Language of the Heart

By Maureen Fredrickson

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 remark 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 battered 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, just staring.

Finally Soapy came to a stop about two inches from her thigh. He quietly reached out and laid his chin on her 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 remained motionless.

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 an animal can heal where words have no effect. It seems the language of the heart is simple after all.

By Maureen Fredrickson
Program director for the Delta Society
Excerpted from Animals As Guides for the Soul by Susan Chernak McElroy 1998, from Chicken Soup for the Cat & Dog Lover's Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Marty Becker, D.V.M. and Carol Kline.

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