Content warning: pet loss
Columbo had been doing so well.
He was frustrating, when we first got him. He just peed anywhere he happened to be. He seemed inexhaustible. The first thought was that he was marking territory, claiming what had Stephen's scent after his nine years here. But he kept at it past the time that was plausible. The vet's ultimately diagnosed that he had an enlarged bladder, possibly the result of muscle weakness. We could help him by squeezing him out, or ``expressing his bladder'' as they put it. I got to doing this regularly, and got fairly good at it. Never emptied him. In another vet's visit, one for his weak hindlegs and weird gait, they weighed Columbo to find he was 13 pounds but, given how much he urinated on the examining table, after they got their sample, they squeezed him all the way out and he was down to 12 pounds.
But it got his bladder to something he could control, and we could let him have free run in the house. He was so good about not chewing cords, and now that he could be trusted on a surface that didn't have a disposable rug on top he could play. He seemed more energetic. He started scampering, even binking, to the best of his ability as a large and kind of clumsy rabbit. He had always picked up his big, heavy ceramic food dish, the one none of his predecessors including mighty Stephen could budge, in his mouth and moved it where he wanted. This weekend he started putting his toys in it.
Sunday when bunny_hugger's parents visited and helped us set up our tree they noticed how energetic and curious and active he seemed. He'd gotten to like hiding under the coffee table, with the tablecloths for Halloween and Thanksgiving and now Christmas on it to hide under or push out of the way. And he looked interested in the Christmas tree, now occupying the corner of the room. He chewed on some of the branch we gave him from it and we wondered what it was with Flemish giants and Christmas trees. He picked up his food dish and put it on top of one of his toys, a little wooden carrot.
Monday morning I saw him sitting up, leaning against his litter bin's edge, staring at the tree and I thought that adorable and that I should photograph that sometime. And I didn't photograph it, because I figured I had the whole season, and I could get it after I cleaned his area and it would be the neater for it. When I did clean his area he didn't take the chance to prowl around the living room; he just flopped out in one of the other litter bins.
As we were sitting down for afternoon coffee and tea I looked into his area, and he was gone. He hadn't escaped; he'd just wedged himself between the litter bin and the metal bars of his pen, something I'd never seen him do before. He was staring at the Christmas tree, just inches away. I didn't think what it might mean.
While we were taking our break we heard something weird from there. Some twitchy, scratching noise. I went over and picked him up and saw he'd peed on the carpet, like he hadn't been doing. I set him up in the litter bin, and he fell over, helpless, head curling around like the hook of a J. And cried out something like ``something's very wrong''.
He could move his legs and tail. I tugged each and he tugged back. But he couldn't stand up, and he couldn't stay balanced if I stood him up. He was huffing through his nose, and breathing hard. I couldn't think how to ask if his vet's was still open. bunny_hugger found their number and called and we set an emergency visit. She warned me that the way he looked he might not be possible to save.
It was snowing. Not heavy, but harder than flurries. The Interstate was busy. Slow. The road was icing over. bunny_hugger's car skidded a moment, and she said she was afraid she was going to slide out of control. I never thought she would. Columbo made these terrible scratching noises for a while, and then he made a terrible silence.
We pulled him out of the carrier. He spilled on the examination table. His legs twitched. The vet looked at this great rabbit. His temperature was low. The vet said that we could do blood tests, to see if there were some infection or condition that could be dealt with, but that we would have to think seriously about putting him down. A rabbit in this state was probably dying. He gave us time to think it over and talk about it.
And what a thought. bunny_hugger didn't think blood tests would be useful. She's had a rabbit look uncannily like this, and tortured her last days trying to medicate her through it. But I kept thinking: good grief, we put so much energy and money and time into saving Stephen --- he was on weekly vet's visits for longer than we'd had Columbo in all --- and to just give up on Columbo the first time he faced a serious crisis? ... But I also thought, would I be putting him to the stress of blood tests --- and maybe whatever could follow, likely forced-feedings and injections and goodness knows what --- for anything that made him better? Would it just be so I didn't feel like I gave up too soon? That I had given this rabbit we'd only known a little while the class of care we gave Stephen? This rabbit who was twitching, grinding his teeth in pain, wincing his eyelid. The one that somehow had a bit of greens in his teeth that he got ... somewhere, over the day?
And I also had in my thoughts an author bunny_hugger had read a few weeks ago, one unimpressed with pet owners. The ones who kill their pets the first time they have a serious medical problem, obviously disreputable. The ones who keep their pets going until the animal can only remember being miserable? Just doing it to be able to be told they'd done all they could, and no better morally. bunny_hugger was offended by the argument, and I was offended second-hand.
Still ... if it were plausible that we might find something, that we could treat? The test seemed worth trying at least. We thought we heard the vet out the door, and opened it, and overheard someone else talking about his rabbit, there with a gastrointestinal stasis. We'd been through that several times with Stephen: when the rabbit stops eating, and the failure to eat threatens its life, and there's nothing to do but medicate and make eat. bunny_hugger mentioned how oh, yes, we'd had that with our old rabbit and he got through it twice.
And then while we were waiting for the vet, Columbo screamed, the way rabbits do only when they're dying. He twitched, having a seizure, and he flopped off the exam table before we could react and I had a moment of thinking if he weren't dead that would kill him, and I fell on the floor too, and screamed myself. And he screamed again.
And that was it. There wasn't anything to do. Our rabbit, who'd seemed basically fine the day before, would be dead in minutes. We could choose to have it under anesthesia or not, and of course, chose anesthesia.
The vet wrapped up Columbo in a towel and got some of the rubber mat examining table caught up in the towel and that felt undignified. We followed him back to the surgical table or whatever it was, the spot where we put down Stephen 354 days before. bunny_hugger held the mask over Columbo's face, so he could breathe and relax into a painless sleep. I could see through it the bit of cilantro(?) caught in his teeth. The vet injected whatever it was into Columbo's heart, and I petted his head, and bunny_hugger told him how we loved him, and then in another minute he was dead.
bunny_hugger tried to close Columbo's eyes, but they wouldn't stay closed. Rabbits don't usually sleep with their eyes closed anyway. She pulled the towel over his head and said goodbye to him. I hugged him a last time.
The vet said his best guess was that Columbo had some kind of tumor, possibly in his spine, possibly in his brain. Perhaps a infection that had finally reached out to his brain. He was confident that my terror --- that I had broken his spine while squeezing his bladder out each day --- was misplaced. He didn't see any evidence of physical injury. Perhaps all his problems came from that inferred tumor.
We walked out dazed. We had just truly been getting to understand him, to know his personality, to see how much our bunny he could be.
The day before bunny_hugger's father had given us a carved Flemish Giant wood ornament with Columbo's name on it, an early Christmas present. We did this when we went over to their house so bunny_hugger could help string some lights. We'd done that yesterday because we knew Monday was supposed to be snowy. And as terrible a thought as it was to consider that we now had this ornament celebrating Columbo just before he died, consider the alternative. Had we gone to her parents' on Monday, he'd surely have died, but without anesthesia, having a seizure on the floor of our house alone and waiting to be discovered when we got back with the ornament.
I gathered up the carrier. We hadn't put the door on right, when we were rushing Columbo to the vet. I didn't know if it was worth putting the door on right or just tossing it in the carrier and decided to put it on right as though we still had a rabbit. They made the ``Prints of Honor'' impression of Columbo's front paw in clay and gave it to us. Columbo was always bigger than Stephen, even though he was always undersized. But only Columbo's front paw fit in the disc. Stephen had shrunk to the point a front and hind foot fit in.
And then ... what was there to do? Arrange to have him cremated, remains to be picked up sometime later. Realizing we would need to do something to mark the box his ashes came in so we would know which was Stephen and which his successor.
We drove back home, through snow that was heavier but on roads that were probably salted, or that were getting enough traffic not to be hazardous. bunny_hugger called her parents to report the shock that a rabbit who'd been in such good shape the day before had died. I took his pen down and cleaned up his bin --- the one I'd just cleaned hours before --- and bundled up his toys and all the other things that he'd been interested in the day before. We hadn't even had him quite eleven months. We never had a Christmas with him. We didn't even get to observe his birthday, the one we set as the date we adopted him.
And after that sat down, defeated, by the room-temperature tea that I had poured two hours before when we had a pet rabbit.