Five seconds ago, the baby was being all cute and smiley and giggly. Now he was bleeding and red-faced-screaming at the top of his six-month-old lungs. My yogurt and pretzel lunch was arguing about whether to stay in my stomach as I looked around the camera room; certain everything I’d worked so hard to create was about to disappear in the lawsuit headed my way.
We were two babies into our first Babies and Bunnies Easter portrait promotion. Like a miniature rabid Wolverine, the bunny had bitten my client’s baby on the top of the foot.
I’d created a written release for all the parents to sign. The release advised them that rabbits are typically gentle domesticated creatures. But on occasion, when provoked, become evil, biting, scratching, kicking, punching little gremlins. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a system in place for actually getting a signature on the release. And of course, as luck would have it, this Mom hadn’t signed.
“I am so sorry.”
I was falling all over myself, apologizing to the Mother holding the screaming little boy.
“Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” she said, “it’s just a scratch. We have cats and dogs at home, nothing we haven’t seen before.”
Turns out this was the youngest of five. If worse came to worse and the baby vapor-locked from rabies, they had four more kids to fall back on.
My wife and I, and for a while, my older sister, operated a photography studio in Minnesota for 17 years. This was early on in the studio’s life, and we were trying to expand our child photography business.
Yeah, I hear ya, “Dave, who in their right mind would want to photograph children?” I’m a Grandpa now, and at this stage in my life, there are two children – older than a year – that I can stand; my granddaughters. Granddaughters, who are, of course, beautiful, well-behaved, polite, caring, intelligent young ladies. But back then, and still – on occasion – I have a soft spot for babies; because they haven’t been screwed up yet by their parents.
I’d read about other photography studios doing Easter photo promotions and thought we should give it a try. Some studios used baby lambs, some baby chicks, and others, like us, bunnies.
Baby chickens are pretty fragile. I’d heard stories about younger children – unintentionally(?) – getting a little too rough and breaking the necks of the baby chicks. Which, if you ask me, seems like a traumatic end to a photo session. And really, how many pictures are parents going to buy of little psycho Susie holding a dead baby chicken?
“Happy Easter Bitches!”
You’d need more than one chick, of course. And one would assume they wouldn’t all die in the line of duty. (Workers Comp premiums would be ridiculous.) So that said, what do you do with the survivors? If you plucked them, I couldn’t imagine there’d be enough for a decent-sized appetizer. (And the Buffalo Wings would be Barbie-doll size.) But neither did I relish the thought of tossing them in the trash; being a heartless monster wasn’t my strong suit. So we ruled out baby chicks.
Lambs were a no-brainer decision. Our studio was downtown – not an ideal location for livestock. I grew up in the country and, on occasion, helped out on a dairy farm up the road, but I’d never dealt with sheep. That and the whole religious connotation about sacrifice and Jesus being the lamb of God, etc. I was willing to try and make a buck off a religious holiday, but using lambs seemed like it was taking it a little too far.
I’d never dealt with rabbits either, for that matter, other than shooting them out of my Mom’s garden. (Long story for another day.) Some photographers went to the pet store and bought rabbits to use in their promotion. But then what? I can’t picture the pet store taking returns on what amounts to a “used” “seasonal” pet. So then we’re back to neck-wringing and trash-tossing.
Right about here, we should pause and regroup. Some of you might read the above and gasp in disgust, incensed by my cavalier attitude towards these beautiful sentient creatures.
So let me tell you a quick side story about my position on animal cruelty. Years ago, I was on my way to a photo session at a client’s home in a rural area. I rounded a corner, and here came Mr. Squirrel, bounding across the road – right under my car tire. I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw him lying there; one paw waving frantically in the air, the back half of his body seemingly crushed. He wasn’t dead, and he was suffering.
It took less than a mile (it might’ve been two) for my compassion to get the better of me. I couldn’t leave him there like that. I whipped a u-turn and headed back the way I’d come, steeling myself to crush the rest of him and put him out of his misery.
I got to the scene of the crime, and it was a goll-dang miracle – he was gone. Had Mr. Squirrel valiantly army-crawled his way into the ditch? Was he lying there, still suffering, smoking one last tiny cigarette, waiting for the darkness to come? Possibly.
Or had a Red-tailed hawk swooped from the sky, snagging his helpless body in her razor-sharp talons, flying him off for a quiet supper with her young? Also possible.
I preferred to think he was only stunned by a slight brush with the tire. His tiny paw waving in the air, his way of saying, “No problem, dude, I’m okay.” (That or he was giving me the finger and yelling, “Hey asshole, watch where you’re going!”)
So if we were going to do a bunny promotion, I had to solve the question of rabbits and their imminent unemployment. And then I remembered a high school senior from a couple of years previous. She was in 4H, and she raised bunnies. I called her.
“Can I rent some bunnies from you?”
“Can you what? She asked.
“Sure, we can do that. How many do you need?”
I had no experience as a casting director. I didn’t know what kind of hours bunnies worked. Did they demand personal dressing rooms? Fresh flowers? Evian or Pelligrino? Were they gluten-free? So many things to consider.
“I suppose two will do. But I need a cage to keep them in. And food and bedding. Can you help me with that?”
“I’ll have it all ready for you.”
She lived with her younger sisters, her parents, and her rabbits on the outskirts of the next small town over. True to her word, she had a double hutch, bedding, and food ready to go. And then I got to pick the rabbits I wanted to rent.
The ex-senior and her sisters were all in the 4H Bunny Program, and their basement was like a rabbit pet store. They had Rexes and Flemish Giants, French Lops, and Checkered Giants. Albeit different from a pet store where the puppies frantically scratch at their cages begging to be saved, the rabbits were somewhat indifferent. They had it pretty good right where they were. Of course, had they known what was in store for them, had they known they were destined for stardom, they might have been a bit more excited.
I opted for a Flemish Giant, and a more traditional black and white spotted Rex. Flemish Giant is an entirely appropriate name for this rabbit. The Flemish Giant would be the star if someone wanted to write a horror story about giant killer rabbits. They can be as big as a small dog – or a large cat. This guy could have eaten the spotted Rex for lunch and not even belched.
My rabbit renting ex-senior gave me some quick bunny wrangling lessons, and food, and bedding instructions. I loaded everything into the blue velvet back seat of my Buick Park Avenue and headed to the studio.
I am allergic to pet dander. We’ve had two Bichon Frises because they’re known to be the hypo-allergenic dog. I like some kitties, but most of them make my eyes itch. I’d never handled a rabbit, and go figure, turns out I’m deathly allergic. Well, almost deathly. By the time I got the “talent” to the studio, I was gasping for breath like a two-pack-a-day smoker running a 10K, and my eyes were watering and itchy. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be the bunny wrangler.
We kept the bunnies in the hutch in the basement dungeon of the studio. I figured it was better to keep them guessing about their future so they’d be cooperative when they had to work.
The studio had huge windows that faced the busiest street in town. We covered the windows with construction paper bunny silhouettes and big letters saying, “The Bunnies are Here!” We also mailed postcards to a purchased mailing list and past customers. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday filled almost immediately. So we opened up Wednesday and filled that too.
We used our all-white background, and I had several all-white props; chairs, benches, and stools. I’d do a few images to get the child used to the set and the lights. Subject primed and ready, my sister would go to the dungeon and get a bunny from the hutch. We used a cardboard banker’s box to bring the bunnies up the stairs. (I’d tell the parents the rabbit was an accountant – the banker’s box – mostly it fell on deaf ears. Especially the IBM engineer ears. Don’t try to tell subtle jokes to an engineer.)
You have not seen cute until you’ve seen a three-year-old, dressed in their Easter finest, chewing on the business-end of a carrot, looking into the eyes of a bunny munching on the green leafy top. The pictures sold themselves.
In the first year of Babies and Bunnies, we photographed a little guy named Harrison. He was a riot, always giggling and always smiling. You couldn’t take a bad picture of this kid. He came back – with his Mother, of course – year after year. When he was about five or six, they were there for their annual session.
We did the typical warm-up images, and my sister went down to retrieve a bunny. It was the day’s first session, and the bunnies hadn’t seen the light of day since the previous afternoon.
Sampson was the Flemish Giant. Blue-gray color with big soft ears and huge paws. Little Harrison was a pro at bunny pics, so he was ready and excited to hold this big bunny.
What we didn’t know is Sampson must have had a connection on the outside. Or maybe he’d made a deal with one of the dungeon “screws.” But someone smuggled in a 12-pack of Miller Lite, and Sampson had more than his fair share. My sister pulled him out of the banker’s box, and Sampson let loose with an entire six-pack of bunny pee. He soaked my sister right through to her bra and underwear, neck to knees. And what didn’t soak in, puddled up on the floor at her feet. Harrison laughed uncontrollably. My sister went home to shower and change clothes.
So yeah, Babies and Bunnies, more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Now there’s a thought . . . . a jungle-themed portrait promotion? Wonder if I’m allergic to monkeys?
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