Maggie A's Meanderings




 Jun 28, 2015

Rabbits and Imitation in the Animal Kingdom

When I heard recently on a nature show that "Imitation is rare among animals," I snorted with derision. Scientists think imitation is rare among animals because they rarely think to look for it. For instance, if I asked one of those scientists about rabbits imitating, I expect I'd be informed that rabbits don't imitate.


That would be an incorrect answer.

I once had a bunny who could open a canister of raisins.

I didn't "teach" my bunny how to do this. I showed her. I showed her and she did it because I didn't go in with the assumption that rabbits don't imitate. I went in with the firm knowledge that rabbits DO imitate. That's because this wasn't my first bunny rabbit.

My first bunny rabbit and I had a game. When I was finished drinking a soda, I would roll the empty can to him, and he would roll it back to me. It was a game he picked up by watching me. One day when I had finished the can, I, on a whim, decided to roll the empty can toward my bunny who was near me. (He was always near me. When I lost him it felt like I'd had a limb amputated.) Having seen what I just did with the can, he promptly nosed the can into a roll --------- though not directly toward me. Delighted, I took the can and rolled it back toward him. Thus "Roll-the-Can" was born, one of a number of games we would play. (My favorite was Hide-and-Seek.)

Therefore, I knew for a fact that rabbits could imitate.

So when I thought about how much this bunny enjoyed raisins (they were her favorite snack), I figured I could get her to open the raisin canister on her own. I went through so many raisins I didn't buy them in those little snack boxes; I bought the tall cardboard canister with a plastic lid.

But even I didn't realize how incredibly easy it was going to be. And it was easy because I wasn't teaching her behavior; it was easy because my bunny was imitating my behavior.

The trick consisted of two parts. First, she have to remove the plastic lid. Second, she'd have to tip the canister onto its side so she could easily stick her nose into it to chomp on the raisins.

For the first session, I sat on the floor with my rabbit and the raisin canister. With my rabbit watching me, I opened the canister by pulling off the lid, reached in and brought out a raisin which I let her eat. My bunny very closely watched me. I did this several times. Then I loosely placed the plastic lid on top on the canister (not fastening it down) and offered the raisin canister to my bunny. She promptly knocked the lid off --------- I gave her raisins and lavish praise. We repeated this though after the first two or three times I gradually began fastening the lid more and more. She figured out to grasp the rim of the firmly closed lid with her teeth, give a jerk upwards and the lid would come off.

Total time to learn to remove the lid on her own....................................I'd say about 15 minutes. The session didn't last long.

I didn't want to overload. I'd heard when training a dog that you should keep the sessions short, so that was it for Night One.

For Night Two, it was the second part of the trick: tipping the opened cardboard canister over on its side so she could stick her head into it and eat raisins. So it was me, the bunny and the raisins on the floor again. After she opened the canister of raisins by removing the lid, I didn't reach in for the raisins like I had done the previous night. Instead, I knocked the canister over, then reached in and got the raisins. Again I did this several times. She would remove the lid to open it; I would tip the canister over. Then I didn't. She opened the canister, but I didn't tip it over. Instead, I offered the open canister for her to put her head into it. When she did, I praised her and put the canister on its side on the floor for her to munch raisins. I probably did that a couple of times; then I stopped tipping it. So, since my rabbit knew it was easier to eat the raisins when the canister was lying on the floor, she stuck her head in and tipped it over herself. Rapidly she figured out she didn't have to stick her head in (which put her head and neck at an awkward angle), she could just bite the lip of the container and tip it that way. Total session this night...............maybe 10 minutes, maybe less.

At the end of the second session, I had a rabbit who, when I placed the canister of raisins on the floor, she would come up to it, bite the lip of the lid with her teeth, jerk her head upwards to remove the lid, drop the lid, then grab the lip of the cardboard canister with her teeth, take a step or two backwards pulling the canister over until it lay on the floor, then stick her head in to eat some raisins.

Two sessions. Both minutes long.

That's not "teaching" --------- from what I've heard about dogs, teaching a dog a new trick is long, slow process that can take weeks, even years, depending on the complexity of the trick. The one time I genuinely tried to teach this rabbit a trick (jumping through a hoop), that was "teaching," that was "training," that was frustrating.........and I was using raisins as a reward. (In retrospect, maybe I should have gotten a hula-hoop and jumped through it myself a few times while she watched in order to show her what I wanted.)

What my bunny did with the raisin canister was imitation. She sat there watching what I did. Then she did her version of it. That's how she figured it so quickly. (And she never forgot it.)

So rabbits can imitate.

Now, would scientists in a lab get this kind of results? I have my doubts. These weren't lab rabbits stuck in a cage all day with no interaction. They were never caged. They were litterbox-trained house pets. Incredibly well loved house pets who were my family and, frankly, closer than my blood relatives. (Once when I was out of town, I left my rabbits in the care of my brother. He told me when I got back that he'd hoped that nothing would go wrong with them because he knew those rabbits meant more to me than he did. He was right.) So I had a close, loving, playful and affectionate relationship with those rabbits. They were accustomed to watching me and listening to my voice (though like a cat or even some dogs, when they felt like it they would completely ignore my voice when they were doing something I didn't want them to do and I was yelling for them to stop).

In other words, we were bonded. We were the same family; I was in their social group. Thus, I was someone whose actions they would pay attention to................especially when I sat down with the treat of raisins.

So to scientists who think that imitation is rare in among animals, I would tell you to open your eyes. And your email. Because I'd bet that if you asked people to send you stories of their exotic pets and examples of imitation that you'd get a lot more than you'd expect. Because the people who know animal behavior best aren't the scientists studying lab animals; it's the people who live with them and love them.

rabbit with canister of raisins
Rabbits can make wonderful house pets though their chewing can be challenging. It breaks my heart every time I see some poor bunny stuck living their life in a cage. I'm a firm believer in house rabbits. meaning rabbits as house pets same as a dog or a cat. If you'd like to know more about house rabbits, check out the House Rabbit Society. And the best book I know about house rabbits is The House Rabbit Handbook How to Live with an Urban Rabbit.

The only other piece that mentions my rabbits is "Flight of the Canary" where they appear peripherally. But if you want to read about my cats, there's
"The Devotion of a Cat"
"In the Mind of a Sleeping Cat"
"Attachment in Cats Feline Versions of the Strange Situation Test"
"Cat Thinking -- The Day My Legs Turned Blue"
"His Person's Voice or A Cat Who Will Come When Called"
"The Tree and the Cat"
"Cat Heaven"
"10 Reasons Why the Best "Boyfriend" I've Ever Had Is My Cat"
"The Choice"

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