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My Rabbit Story -- You're not Alone

by Robert Betts (Age: 71)
copyright 11-26-2009


Age Rating: 10 +

Thumper and Pegasus, my two bunnies, are laying at my feet as they often do. Some have wondered about my bunnies and how they came to be service animals. Others has questioned how a rabbit could be a service animal, after all, how could they guide a blind person? Furthermore they are not nearly as intelligent as people or even dogs. It's going to be a long story, so grab a drink, something to snack on and find a comfortable chair.

Several years ago, while living in Naples Florida, I began to get severe panic attacks. During one I was taken to a substance abuse center where I shook violently and was catatonic, that is, I couldn't speak or answer questions. I never have done drugs so I hadn't OD'd (overdosed) on anything, but it appeared that way to the professionals at the facility. I was also suicidal so they locked me up for a few days. When I was released, I became an outpatient there and a number of drugs were prescribed but none helped. I was diagnosed with MDD, Major Depressive Disorder, though I’ve never understood how that diagnosis explains panic attacks. Over the next few months my condition worsened and as time passed, the attacks became continuous. At work the attacks induced a feeling of intense paranoia that often caused me to abandon my cash register, run for the door and go home. Soon it became apparent to my manager that I just couldn’t continue working, so I lost my job at Kmart. I applied for disability help and was refused. Very quickly my financial condition became critical. I often lost the will to live and became more and more suicidal.

I realized that I desperately needed help and that I really wasn't able to function completely on my own. I asked my brother and sister in North Carolina who had an extra bedroom if they would let me come and live with them. They agreed. I mailed three boxes to my brother's house then packed a few belongings onto my motorcycle and headed to North Carolina, about 900 miles away. My beloved 30 foot sailboat and many valuable possessions were left behind.

It was late September, as I left the afternoon rains of Florida. I finally reached the Georgia border near dark. By then I had passed from soaked to blown dry several times. In Georgia the replacement tire that I had bought for the worn front one came loose and bounded off into a Georgia swamp where it is probably still providing a home for previously homeless creatures. I looked for a while but it soon became apparent that I had more chance of finding the hope diamond in the swamp than my errant tire. I stopped at several truck stops along the way to warm up but by the time I reached the North Carolina border I was nearly frozen.

I arrived mid-morning the next day and my brother and sister welcomed me. The last time I had seen this brother he was about 10 years old. He's 25 years my junior. They showed me to my room. By this time I was more often catatonic than I was able to speak. When my computer arrived I set it up and spent most of the time in my room taking care of Prose-n-Poetry, which often was my only reason to continue living. When Christmas arrived I found they had bought me a warm winter coat, a desk and several other things. Family has never been close for me and often has been more hurtful than helpful. I was surprised and moved to tears by their generosity toward me.

As any disabled person probably knows, besides the crush of your disability you very likely have financial instability as well. For my entire life, since I was about 12, I had been nearly totally independent. Finding myself needy and having no means of support pushed me even further over the edge, as if that were possible.

I made meals for all of us, got help through Medicaid, food stamps and tried to be helpful. Still, I'm ashamed to say that there were times that I just couldn't stand living with the people who were my saviors. I think, I hope they forgive me now. I believe they understand although it is nearly impossible to put yourself in the shoes I was wearing unless, God forbid, it happens to you.

Getting Social Security disability is often hard. Most people apply, are refused, appeal, are refused again then they see an administrative law judge where they have a better chance. The process can take years and end badly. I wasn’t aware of this at the time. When my appeal was refused I spiraled into a deep despair. I became even more reclusive and my brother and sister found that quite hard to live with. Eventually they asked me to leave, making me homeless.

I packed up few my things, sent them to a cyber friend in Illinois, and then headed off to a homeless shelter. The first night you get a bed but then you pick a number and if you're lucky you have a bed the next night. It averages out that you get a bed once a week. I hadn't expected that. The next morning I got on my bike and went to a nearby underpass of Rt 440, the beltline. I parked the bike and weighed my chances of success or making a mess of the suicide I was contemplating. I was concerned that, with my luck, I'd just add to the mess by maiming myself and living. Beyond that it didn't seem fair to involve some innocent motorist in my affair. I got on the bike again and the rest seems like a dream. Once on the beltway, I took the bike up to its top speed, 105mph, which I used to do often in Florida. Then I started looking for something hard like a bridge abutment. I remember tears of despair, the road disappearing in a blur but the rest is foggy. I ended up at my therapist office, a government run facility aimed mostly at substance abuse. I remember people asking my name. I vaguely remember sitting there in a chair with tears streaming down my cheeks and not being able to give my name, even though they kept asking. After a few hours, I was able to stammer, "Robert... Robert Betts."

I had hit bottom. This was the lowest point in my life. I was taken to Dorthea Dix hospital where they have a ward for potential suicides. When I arrived I was directed to a reception room which smelled of old wood and dust. I sat in the room clinging desperately to my stuffed rabbit. Throughout this time I had, and still have, a huge stuffed rabbit, the kind you might win at a fair. My sister had given it to me soon after I arrived from Florida. I hugged it at night and it was never far from me. Some attendants arrived then took my rabbit and backpack from me. Then I was taken to the ward and my room.

Over the next few days a therapist and aids came in my room and tried to talk to me. I refused. I only came out of my room to eat in the dark, ancient, communal dining room and I avoided all other contact. I lay in the bed all the time, silently crying, slipping between sleep and being in a daze. They had taken my bunny and I hated them for it. Everyone hated me, no one cared. I just wanted to die but I was scared that I would botch it. They kept asking if I had family. After several days of giving them silence, I choked out my brother and sister's address but added, "No one cares; leave me alone."

As you might have guessed, my brother and sister came for me. I was surprised, confused, embarrassed and tearful. They both hugged me and I hugged them back, a confused, unsure hug. I sat in the back seat, clinging to my bunny that had been returned to me. Life did somehow seem better. I had my bunny and it seemed that my brother and sister did care. They took me back into their home and I cooked for them again and tried to be helpful. I came out of my room more, socialized and watched a few movies with them. I think we did get along better after that.

That happened in May. In July my case was heard by an administrative law judge. I was terrified at the hearing. It had been a bit over a year since I first applied and there had been two refusals before the hearing. This apparently is normal for anyone who applies for disability. Still, I couldn’t see that and became more despondent as the days of waiting passed. In September I got a letter from the judge. I was approved! From that point, my life began to improve.

When I got the first check and the back payments, I got an apartment, bought a used car and moved. For a few years I had few possessions and didn’t want any. I was tired of getting used to having some possessions only to lose them. I was content with a mattress on the floor and a few other items. I had a small dresser that my sister had got me. The TV stand was the box that the TV had come in. I was reclusive still. Prose-n-Poetry was the center of my life and the fact it needed me often kept me from jumping out my 9-story window. For a few years no one even knew I lived in the building. I continued seeing a therapist once a week at the Community Mental Health Center. I was still having panic attacks and often for no reason I would start crying.

I started visiting the thrift shops. There are quite a few here in Raleigh. I have found at least ten. I saw a nice set, a desk, dresser, and table, in like new condition for $350 at the “Cause for Paws” thrift store. I negotiated it down to $200 and a hour or so later found a futon at the Salvation Army. “Cause for Paws” picked up the futon and delivered all the items for $20. I continued to haunt the thrift stores until one day I noticed a beautiful set of life-sized porcelain bunnies. Since I had no theme or ideas for interior decorating I thought, why not do the place in “bunny?” I started buying everything “bunny.” It was very seldom that I had to pay more than $2 for anything and usually the prices were less than a dollar. If you’d care to browse, I have photographed most of the items and put them here: Bunny Collection

Finally it occurred to me to get a real bunny. I knew nothing about them but I always have enjoyed learning new things. Usagi, Japanese for bunny, was the most adorable bunny who ever lived. He had been abused. A kind lady nursed him back to health and had put him on craigslist.com. He had the ability to steal your heart in just a few minutes. He was a solid black Netherland Dwarf who weighed in at 1 pound 12 ounces. He had a personality that weighed several pounds more than he did. His favorite program was Animal Planet and he would sit and watch the TV for hours.

I bubbled to my therapist about Usagi. I told him that my episodes of deep depression were less often now. It became apparent to both of us that Usagi was having a very positive effect on me.

Wanting Usagi to be comfortable, I put a pink rug in his cage. He started picking at it some but I didn’t think much of it until he stopped eating. I had just seen my first case of GI Stasis, which can be deadly. It was the rug. He had ingested the acrylic fibers and they were blocking his intestine. I panicked, called a rabbit rescue group and a kind gentleman took Usagi and promised he would try to make him better. He did and my bunny was returned a week later. I got a friend for him named Thumper. She’s a black bunny too but she has a white nose and weighs in at 4 ½ pounds. She’s a mini-rex, a short haired breed with very plush fir. Being very territorial animals, it took two weeks before Usagi thought her to be a suitable companion and decided he didn’t want to kill her.

Usagi lived another week then suddenly died. I just knew it was my fault. I couldn’t stop crying. His death devastated me. But it was a different sorrow. My tears had a reason, not like before. They were self-loathing but mixed with pure sorrow for the loss. It was cathartic to cry for him. I knew there could never be another Usagi and even though I liked Thumper, I was certain I could never love her as I did my Usagi. Nonetheless, since Thumper now had had a companion, it didn’t seem fair that she would be alone again so quickly. I contacted rescues and arranged for her to meet Pegasus, a white mini lop. They met at "Animall", a neutral place and pretty much ignored each other, a good sign.

Since Thumper was now the resident bunny it was she who attacked poor Pegasus. I used the bathtub, a squirt gun, a vacuum cleaner and gloves to protect myself. They were terrified of the vacuum and huddled together when I turned it on but started fighting when I shut it off. We did these four-hour bathtub sessions for about two weeks until Thumper finally accepted him. Now they’re inseparable.

I liked these two and slowly over many months they also managed to steal my heart. Still, Usagi was my first bunny and has a special place in my heart and always will. Usagi's death caused me to study rabbits even more thoroughly that I had. I read for hours on the web and bought a number of rabbit books. I learned how to train rabbits and trained my two bunnies. I became a rabbit expert and decided to start volunteering one day a week at the local SPCA where they always have a few rabbits. I started training their rabbits to help make them more adoptable.

A friend gave me a pet stroller. At first I felt foolish and didn’t use it. Finally I did take the bunnies for a stroll around downtown Raleigh. Their reception was an incredible surprise. They brought smiles to the sourest faces and started to bring me out of my seclusion. The local paper did a story about the bunnies: Raleigh's Bunny Man As people would ask about them I opened up, for the first time in many years, and I would talk about them. My depression episodes decreased and my therapist moved me from weekly visits to monthly with the codicil that I should call or check myself in if I feel suicidal.

Eventually, about six months ago I decided to move to a nicer place. I was terrified that the new place would not allow my bunnies so I asked my therapist if he could give me a letter that explained how important the bunnies were to me and how they had helped my condition. He agreed and was happy to write the letter. We both realized that the bunnies were vital to my socialization so we agreed that they should be considered service animals. I sent for identification cards for each, though Thumper and Pegasus are not certified by any official agency.

I had few pets as a child and was never particularly fond of companion animals until I got my bunnies. Now I wonder how I ever lived without them. They are fabulous therapy and might be indicated for others who have mental problems, for those who cut themselves or are otherwise self-destructive. When I see how helpless these beautiful creatures are I know that I cannot selfishly end my life. They are even more dependent on me than I am on them. Beyond that, they love me as I love them and they have helped me pry myself out of the shell I had crawled into many years ago. The service they provide is to calm me, ease my paranoia and facilitate my ability to communicate and socialize with others.


Footnote: The American Disabilities Act does not specify breed of animal nor does it require that they have any certification. As a concession to the disabled person's privacy, it doesn't require that the disabled person explain exactly what the animals do. It requires that the service animal be allowed to go anywhere that the disabled person is allowed. The only requirement is that the disabled person state that they are service animals. It often is easier if one has an identifying card. I have visited the Museum of Natural History, and several other places where I would not have been admitted with my bunnies without the I.D. cards.

Edit 12/1/2011:  The US Department of Justice has re-written the ADA.  Their version now excludes all animals except dogs and horses. However, North Carolina State law specifically states that any animal can be a service/assistance animal and must be treated as such.  So check with your state law.  The ADA says that the state law must apply if it offers better protection.







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        01-14-2010     Beth Blakeslee        

I've been in a similar situation myself - I was effectively homeless for an entire year. I've also been dealing with Major Depressive Disorder for about ten years - anxiety attacks included. I'm glad that Usagi, Thumper and Pegasus entered your life and were able to help you - I think that any animal that can improve the quality of one's life should be considered a service animal. The lady that I'm staying with right now has a little dachshund who's a therapy dog - she can tell when I'm feeling down and she'll come right up and cuddle with me.

        12-06-2009     Mae Futter Stein        

Bob,
First I want you to know that I cried silently with tears running down my cheeks as I read your story. I am so glad you found yourself. I think that God was trying to tell you something. He works in mysterious ways. I walk my dog every morning and wild rabbits scamper out of the flower bushes along the way. It is a sight of beauty to see. I think back of your rabbits that I read here on PnP, when I see them. I really loved your story and my heart goes out to you how you have overcome this tragedy. God Bless and keep you well......Mae

        12-02-2009     Raja Sharma        

Inspiration in any form provides a kind of subtle solace to a writer, and that is what I felt while going through this beautiful story.
You are extremely good at details, and as a result one finds the events taking place before one's eyes. Highly commendable, Bob.
I like it specially because my pets are my life-I have three dogs:Bolton,Tyson, and Jackie.
This story is a true reflection of realistic human emotions which you have so emotively and expressively presented through your lines.
Thanks for sharing it.
God bless you
Rajasir

        11-27-2009     Susan Brown        

Bob,
I've always had a fondness for watching wild rabbits. Especially in the winter. They live in and around my barns. When I pull up my driveway at night they zip (back and forth) across my path and welcome me home. They hop around the ranch and eat with the horses. My dogs don't even bother to chase after them, as they're "too fast" to actually catch, if pressed.
I enjoyed reading your story. What a beautiful gift for those of us who love belonging to P.n.P. You are such an inspiration- in hope. The world needs more thoughtful people like you, not less. Thanks for sharing your personal journey. All my bunnies/rabbits have been nameless. Now they'll all be called Robert.
Sincerely,
Thank you,
Susan


        11-27-2009     Cynthia Baello        

First I want to thank you for writing this and sharing your moving story of how the past illness has almost overwhelmed you and how you struggled and overcame it through perseverance, with the help of your bunny friends. We have two things in common, I like to go to thrift shops and enjoy getting good bargains; the other thing is we both like animals, and I love cats and birds, but never had a bunny to care for. I love the natural way you wrote this, like you were talking to the reader over a warm cup of coffee- simple, honest, transparent and hopeful.
The encouragement and the clarification of depression as an illness that can be dealt with is also a gem in this work, and the effect of telling the story in the first person gave it power and impact as you tell the reader what you experienced, what you went through. The emotions that you portrayed were not overly dramatic, they were human and true. Thank you Bob.



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