Off Piste - The Anarchic view from the hutch

When an anthropologist and her partner were arrested on the eve of the royal wedding for planning an anti-monarchy mock execution, the incident ended up on YouTube - and the footage revealed concern over who would feed Flopsy, their pet rabbit. Here, Camilla Power explains that our long-eared friends are not just cuddly, they're cat-taming, fox-outwitting, police-baiting natural born rebels, too

September 8, 2011

Forget those irritating, hypermarketed meerkats. If you want cute, seek an eight-to-nine-week-old, lop-eared rabbit kit, one ear up, one down, a spherical fur bundle you can hold in your cupped hands, navigating its new environment: wires to chew, books to rip, places to pee. Irresistible. But I did resist.

My boyfriend had moved into a swanky new flat and installed this ridiculous creature. He'd been cajoled by a travelling bunny saleswoman with a basket of kits on his doorstep. I was jealous of the flat and disdainful of the silly pet. I wasn't going to lift a finger. Let him do the mucking out.

While I might have been impressed by a python or tarantula, I ignored this piece of fluff hopping across my path. Slowly, though, my interest was piqued by stories of Flopsy's comical doings. She climbed the garden steps and started to connect up her hutch space outside with the living room, then through the kitchen back door and up the front steps. She hovered liminally in doorways, now going up, now down, checking all the exits and entrances, mentally mapping her terrain.

From a young age, she needed to hone her SAS-style sneaking-around skills, since foxes patrolled the garden walls. Nights in her hutch kept her fox-aware. If she got out after dark, she had the neighbours hunting the garden way past midnight to find where she'd holed herself up.

Now she could jump on to the sofa and lick and tickle the backs of our heads and ears by climbing up top. Ever so sociable, she'd visit us in one bound as we watched TV, but sadly had to be banished as she marked her favourite look-out ledge the rabbit way: with a pee stop. We were so dumb we didn't realise rabbits could be house-trained. This felt cruel since she had to be imprisoned with a litter tray to make sure she did it where we wanted.

She was a quick learner. I was slower, but beginning to develop a healthy respect for her acumen and sheer spirit of adventure out there with the wildlife in the garden. She was pretty and charming with her harlequin-patterned coat, dancing in circles round your feet - the rabbit way of saying, "I love you. I want to mount you, please!" So began Flopsy's seduction.

I still wouldn't clean up the mess but started to amuse myself by feeding her exotic titbits - mango, avocado, papaya. If she liked it, I thought, why not? Her nose surely had a PhD in pharmacology. Didn't she know what was good for her? The answer was raisins, cherries, biscuits and chocolate. But it turns out that this is extremely bad for bunnies, who have the most sophisticated digestive system in the known universe - designed by natural selection for eating grass, which they have to partially ferment and pass through their guts twice. Watch them bliss out, bless them, as they munch those caecotrophs (sticky, half-fermented poo, to you). Sugars are so no-no for rabbits that their sweet tooth remains a major evolutionary mystery.

The vet told us off. But she was in fine health, despite our bumbling. I discovered her mean talent for balloon football, balloons being conveniently rabbit-sized, inflatable sex toys, which burst with a pop if she got one cornered.

Chris, my boyfriend, was also discovering hidden depths. He writes stuff on language and cognition. One day, with Flops resting down by the computer chair, he tapped out: "We humans anthropomorphise animals, imagining they are thinking all kinds of things. Looking at my rabbit, for example, I readily believe she is deep in thought." Flopsy, like most rabbits, has a very philosophical mien in repose. "In reality, she's not thinking anything at all," he wrote. Upon which, the rabbit jumped straight into his lap, hopped on to the keyboard and, with one paw stroke, deleted that file. It was never recovered, and Flopsy was never so slandered again.

Anyone unfamiliar with rabbits will be startled the first time they see a rabbit flop. It looks like death. Without warning, they keel right over on their side and go into an apparent catatonic trance. That Beatrix Potter name is not so much childish as keen animal observation. It's another evolutionary mystery. Generally rabbit mood can be decoded by degree of relaxation from an alert state of ready to run. Hunching down a bit is "OK, I'm settling here, but I've got my eye on you". A relaxed roll on to the tummy, hind- and forepaws tucked under, is "Getting NOT disturb". Full tummy stretch out with frog's legs behind is pretty chilled. But the flop is totally out of it. This little death and resurrection must contribute to the role of rabbits as tricksters and mythological messengers to the other world.

I was finally ready to start "reading" Flopsy, learning how to understand her expressive and delicate communicative acts. But to do that, I had to get down to her level, working, reading, writing for hours on end on the floor. In her eyes and ears, I was metamorphosing at last from ignorant ape, cackling with horrid laughter and uncouth coughs, into a person on the rabbit radar - a friend in need.

This matters for rabbits. As a prey species they stoically hide any problem. They go quiet and tuck themselves away. To know if anything is wrong, you need to watch all the time for change to feeding or breathing rhythms, tension or clenching in the body. You need to listen. Apart from their magnificent resonant hind-foot thumps of alarm, indignation or just plain dramatic effect, rabbits have a repertoire of very quiet noises commenting on the state of their world. Yes, ferocious warning growls are possible as are amorous "honks", but so are almost voiceless whimpers and wistful little snorts. Teeth chatters or grinds can be pleasure or pain. Our overactive vocal cords mark the biggest difference between us. Rabbit-lovers learn to listen.

Rabbits hate to be picked up. It's being preyed on. They want four paws down on the ground for unfettered movement. We used to chase Flopsy around and catch her to put her to "bed" in the hutch outdoors each evening - about the time she, being crepuscular, was getting ready to roll. She gave us the runaround until everyone was in a sweat. My mental revolution was complete when I realised this animal could take care of herself. Applying true anarchist principles of maximising autonomy, we rearranged her hutch so she could climb in and out herself. Then, we just had to open the door and she would take herself home. Even in pitch dark, pouring rain or deep snow, she'd decide "OK, time to go" and lollop off to her foxproof fortress. The regular raisin treat helped and everyone had calmer evenings.

As a direct-action activist myself, I was beginning to appreciate that rabbits are not just mythological tricksters but natural-born anarchists. To evade their many predators, they instinctively resist any form of coercion and tend to do just the opposite of what anyone tells them to. You cannot make a rabbit do anything. You can only invite them to join the game. The purest expression of rabbit joy, the "binky", a twisty, exuberant vertical take-off, celebrates the quintessential rabbit virtue of intuitive unpredictability. It's literally their way of escape, the sudden protean shift of direction, mid-air.

But don't think rabbits are always on the run. Socially adept creatures, they can play with educated dogs very happily. Cats? Rabbits will have 'em. I was in awe the first time I saw Flops deal with a feline intruder. The mild-mannered herbivore had the stalking carnivore scrambling up the walls in panic. Tactically cunning, Flops first strolled past the cat 10 feet in front of its nose, then swivelled in a perfect perpendicular to charge right into its face. The cat could not cope with such unexpected social confrontation and vamoosed.

Foxes are another matter. Once, a young fox got between Flopsy and the house. Wily, she doubled back through the flower beds while the poor fox was too terrified escaping me to think of rabbit dinner. We can tell when foxes come calling at night by the footprints in the snow. Slowing down a little now, Flopsy sticks closer to home. She used to tune up with little practice sprints from the far corner of the garden as if in combat training.

Flopsy's official anarchist career was launched in the autumn of 2008 after the fall of Lehman Brothers when she set up a Facebook page. The inspiration was a wonderful white rabbit called Elliot, a young male who was in the frontline at the 2007 Heathrow Camp for Climate Action. While we laid siege all night to the BAA building in a dark car park, Elliot - a huge rabbit, four or five times the size of Flopsy - lolloped coolly between us and the robocops. The white rabbit tradition became engrained at climate camps, a tactic of confusing the police with fluffy bunnies (Google "Askim Lebowski" to see rabbit action at the Royal Bank of Scotland camp in Edinburgh last year). Flopsy herself went to the 2009 Blackheath camp to foment kids' activities.

The autumn of the bank crash, Flopsy was appointed the official rabbit of the Government of the Dead, the zombie anarchist street theatre group who hit the street to "dance on the grave of capitalism" at Canary Wharf on Halloween in 2008. Then as caretaker of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, she supervised our theatre prop production. Her superior trance ability made her the perfect medium for contact with the true government - since the only good government is a dead government. Believe me, there was a lunarchic, lagomorph logic to all this. That winter, Flopsy hosted full-moon curry parties, where anarchists from London and the South Coast were cordially invited to plot anti-banker mayhem. She administered Facebook pages that were key to organising the G20 Financial Fools Day at the Bank of England on 1 April 2009.

Flopsy has a network of anarchist friends, some burrowing underground on Facebook disguised as rabbits. If you spot her, you should definitely report her to the police. In the aftermath of the royal wedding arrests, her Facebook pages came under police scrutiny and arrestees were being interrogated as to her true identity. If only they had known, she would have been driven off in pawcuffs.

Plenty of other Facebook friends really are rabbits, swapping stories of their mischievous antics at the expense of dumb, fall-for-it-every-time apes. It's a kind of internet perpetuation of the grand Brer Rabbit tradition.

Flopsy has hundreds of virtual friends. In the real world, the worst thing that ever happened to her was being separated from her sibling, the other kit in the basket, on our doorstep. Rabbits should always have rabbits for company, being complex social mammals. We have tried to find her a friend. After going on a bonding holiday, she came home with a rehome rabbit, a boneheaded male called Thumper. Merrily, she showed him around the estate and they went home to their hutch together. But the next morning they were whirling around the garden in a food-mixer fight. Overnight, Thumper's mask had slipped. He'd tried to assert dominance, and Flops, as resident rabbit, was having none of it. He was out on his ear.

Flopsy had another guest in the grounds, a charming philanderer called Fred. Since Fred was supposed to be female I kept them separate, expecting them to fight for the territory. Fred though was most amorously inclined and Flopsy knew all along he was a "he" and not neutered. But Fred has moved over the road now and got a gorgeous young girlfriend. Sedate at six years old, Flops has settled down with us, an independent, single female. Her keenest passion is for cherries, and we hope she has a good few cherry seasons ahead of her.

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