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by Julie Smith, PhD
Rabbits do a wonderful job of educating each other. Nowhere is this more striking than in new relationships. To watch these encounters is one of the great privileges of being a fosterer.
Many new rabbit couples undergo an educational curriculum during the adjustment period, often in the form of one teaching the other toreplace chasing and mounting with non-sex-driven activities of grooming, snugglebunnying, and parallel reclining. The repetition of chasing and mounting can be tiresome to the human observer, who wonders what is being accomplished. "Probably Justice learned that he had to do more of that grooming thing in order to get Binkie's cooperation."
In about five or six days, the couple will have forged an enduring compatibility. After observing this progression in numerous couples, I realized that the chasing and mounting phase is not just a contest for dominance, as we humans usually assume. It is also a program of behavior modification.
Lesson 1. Grammar and Vocabulary
Because we humans isolate rabbits to make them our companions, many have a limited vocabulary for social interaction. They simply do not know what to do when they meet another rabbit, having been removed from all members of their own species at infancy. They have had no one with whom to converse in their native language. I often wonder what an adult rabbit is feeling as he reencounters another of his kind after such separation and loss. Were a human to experience this, his story would be a most poignant tale. Rabbits who have had, and then lost, a partner-our widows and widowers-have a much greater social repertoire at the outset of a new relationship.
Rabbits whose initial instincts drive them to chase and mount eventually learn to interact face to face. Their partner teaches them, using the materials at hand and her own ingenuity. When confronted with a rabbit who seems determined to interact only with the back-end of his new friend, a rabbit may turn and present her nose to be groomed.
The chaser usually ignores this and proceeds to mount her head. She then will scurry away, reactivating the pursuit/lesson. Eventually she will let the chaser mount.
In one especially telling case, that of Binkie and Justice, the chaser (Justice) was truly indefatigable and needed much educating, which Binkie provided.
On the third day of their "dating," Justice is still interested only in mounting Binkie.
Binkie escapes into the crate.
Justice attempts to mount her from the back of the crate.
Justice starts to realize he must negotiate with Binkie's face.
Binkie's education of Justice consisted of making her rear-end inaccessible, so that Justice would have to notice and respond to her face. Justice was slow to change, being a healthy male who had been confined alone in an outdoor hutch for six years. He had only recently been liberated--it's a sad commentary when abandoning an animal at the shelter means liberating him--and neutered.
Like many male rabbits new to romance, he mounted head-first initially. But this was not what he preferred, once he got the drift of true mounting. And because he sought the back position, he had the problem of getting Binkie to slow down and remain facing forward. I have seen many males attempt to position the female in the preferred way by pretending to begin grooming, with the intention of doing it only long enough to get the female to stop running. (This never works.) Sometimes, as in the case of Justice, they really do not know how to groom, and will pull at the other rabbit's fur, in a way similar to their method for holding on when mounting, instead of licking the fur. Though clumsy and unpleasant, this glimmer of appropriate behavior was all Binkie had to work with.
Her solution was to back herself into a corner of the pen or the litterbox, or get under a stool facing outward, or just find some place or some way to make only her head accessible when she presented to be groomed. By using space as a kind of curfew, she was teaching him her definition of friendly behavior. An overturned crate in the dating territory worked well for this lesson, because it let her be present but not fully available. The door to the crate had been cut big enough for one. Sometimes Justice squeezed himself into the crate, but then he did not have enough room to mount. Binkie easily scooted out while he tried to maneuver in this impossible setting. Sometimes he attempted to mount the back side of the crate, or to enter from one of the side openings. Like humans, rabbits will try an ineffective way of doing things over and over until they realize that they have to reassess their tactics.
Binkie never stayed in the crate very long but always came out for more chasing and some mounting before she returned to it, becoming withdrawn once again--except for her head. Eventually, Justice modified his behavior to include some quiet head-to-head time, reposing near the opening of the crate. As I watched these two I remembered a very different couple. Unlike the tireless Justice, Colby lacked stamina and was unable to chase his new partner without physical discomfort. He tried for a while but quickly gave up, sitting by himself, breathing somewhat laboriously. After a period of confusion and seclusion his new friend, the splendid Faith, tentatively approached and lay down near him. With her head a few inches from his, their bodies formed the lovely V that rabbit couples sometimes lie in; and she tooth-purred encouragement and approval of him and (I suppose) life in general.
Life After Graduation
I can only speculate about the lessons Justice and Binkie were teaching each other through their endless chasing and mounting. Probably Justice learned that he had to do more of that grooming thing in order to get Binkie's cooperation. Maybe he discovered that sitting side by side was its own sweetness, that grooming was an enjoyable activity in itself. Binkie was inexperienced, too, and I had the sense that she learned not only how to modify Justice's behavior but also how to be more giving. What I am sure of is that I saw rabbit intelligence revising rabbit instinct and that two rabbits who started out wanting different things were changing their behavior so that they could be together.
For more information about bonding, visit our Tips & Tricks page [NEED LINK].
Our thanks go to National House Rabbit Society for permission to use this article.