Election Day is upon us, and unless I’ve been reading this all wrong, many of you are expecting armed militias in the streets, a contested presidential election, a worsening pandemic, the collapse of American democratic ideals and, oh why not, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
But would you settle for the 14 Bunnies of the Apocalypse?
A few days ago, as a way to detox from the world and remove myself from current events for 60 minutes and think about anything but this American life, I paid $12 to cuddle. And I wasn’t alone. Others came to escape from reality. In fact, the only time still available was 5 p.m. on a Wednesday.
Cuddle Bunny opened last June in Lakeview, and at least Thursdays through Sundays, its busiest days, business is booming. Some of its star attractions include Tia, Lola, Fiona, and Marley. According to the official bios: Tia is shy, Lola is part Himalayan, Fiona is the most cuddle-friendly and Marley, a customer favorite, is a spark plug. There are rules: Visitors are asked to stay calm and approach the bunnies politely, speak quietly and not manhandle the talent. But if a bunny is into it, they are allowed to climb into a client’s lap.
That said, Cuddle Bunny is what it promises: A small, welcoming space on the North Side where customers pay to be surrounded by a fluffle of rabbits, lower their blood pressures, receive “a solid dose of oxytocin” and needed “escape from everyday experiences.” (Or so claims the marketing.)
Loath Donald Trump?
Hate Joe Biden?
Vote instead for Grey Ghost , a six-month-old Flemish Giant who already weighs 15 pounds and feels like a warm marshmallow. For $12 an hour ($16 on weekends), you are escorted through a series of pet enclosures, each holding two rabbits (or just Ghost, big enough to carry his own). Every 20 minutes an iPhone alarm goes off and owner Barbara Burdick asks her customers pick up their large sitting pillows (provided with admission) and rotate to a new pen of rabbits.
It’s like speed-dating the very nervous and eager to hop away.
Burdick wears a rabbit-themed pandemic mask with a pin that assures you she is smiling. She is plainspoken, funny and wears fake bunny ears. She sits across from a bunny-centric gift shop. Asked if business was hopping, she looked pained: After she opened, many days passed without anyone stopping. She went home and asked her husband if she had made a horrible mistake, centering her business model on rabbit cuddling. She even had punch cards for repeat customers.
And then someone shot a TikTok video of Cuddle Bunny.
Nearly overnight, August was sold out. Business slowed again when schools reopened and summer faded and then another TikTok was posted and Cuddle Bunny was booked solid all over again. Burdick had planned initially to open a year ago, to introduce itself as an answer to Chicago winters. Instead she opened in a pandemic, a social uprising and an ugly election season.
Which, it turns out, is a good time to snuggle rabbits.
“Now I hear from people who are coming basically because of the world — because of the pandemic, because they had felt isolated and alienated and exhausted by everything, so opening this place right now, it turned out to be more of a blessing. People stand up after an hour and tell me, ‘I needed that today.’” For the record, she also offers bunny boarding services, a bunny yoga class (yoga only with more bunnies) and a support group for Chicagoans who have lost pets.
Burdick, who had spent 25 years in human resources, was not just lucky, she was on trend.
She had been inspired by a friend who went to Japan and told her about an owl cafe there. Indeed, in the past 20 years, animal-petting businesses have flourished worldwide, particularly in Asia. There are sheep cafes and hedgehog cafes, reptile cafes, penguin cafes and meerkat cafes. Chicago alone has three cat cafes. Rabbits, however, like felines, are not rarities in the Midwest. The urban rabbit has proliferated since the early 1990s, to the consternation of the Chicago Park District, which spends handsomely to replace the plants that rabbits nibble. The greener Chicago grows, the more welcoming it is for hungry bunnies — many of them Eastern Cottontails.
So, Burdick’s bunnies are different.
They come from breeders, from owners looking for a new home, from friends and rabbit lovers. As a group, her bunnies appear curated, to offer a variety of breeds, shapes and colors. Elsa is a Vienna with blue eyes and a somnolent disposition. Moo resembles a Holstein. Rex is a blonde Continental Giant, and Tamera is a Polish gray. Burdick — who has a long history as a volunteer at animal shelters and knows which rabbit wants parsley and which prefers cilantro — keeps only six bunnies working at a time. She rotates new ones in daily, she explained, to manage their stress. And unlike other animal petting cafes, the only food served here (greens) is given to the rabbits.
Her customers tend toward older children, college students and couples — one guy rented out the whole place for his girlfriend’s birthday. Kids under five are not allowed to cuddle — too unpredictable — though Burdick does offers times for small children to “read” to sleeping rabbits.
As for my own experience, I began with Moo and Marley, a black Mini Lop whose ears are set on permanent flop. They hugged the fencing and warmed to me slowly. Then I was on to Grey Ghost, whose expectant ears telescoped out of a long head nestled in an ample chin. (After a few awkward minutes he rolled on his back to offer his stomach.) The last two, LZZY and Furbie, were the least interested in speed-dating, which was fine: Furbie was so eccentric looking — Farrah Fawcett flyway wings framing a thin mohawk, with fur so seemingly ill-fitted that I wondered if he was a rabbit cosplaying as a Pomeranian — you kind of just want to stare.
To be fair, between the election and a fear that we were not vibing, the lack of chemistry was my fault. If you are here to escape reality, it can be hard to forget that, well, here you are, bourgeois and entitled, with bunnies literally running at your feet — meanwhile, outside, Rome is burning.
Still, as relief valves go, Cuddle Bunny is unpretentious and sane. Last year, when her mother was dying, before the city approved the zoning on her business, Burdick would come home from the hospital and and simply nuzzle with her rabbits, which didn’t hurt. It assured her that bunny cuddling might be valuable, possibly even therapeutic. She hears this from regulars, she says. The world has been falling apart all year long, and yet for a single fluffy moment, here is a respite. “That said, if this election doesn’t swing the way I hope, I’ll be on that floor too, cuddling bunnies.”
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