When our friends moved to Canmore and Africa respectively, their pet rabbit was left homeless. At their going-away party, my roommate charitably offered to give it a home in our small apartment. When she retroactively asked me whether this was fine by me, I said yes, given the understanding that it was in no way my responsibility. I even vaguely looked forward to the presence of a small, fluffy pet — my impression of rabbits is that they are relatively low-maintenance, and in general I feel positively towards small, fluffy things. I even vaguely hoped that its cuteness would provide some sort of morale boost in the depths of Montreal’s long, cold, lonely winters.
When I met the rabbit, however, I was unimpressed. It was small. It was gray. It twitched its nose. It hopped around. It shuffled in its cage and made sounds similar those of typewriter keys. And that was it. I hadn’t had any sort of high hopes for the rabbit in terms of stimulation, but I had assumed that I would at least find it cute, or that I would want to play with it a little bit, or, barring that, that I would find its general placid stupidity annoying. But my initial emotional reaction was neither even remotely positive or even remotely negative. It was nonexistent.
We tried to name the rabbit. We went through three or four names. Nothing stuck, so we just referred to it as Rabbit. This was another red flag — I’m really good at anthropomorphizing. Every bike I’ve ever owned has had a name, for instance. Either due to a tendency to whimsy or to childishness, I regularly project personality onto inanimate objects. I couldn’t project anything memorable onto this rabbit, though. How was it possible that this living, breathing vertebrate, technically evolutionarily not very different from me, had less personality than my bicycle?
Weeks passed. The rabbit continued cohabiting with us. I wanted to find it cute. I wanted to enjoy its company. Failing that, I wanted to resent it, or to be annoyed by it. Neither transpired. The rabbit could have been a slightly motile seat cushion, for all the emotion it inspired in me. It hopped around, living on the whole an extremely contented life for a rabbit in captivity. It got fed. It ate. It shat. Presumably it slept. It was good at converting food sugars to metabolic energy in the way most animals are, but that was about it.
I started worrying about my inability to feel anything for the rabbit. Did this mean I had an underdeveloped capacity for empathy? This was a fellow mammal! It was fluffy! It was objectively somewhat cute! What was it going to take? Did this mean that I would someday make a terrible mother? In a characteristically high-strung emotional move, I started feeling secondary anxiety about not having any emotions towards the rabbit. I found some solace in the fact that neither of my roommates expressed any strong feeling for the rabbit either, and that after all the rabbit didn’t seem to be expressing any strong feeling for any of us, come to think of it.
Among our wider circle of friends, a few people posited half-jokingly that we eat the rabbit. I come from a culture where rabbits are seen mostly as efficiently self-replicating assemblages of animal protein, and given the rabbit’s hitherto exceptional quality of life, it would be considerably more ethical and humane than buying an anonymous growth hormone-enhanced chicken breast at the grocery store. Local, small-scale animal cultivation, efficient resource management. I knew this, logically, but I was on some base level adverse to the idea, to say nothing of the feelings of my roommate, a vegetarian. The pet was not going to be eaten, that much was clear.
This unwillingness to kill it didn’t help me feel anything for the rabbit, though. It continued living with us, hanging out and living its rabbit life, and I continued feeling callous and uncomfortable about it. This was the first pet I didn’t care about. In high school, my brother had bought two mice, animals objectively even less interesting than the rabbit. Nonetheless we had named them (Gauley and Chittistone, after the free-flowing wild rivers of West Virginia and Alaska), and we had loved them and when they died of cancer we had been sad. When my beta fish met an untimely demise because we forgot to heat our house, I had cried. In ninth grade, I had cried during the dissection of a mollusk, although I suspect that that might actually have been because I was fourteen and had too many feelings. Was I becoming heartless with passing years?
Eventually, the rabbit resolved the issue by eating my phone charger. I was considerably annoyed at the loss of my telecommunication device, because it meant the canceling of a fun evening, but I was in some way contented too. From that day forward, I felt a calm, controlled, calculated dislike towards the rabbit. It was not a positive emotion, but it was an emotion nonetheless, and that was a small victory. After all, who are we as humans if we do not feel?