Soapy Smith is a twenty-four-pound calico rex rabbit.
A rex rabbit's coat lacks the stiff guard hairs of
other breeds, resulting in a fur texture that is as
soft as a cloud.
People look startled when they first touch him and
how soft he is. I've noticed he seems to make everyone
who meets him a little softer, too.
One day, Soapy Smith and I visited a shelter for
women located in a bedraggled section of the city.
The women in the shelter looked at me through downcast
eyes. No one smiled a greeting, and they appeared
uninterested in Soapy's carrier.
Everyone seemed tense and ready to flee. One little
girl in particular moved like a wisp in the background.
Never raising her eyes, never reaching out, she drifted
in and out of the gathered group. The staff informed
me that she had been there for over a month and had
not spoken the entire time.
Nothing they tried had any effect. Her mother said
she had talked at one time but not in recent memory.
I didn't want to imagine what could have happened to
rob this little girl of the natural curiosity and
enthusiasm so natural to childhood.
Spreading a blanket on the floor, I sat down and
opened Soapy's carrier. As the silent child circled
past me, I told the group that Soapy would come to talk to them if they sat on his blanket. Several children did this, including the silent girl.
In a short time, Soapy emerged from his carrier and
slowly hopped from one child to another. Unlike visits
at schools where the first touches produced squeals of
delight, this visit was unusually quiet. After touching Soapy, these children looked down and sighed
softly or smiled into their hands. Soapy continued
his rounds, and the children and their mothers gradually began to talk about Soapy and ask questions.
I chatted with the women and children as I kept one
eye on the little girl. She sat rigidly at the edge
of the blanket, legs held stiffly out straight in front
of her. She was staring hard at Soapy.
It appeared that he kept making eye contact with her.
He would hop from child to child, each visit taking
him a little closer to the girl. I began to wonder if
he was pausing to give her time to watch him.
During all other visits we had given together
in schools, his usual behavior was to hop around the
circle letting each person pet him. When he got back
to me he would wash his face and then start the circle
again. That day, I watched as Soapy finally worked his way toward the girl. She didn't reach out to him
or encourage him in any way. Rather she sat tensely,
Finally Soapy came to a stop about two inches from her
thigh. He quietly reached out and laid his chin on
knee I was astonished. While a common behavior for
dogs, this is not a behavior exhibited by rabbits,
especially not by this rabbit.
The child did not reach out to pet Soapy. Instead,
she slowly leaned toward him. When her face was within
inches of his, she carefully reached out and circled
him with her arms.
So softly that no one in the room could hear, she
began to talk. Folded around the rabbit, she pillowed
her head on his back and whispered to him. Soapy
I looked up and noticed that the shelter workers had
stopped talking. Every adult in the room froze in
place. Time seemed suspended. Then quietly the child
unfolded and sat back up. Soapy sat up too, reached
forward and briskly licked her knee. She did not smile.
She did not reach out to him, but the rigidity of her
back relaxed, and her shoulders rounded into a comfortable slope. The little girl stood up and walked over to her mother and began to suck her thumb.
The little girl reappeared when I was preparing to
leave. She reached her hands out and looked me directly
in the eye. I held Soapy out to her.
She wrapped him in a big hug and pressed her face against him. Suspended from my hands as he was, I was
concerned that he would begin to struggle.
Instead he reached out his head again and laid it on
the child's shoulder.
His breathing slowed and he closed his eyes.
As quickly as it happened, the little girl released
her hug and stepped back. As she turned away, I thought I saw the beginnings of a faint smile.
The rabbit in his cloud of soft, warm fur had touched
something deep in the child - something that had died
from too much hard experience.
Soapy's innocence and trust appeared to kindle those
very same qualities in the little girl.
Numerous times, I've seen how the loving presence of
animal can heal where words have no effect. It seems
language of the heart is simple after all.
By Maureen Fredrickson
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