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Writing Animals: Hutched

It is with delight that I can say my rabbit story ‘Hutched’ has been republished in issue two of Foxhole Magazine along with two gloriously gaudy illustrations by Murray Sommerville which really bring to life the bizarre insanity of the tale itself. ‘Hutched’ was one of the first animal stories I wrote back when I didn’t know I would gradually build-up a bestiary of fauna fables. After writing my dog story, I knew I wanted to give rabbits, my favourite animal, the same treatment. And I already knew the perfect way in.

‘Hutched’ is the only one of my animal stories so far which doesn’t have the actual animal in the title. And yet it sort-of does - and that’s the whole point of the piece. The word ‘hutch’ is so synonymous with the word ‘rabbit’ they are practically inseparable in the mind. If you ask a child: where does a rabbit live, chances are it won’t say a warren. And yet hutches are the complete antithesis of what it means to be a rabbit which, in the wild, would live in a complex warren covering areas the size of football pitches and more. In a hutch a rabbit can hop maybe twice if its lucky and it can never stand up to full height. They are little more than wooden prison cells for cute pe[s]ts.

So I knew my story had to be about a rabbit in a hutch, preferably a superhero rabbit in an absurdly modified hutch to highlight the problems into extremis. But although this amused me no end, it was not enough for a textured story. I had to get the humans right in this one.

Having been in close proximity in one way or another to the Manchester RSPCA over the past few years I’m starting to get a clearer picture of the real problem with animal welfare in Britain. It’s not so much the animal hoarders or the vicious abusers (although these are, of course, still very much a problem), it’s more the normal, regular people who are so steeped in blithe ignorance and old wives’ myths that they blunder into animal ownership with the same nonchalance of buying a toaster. Its people whose cats get ‘accidentally’ pregnant because they didn’t neuter in time then can’t cope with a litter of kittens. Its people who get dogs because it ‘completes’ a family then can’t handle the Border Collie’s pent-up sheep-rounding energy, or the Rottweiler’s expensive vet bills. It’s the consumerist, disposable attitude of the pet industry that too often circumvents the very real needs of a very real creature. And then the RSPCA has to pick up the pieces and handle constant criticism in the process.

In ‘Hutched’, the protagonist is the father who buys a rabbit for his daughter but is more obsessed with making sure he has the best hutch. The latter is the ‘latest design’, an absurdly modified beast of a thing designed to make human lives better and easier behind the sheen of helping the rabbit, at which it utterly fails. The humans of the story, the man and his daughter, are the typical Pets at Home customers who see animals as nothing more than living ornaments with affordable price tags and limited shelf life.

I hate that animals can be bought and sold in this country. It’s deeply immoral and, I believe, the root of many of our welfare ills. It’s illegal for pet shops to sell dogs and cats, but, for some arbitrary reason, still perfectly legal to sell ‘small animals’ (everything from a rabbit downwards). Members of the public and breeders are still allowed to sell any creature, which makes the situation a million times worse. It has led to a culture of commoditised animals that quickly outlive their initial appeal and become someone else’s problem as soon as they become faulty. More often than not, the canal becomes the only solution, sometimes out desperation, often out of frustration, always with a clear sense of collective human shame.

In Hutched my rabbit is liberated, but in one of the most ridiculously convoluted and horrible ways I could think of. The emancipation ending, therefore, is a static and cold affair, despite the simple beauty of the final location. The human lives are deliberately ripped apart, but it is a tragedy of their own doing borne along by that initial act of monetary exchange for both the creature and its cell.

Rabbits in particular get a rough deal in this country. They are, like so many animals, victims of their own success coupled with their cuteness factor. Their success is their proliferation so that, like pigeons, they don’t matter because there’s so many of them. So it’s easy to leave one in a hutch, or to catch and slaughter a wild one for food, because there’s no danger of them ever running out. What’s one less rabbit? And yet when you frame rabbits in a different way, they suddenly take on a different aura: the cute baby lop-eared rabbit sitting next to an easter egg and a newborn chick is suddenly something much more special and desirable. It’s when these two attitudes meet that you get a conflict and in the heart of that battle sits the hutch.​

I blame pet shops for sustaining hutches. If they stopped selling them (and rabbits) and instead directed people to rescues where the real expertise and passion lies, we’d have a nation of much happier lagomorphs. Rabbits don’t need to live in hutches. They are so much better off as house rabbits, like my best pal George. It’s ridiculously easy to rabbit-proof a house and they are really very clean animals most of the time. And when you actually live alongside a rabbit, rather than sectioning it off in some dark and cold corner of a dank garden, your experience of that creature is enhanced a million times over. Rather than owning a pet, you are cohabiting with an animal. And you’ll be amazed what they can do.

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