DILEMMAS / A rabbit in a cage stirs up a rage

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Mu-um . . . can I have a rabbit/hamster/gerbil?

It's the phrase every mother dreads. Not just because she knows she'll almost certainly end up looking after the damned thing, but because, if she's anything like Oonagh, who wrote in last week, she may feel terribly guilty about keeping a captive animal at all.

But just as Oonagh was about to tell her son that a rabbit was out of the question, her resolution wavered. Her son's godmother revealed that she herself, an only child, had loved her own rabbit dearly. Indeed it was her best friend.

So should Oonagh buy her son the caged rabbit? Or should she deny him a loving relationship with a living creature? Heart-warming rabbit stories abounded.

There were rabbits who lived in gardens . . . Odile Singer from Brockham, Surrey, wrote: 'Our big blind female rabbit lived with a male guinea pig in a pen large enough to include three people plus a hutch. They had the run of the garden when we were around and mowed the lawn for us. Why not get a rescue rabbit from the RSPCA plus something else that can live with it without breeding?' (She wasn't the only one to point out that it is cruel to keep a rabbit - or, indeed, a goldfish - on its own.)

And there were rabbits that lived in flats . . . the entire household from a first- floor flat in Folkestone, Kent, wrote to ask what was all this about cages? Their rabbit lives happily with them and the cats without any cage at all. Like most rabbits, he's house-trained, and potters about 'on the carpet, surrounded by the telephone ringing and the sounds of the computer in action'. ('And yet,' they added, 'how can we claim to want him to be free while we deprive him of being on the grass in the fresh breeze surrounded with the whispering of insects . . ?')

And there were people who wriggled out of the issue, like Simon Walsh of Kew, who said that it was better to buy the rabbit because otherwise it would only be bought by someone else who might not look after it well at all. (But that argument won't wash; if fewer people bought rabbits as pets there'd be fewer rabbits suffering in cages generally).

But on the whole, unless the rabbit could be given a friend, plenty of strokes and cuddles, and the run, preferably, of both house and grassy garden, most readers felt, like Oonagh, uneasy about buying the pet.

Judy Forsyth of Old Portsmouth, Hants, wrote: 'Did the little boy's godmother's rabbit find her his best friend? Poor little blighter deprived of rabbit life had to suffer the only stimulation of all slaves - fed, petted, wept over and bored to madness. Isn't there a neighbour's dog Oonagh's son can walk to make himself useful to humans as well as animals? If he wants little furry animals just send him back to his teddy bears please]'

And Joyce Collins, of Leicester, agreed. 'The practice of keeping animals in cages, whether battery hens or rabbits, guinea pigs or whatever, can never be justified except on the grounds of pure selfishness,' she wrote. 'Why is it that we can accept the idea of keeping rabbits in cages but would never dream of doing the same to cats and dogs, which are both much less active beasts? Schools, which frequently set the precedent and seem to think they are incomplete without caged animals, have a lot to answer for.'

Despite the fact that Paula Conway, a vet from Edinburgh, argued that pets 'teach children self-control, responsibility and offer the facts of life', some readers even queried the whole notion that pets somehow offer any real benefit to a child. Janet Shimmin, of Hassocks, Sussex, pulled no punches. 'Oonagh's son will not have a very meaningful experience of loving an animal in a cage,' she wrote. 'Either he will get the gratification most small children do at having a living entity in his control; or he will truly empathise with the animal and share the distress of a sociable, active animal kept in solitary confinement.'

There are plenty of ways of caring for animals without being cruel, suggested Alexandra Harley, of Loughborough Junction, London. 'Why not sponsor an animal - whales, dolphins - or join the young ornithologists' branch of the RSPB and put out a bird table? Or raise caterpillars and release the butterflies? None of these are warm and fluffy but they all need caring for . . .'

When my son was young, like Oonagh's I gave in to the pet argument, despite twinges of conscience; two Russian hamsters lived in a huge cage extended by an enormous system of runs along the walls, built lovingly and guiltily by myself out of giant Coca-Cola bottles. But despite all this, I always felt bad about them. In his room were, I felt, tiny, furry versions of Terry Waite and John McCarthy.

I wish then I had had Derek Ayling's most sensible advice of all. He wrote from Thornborough, Bucks: 'When my son wanted a rabbit I told him that as he was expecting the rabbit to be caged all his life, with only a couple of toys, I would do a deal with him. He must stay in his bedroom all day for only one day of his life, with a handful of toys. If he did, he could have a rabbit in a cage. My son lasted about 10 minutes before he came out. He never mentioned the subject again.'

Dear Virginia,

I married a man who had two children by his first wife. Our baby is now a year old and I'm finding it increasingly difficult to put up with weekend visits from my stepchildren.

The daughter, who is 9, flirts with her dad, and deliberately ignores what I ask her to do. The boy, who's 10, is sullen all the time. He does say please and thank you, which is more than the girl does, but he never looks me in the eye. Neither is remotely interested in their half-sister, and they both just hang around the house saying: 'It's boring, here', and watching the telly or staring at their watches.

Frankly I can't see the point of their coming round, but their dad is very much against the idea of cutting down the visits. He says I knew what I was letting myself in for when I married him, and it will only be a few more years.

But I find the atmosphere very oppressive and full of hostility when they're around. I've tried everything in my power to be friends, even organising treats, but nothing works. Sometimes I feel like just leaving the house at weekends and not returning till Monday. How do other readers cope with difficult stepchildren?

Yours sincerely, Bridget