told me. Our plan was to collect Uncle Max, hop back in the car, return to the hospital. We wouldn’t have cleaned out the apartment for a few days, and I doubt Kichirou could’ve survived with nothing to eat but the balled-up newspaper in the bottom of his cage.
I feel like Kichirou earned his name, Japanese for “lucky son.” At this point it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know how he ended up back in K’s father’s apartment, and even that almost wasn’t enough to save him. And the name needed to be Japanese — the samurai actually respected rabbits. A few years ago we saw the samurai weaponry exhibit at the Louisville armament museum and I was puzzled by all the rabbit imagery. I thought it might allude to the moon; here’s Wendy Doniger’s summary of moon imagery from the introduction to The Hindus: An Alternate History:
Another metaphor for this sort of double vision is the dark shape visible on the moon: many Americans and Europeans (for convenience, let us call them Euro-Americans) see the face of a man in the moon (whom some Jewish traditions identify as Cain, cursed to wander), and other cultures see a woman, a moose, a buffalo, a frog, and so forth. But most Hindus (as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Aztecs) see a rabbit.
Still, why would a samurai want to evoke the moon? Did they want to be seen as space creatures? Were moon men endowed with special powers? I speculated rampantly until K finally poked me in the side and said, “Why don’t you read the placard?”
I learned that the traits associated with rabbits are very different in U.S. versus Japanese culture. Here, we think of rabbits as being easily frightened & prodigious breeders. Whereas one of the placards at the samurai weaponry exhibit included the phrase “dash into battle like a rabbit.” Rabbits have further virtues, as well; here’s an excerpt from Trever Absolon and David Thatcher’s Watanabe Art Museum Samurai Armour Collection:
Traditional Japanese artistic design and the elite world of the warrior class often combined in a way that from a conventional Western way of thinking produced many highly improbable and sometimes even illogical designs. … one needs to understand that to feudal-period Japanese, the rabbit was seen as a selfless and noble creature, whose speed and agility was to be admired and whom legend stated could live for a thousand years. It was these abilities and virtues to which the samurai were paying homage, and perhaps privately hoping to harness, when they chose to commission items in such shapes.
Given that, it seemed clear that only a Japanese name would do for Kichirou. He’s not a skittish sex-fiend! He’s a noble creature with speed & agility, ready at any moment to dash into battle!
I think the name has helped. For the first two days in our house, Kirchirou was reluctant to venture outside his cage. But now the three-pound rabbit seems dominant to the seventy-pound pitbull.