A never-ending game of chase
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
We’ve had issues with rabbits, my dogs and I. We’ve had issues for as long as they’ve put four paws to the ground and followed their hunting dog noses on the sweet scent of game. Should my dogs have the ability to talk, (something that would not surprise me at times) they’d object to the word “issues.” I would guess “opportunities” would be their choice.
In truth, I am the one with the issues. I have issues with the dogs chasing rabbits pell mell in the woods, racing across the backyard in pursuit of cottontails, going full bore after every snowshoe hare and generally willing to bring death and destruction on any and all unfortunate rabbits they find.
When Riika and Thor were young and could run like wildfire ahead of a wind, they’d chase snowshoes hares during times of hunting grouse and woodcock. They’d bay a wild and crazed yelp and I’d stand there punching the button on the e-collar and they’d run through the shock it brought, so crazy were they for the hunt. In time they’d return, panting and long-tongued and full of burrs.
They’d lie at my feet, rest up a bit, then rise up to hunt.
They never caught one, for all their efforts.
Thor once found a nest of young cottontails. It was evening and the sun was sliding low across the lake, an omen, perhaps, for the young rabbits. Thor stumbled on them and they bolted every which way. He pounced on them, wild with their scent and their helplessness. We called him off. Fat chance that would happen. He wolfed them down like a fat man at a hot dog eating contest until we pulled him off the carnage in the tall grass.
I have no idea how many he ate. He seemed displeased that we would deprive him of more of the festivities and sulked all the way back to the truck.
On a dark morning in November, before the time I’d fully fenced the backyard, Riika and Thor broke their rope tie-outs and ran crazy through the neighborhood, hot on the trail of a resident rabbit. It was 5:30 a.m., and the neighborhood was dark and quiet. Until then. They yelped and barked and chased through yards and driveways after the phantom rabbit. And I, like a fool, followed in the dark, stumbling over curbs and lawn implements left abandoned in the dark.
All the time their crazy-dog barking rose into the chill air. A light turned on in one house. Another. I could not call for them and lord knows the whistle was useless in the quiet time before sunrise. I stalked like a burglar, half expected flashing lights to appear. Eventually Riika ran past, trailing 15 feet or so of broken rope, and I was able to grab the line and snap her to a stop.
Dogs and rabbits; issues and opportunities.
Our yard has long since been fenced tight to keep the dogs in. But there are gaps, small and seemingly inconsequential, too small to fit a dog. But not too small for a rabbit. So the rabbits still come into the yard. I wish they would not.
Three-thirty in the morning. Twenty below zero. Thor barks to go out; Fenway joins him. I sleep through it. Sally wakes, plods to the door, opens it and the dogs are out like spark of lightning. There is a rabbit in the yard. The rabbit is fast; Fenway faster.
I hear Sally call for help. I stumble up, pull on pants, lurch downstairs to the door. I see the dogs at the fence. Fenway has the rabbit. The rabbit is quite dead. Fenway is carrying it proudly as if a trophy. Sally tells of the death screams of the rabbit that pierced the sub-zero darkness.
I go out in slippers and take the rabbit from Fenway. He leaps at it and I hold the poor dead rabbit high and toss it over the fence to take care of in the morning. I realize that I am very cold.
I get the dogs inside and go back to bed. I do not sleep particularly well.
Now, weeks later, the dogs are restless in sleep as if in a dream world where rabbits run wild and the dogs, all three of them, give chase. In the backyard, in the dark of the January night, shadows shift, take form, become recognizable shape; cottontail. I watch from the kitchen window. The rabbit hops its cautious way into the yard, rises up to taste lilac stem; holds a pose as if for the camera. I am not close enough to see the bright eye, the twitching nose, the coiled tension of prey in a world of stress.
The dogs whine at the door. I turn on the outside light, rap the window, rattle the door, make noise. The rabbit runs and becomes blurred shadow in the dark. Only then do I open the door. Fenway hits the ground at full bore heading for the back fence; Thor and Riika follow, slowed by age. The scent of rabbit is heavy and fresh and all three dogs pick it up. Riika and Thor born and bred to hunt; they know no other way. Fenway, lord knows where a Boston terrier gets the hunt craziness but he has it deep and true.
The dogs course the back fence line, noses full of rabbit scent. But the rabbit, on this night, has found the gap in the fence that is big enough to squeeze through. The dogs follow the scent to the breach in the fence and stand, focused as tight as lasers in the night air.
The air holds scent. Then the breeze comes up and the tantalizing scent of cottontail rabbit rises into the cold air and is gone like a spirit. The dogs come to the door.
In a neighbor’s yard the rabbit rests uneasy. But safe.
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