How pets helped us through a year of pandemic, meet Sunny and Edna
Her name is Edna. She’s 2-and-a-half years old. Maybe 3. Sunny Wilson isn’t certain. Edna, you see, is Sunny’s pet, a lop-eared rabbit with those distinctive droopy ears that reach halfway to the floor.
When Sunny met the bunny, she wasn’t concerned about Edna’s age or background. All she knew for sure is that she wasn’t coping well with the pandemic-imposed isolation.
Preparing to start an occupational therapy degree at Cincinnati State, she’d left her job at Visionaries + Voices, an organization that works with artists with disabilities. But she was soon consumed by an overwhelming sense of loneliness.
“I had way less people in my life and way more anxiety,” said Sunny. Something needed to change. Soon.
Maybe a pet would help, she thought.
Sunny wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Calls to several local animal adoption facilities indicate that 2020 has been an extraordinarily busy year.
“When the pandemic started, we were at a standstill,” said Nyketa Gaffney, spokesperson for the SPCA of Cincinnati. “But from mid-spring into the summer, we saw an increase of 25 to 50 percent. And the demand has just kept growing.”
According to a recent survey by consulting firm Deloitte, retailers expect that pet-related gifts – clothes, chewies and all manner of animal-related merchandise – will be one of the holiday season’s top categories.
Edna, the listener
Growing up in Price Hill, there were always dogs in the Wilson family home. Cats, too. And chickens. And the occasional goat.
What kind of pet should she get, though? She worried about cat smells in her small North Avondale apartment. She ruled out a dog, too.
“I always felt like dogs are a pet you get when you have a family or a partner,” said the 28-year-old Sunny. “I wanted something different, so I decided I’d get a rabbit.”
Initially, Sunny’s friend Lily Söderlund was skeptical about the rabbit.
“When she described Edna’s characteristics, it sounded all wrong,” said Söderlund. “She said Edna didn’t really like people and wasn’t very affectionate. She just wanted to sit there. But Sunny wanted to give Edna someplace to live. I thought it sounded more like a tenant-landlord relationship.”
Then Söderlund saw Edna and Sunny together.
“They’re perfect,” said Söderlund. “Sunny is a little bit slower-paced. She’s a homebody. And so is Edna.”
Even though she lives alone, Sunny chats her way through the day. She talks about what she should have for breakfast. She ponders the twists and turns of “The Bachelorette.” Or discusses her plans for the day. For her part, Edna listens.
“I don’t know if she really cares what I’m talking about,” said Sunny, only half-joking. “But she pays attention.” That’s the trade-off, perhaps, for having free rein of the apartment. Edna has a litter box. And a place to sleep under Sunny’s bed.
But Edna is not yet ready to hop into Sunny’s lap. As each week passes, though, she sits closer and has become an increasingly thoughtful companion. Perhaps this is what Sunny needed.
‘They felt the fur and responded’
Novelists love to romanticize the noble loner. But mental health professionals assure us that we are, by nature, communal creatures. Social contact is essential.
And pets can bring that to our lives. Some people long for a soft critter to cuddle. Others need to be needed. Or to be greeted as we walk in the door.
Sheila Maxwell’s title at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center is director of the auxiliary volunteer and interpreting service. But her greatest joy is organizing the pet therapy program, the one through which volunteers bring dogs into the hospital to visit patients.
“It’s a program that is as beloved by staff as it is by patients,” said Maxwell. “There is something about having a dog nuzzle a patient’s hand or leg that brings a sense of normalcy to a situation that is anything but normal.”
She describes a dog nudging an ICU patient who hadn’t shown signs of consciousness for two days.
“The person moved,” said Maxwell. “They felt the fur and responded.”
Small wonder, then, that such benefits might help people who are feeling lonely at home.
Never too busy to play
As the spring wore on, Arity Hasson recalls how the pandemic-induced seclusion was taking a toll on her 10-year-old son, Tyler.
“We’d never had a dog before,” said Hasson. “But Tyler is an only child and it became apparent to my husband and I that he might want someone to hang out with other than his parents. So we started looking. That was in May.”
It wasn’t as easy as they had hoped. They wanted a puppy. But some shelters seemed to have nothing but old animals. Tyler found a pedigreed dog online. At $400, the price was a little steep. But the Hassons felt their son’s emotional well-being was worth it. When they arrived to see the dog, though, the price turned out to be $4,400.
Eventually, they connected with a breeder in northeast Ohio. There was one puppy left from a litter of golden retrievers. Over the July 4 holiday, the Hassons drove up to Amish country and brought Holly home with them.
“We met Holly’s mom,” said Tyler. “And when we drove away, Holly started crying. I felt sad about that. And then she pooped in the cage on the way home so my dad had to open the car windows.”
But mostly, Tyler can’t say enough good things about the newest member of the family. Finally, he has an in-house pal who is never too tired or too busy to play. Holly sleeps in his room. And races to the front door, tail wagging madly, every time Tyler comes into the house.
That’s really what it is all about, isn’t it? For a pet and its human partner to bring some joy to one another’s lives.
For Tyler, Holly became a playmate and a confidante.
And for Sunny, Edna – named for a character on TV’s “The Facts of Life” – became a companion. And an opportunity for Sunny to do good for another living creature.
Edna, you see, had been abandoned in a dumpster. There were baby rabbits, too. They found homes quickly. But there is less demand for a full-grown rabbit, especially one that isn’t inclined to cuddle.
“I guess I was drawn to the drama of her story,” said Sunny. “She was cast out, after all. And there were those ears. She was so adorable. But when I got her home, I remember thinking, ‘What have I done? I don’t know anything about rabbits.’ ”
Sunny has learned, though. She knows what Edna likes to eat. More important, she’s discovered that if she’s late delivering it, Edna will thump madly on the floor and then turn away from her.
“We’ve been getting to know one another,” explained Sunny. “We’re just two animals living in this apartment together. If she does a new thing and surprises me, it’s a little spot of happiness that I didn’t have to come up with myself, something to focus on outside of myself. It’s like any good relationship – sometimes you get angry with one another. But more often, you bring joy.”