LAST SUMMER, MY CHILDREN ATTENDED A camp that sold rabbits on pickup day. Parents who hadn’t seen their children in two or three weeks were no match for a hug around the neck and a month-old bunny. Included in the $3 price was a bag of feed and two instructions: “Give ’em water and keep the dogs away.”
Evidently cats and squirrels aren’t much of a problem for rabbits. Rabbits are the problem for rabbits. Put two adult rabbits in the same cage and head off to buy alfalfa pellets and you’ll return to find that you’ve bought too much feed by a half. Rabbits don’t need much space, but they like it to themselves. We carried our rabbit home in a small, cardboard box that had a screen stapled over a hole cut in the side-a budget hutch that had the look of frequent occupancy. Our 5-year-old named the bunny Freckles.
As soon as we got Freckles home, my wife and kids set about obtaining a proper hutch. After a day of calling and visiting pet stores, they informed me, at dinner, that a perfectly suitable hutch could he purchased for $150.
I almost dropped my fork. “For a rabbit hutch?” As if to signal his approval. Freckles thumped against the inside of his box. He was sick of it. “Look, I don’t want to he the bad guy,” I continued, staring back at anguished faces. “But that’s 50 limes what we paid for the rabbit. If we bought a house for htm,” I said, pointing toward our golden retriever pup who was taking a breather from wrecking the dwarf hollies, “we’d have to spend $40,000!”
The math meant nothing to anyone but me. Only fathers can cuddle with a ratio. Children cuddle with rabbits, and rabbits can’t live in cardboard boxes. Nevertheless, we reached an agreement: We’d find a cheaper hutch or the boys would build one. After checking around, my wife got the name of Don Heironimus. In the world of Dallas rabbi try, all roads lead to Heironimus.
She called him at home. He stopped her after about the third question. “Sounds to me like you’re a novice.” he said matter-of-factly. As a consumer, she is unaccustomed to frankness, “Well,” she stammered, “I guess I am.”
Heironimus proceeded to blast question after question at her. Where’d we get the rabbit? Austin. What kind is it? We don’t know. Is it a male or female? We’re not sure. My wife tried to explain that we were new to rabbits, but Heironimus kept firing questions. “Is it white with pink eyes?” he sighed, exasperated. Surely we knew that. My wife said it was not. “Good,” he said, “those rabbits get to be couch potatoes.” After describing the hutches he had for sale, Heironimus abruptly cut himself off. “That’s all the free advice I can give you,” he said. “But if you bring me the rabbit, I’ll tell you what you’ve got. If you buy something from me, you’re a customer of mine, otherwise it’s kinda like buying a washing machine from Wal-Mart and asking Sears to fix it.”
Having apparently ended the conversation, Heironimus simply began another. He said that he and his partner built the hutches as a hobby. Afraid he was getting away from her, Heironimus backtracked to ask whether my wife knew the definition of the word “hutch.” She said she thought so but he gave it to her anyway. “1 can’t commit to selling you a used cage.” he said finally. “I might not have one by the time you drive out here.” Then he said he would set one aside.
YOU HEAR ALL THE TIME ABOUT PEOPLE taking on the physical characteristics of spouses or pets. I half expected Heironimus to have holes cut in his cap for tall brown ears. He was mowing the front lawn of his tan, ranch-style house when we pulled into the circular drive. His overalls were tucked in his boots, but his ears were perfectly normal. I guess he’s raised too many kinds of animals to look like any one of them. In and around a career in the postal service, Heironimus has raised, either for show or competition, quarterhorses, chickens, poodles, and basset hounds–hybrid irises, even, in the 1970s he was Tropical Fish Hobbyist of the Year in Dallas. “I need five minutes,” he yelled over the roar of the mower and spun for another pass.
As soon as he finished mowing, Heironimus motioned to us to follow him to the back. Along the way is scattered the evidence of a successful retirement. Tools hang on fencing, and office chairs await rehabilitation. Mint grows in pots. I spotted a chicken.
He put the mower in a shed, and we handed over Freckles. “You got lucky,” he grinned. “This is a Mini Rex rabbit, my favorite breed.” He raises others: Holland Lops, Mini Lops, and Netherland Dwarves. He looked down at my daughter while examining Freckles. “You ever heard that rabbits’ feet are good luck?” he asked her. She nodded. “It’s not true,” he deadpanned. “Didn’t do the rabbit any good.” Heironimus burst out laughing. I’d say we laughed nervously. Then he flipped Freckles over and folded back the fur. “You’ve got a male,” he reported. Heironimus looked back down at my daughter. “Say, you know not to take a rabbit on a walk, don’t you?” he asked. She looked up ai me for help. I couldn’t give any. “You take a rabbit on a leap.”
The jokes kept coming. “A rabbit is smarter than a cat and most dogs,” he trumpeted. “Cats don’t know what they want and want a lot of it. Dogs don’t want anything and appreciate anything you give “em.” Near the end of his routine, Heironimus turned to me.”Did you know that I went to wit school?” he asked. I hesitated.
“Quit about halfway through,” he chuckled. “Makes me a half-wit.”
Don heironimus has been in and out of rabbits three or four times. He usually gets in the same way: raising them to eat. After a while, however. something starts to stir in him, and he falls in love. “The biggest problem with this hobby is that I’ve got cage after cage of worthless rabbits.” he shrugged. “They’re through showing and having babies. They just eat and lay there. Some breeders call them hammerheads because that’s what they do to them after the rabbit’s finished showing. I have a hard time with that. I’m a nut for keeping old rabbits. Look, they produced for me. They showed and had babies. Loyalty means something to me. I never eat a rabbit after I name it. I’ve been married for 47 years. We’re not much good to anyone these days, but does that mean…’?”
Something caught Heironimus’ eye. He turned away from me. The kids had slipped away and were closing in on a chicken. “I wouldn’t get too close to her.” he cautioned. “She’s got babies.”
Heironimus introduced us to My Fair Lady, perhaps the crown jewel of his breeding career. It turns oui that My Fair Lady was in the pet pen, destined for a family home and suburban anonymity when Heironimus saw her exhibit thai special something that truly champion rabbits have. He eventually moved her in with the show bunnies. Since then My Fair Lady has won nearly every local rabbit show and the state championship. In one contest she beat better than a thousand rabbits. My Fair Lady helped make Heironimus the Texas state Rabbit Breeder of the Year four years straight, from 1994-1997, His house is filled with trophies that have tiny bunnies on top. What a clever name, 1 thought. “Is that why she’s named My Fair Lady? Because you plucked her out of ordinary circumstances, like Audrey Hepburn in the movie?”
Heironimus’ face went blank. “What movie?” he asked.
“My Fair Lady,” I said. “You know, the movie where the girl….” He waved the irony away with a sweep of his hand.
“She’s named My Fair Lady because she won best of show at the State Fair of Texas,” he said. “My-FA1R-Lady.”
I started in again about the movie but quickly saw that I was getting nowhere. In addition to everything else. Don Heironimus is the Henry Higgins of rabbits and doesn’t even know it. The man is utterly original.
I retreated to practicalities. “Do we need to take our rabbit to see a vet?” I asked.
“Vets are just like Bob Barker,” he said. “If you call them, they say. ’C’ mon down!’”
“What about rabies?” I asked. “Don’t rabbits need rabies shots?”
“Listen,” he said, talking to me mostly. The kids had abandoned the chicken project and were examining the hutches. “The only way a rabbit is going to get rabies is from a dog. If a rabbit gets that close to a dog, the rabbit is not going to need a rabies shot.” He paused long enough for me to see the image of a dog and a rabbit, and then just a dog.
At the point at which my mental rabbit disappeared, the phone rang. Heironimus often carries the cordless phone out back. The caller had done the same thing we had: bought a rabbit, wondered what it was, and where it was going to sleep. Unfortunately for her. she bought the wrong rabbit. “You have any experience with small dogs?” he asked her. “What about banty roosters?” I imagined the woman following along until he got to the rooster part. His salutation was haunting: “Small rabbits are fine if you like a challenge.”
When Heironimus hung up. he returned his attention to us. We were about to select our hutch. It was almost dark, “Parents come to me sometimes for a replacement bunny.” he said. “1 can tell that they’re trying to match up a color or size. I’ll say to them, ’You gonna tell your son or daughter?’” A lot of times parents aren’t exactly planning to. Heironimus will catch the cast of their eyes, mayhe a wince. “So I’ll say, ’Is that what you’d do if their brother or sister passed? Just replace ’em?’ Kids are smarter than that. Kids know.”
IT TAKES ABOUT AN HOUR TO LEAVE DON Heironimus whether you buy a hutch or just drop by to visit. I’ve done both, The good-byes begin in the backyard by the rabbits or in the house by the trophies and continue all the way to the car, ending with the key in the ignition and the buzzer sounding. Our repeated farewells include snatches of conversation about the Smothers Brothers, Gene Autry, Matt Dillon, and Heironimus’ belief that the work ethic is the most important gift a parent gives a child. He’ll ask me how many years I’ve been married and whether or not I plan on continuing at it. He invites me to his church and 1 tell him I’ll attend. When the talk dims and my departure seems imminent, Heironimus tells a joke. Somehow, I never see it coming.
My favorite good-bye included a long and detailed critique of Christmas-the modem Santa Claus Christmas. He asked me if I thought lying to kids about Santa Claus was harmful. I didn’t really answer. Disagreeing would have cost me 30 minutes, agreeing at least 10. “Let me tell you something,” he said, leaning in close, his eyes bright and twinkling, “I may not believe in Santa Claus, but I still believe in the Easter Bunny.”