The Bunny in Back

It’s been a long, cold winter. On too many nights in January, the temperature dropped down to nearly minus-30 Celsius, much colder than that with the windchill.

Because our deck is a source of food, I sometimes see a bunny crouching motionless – ears back, whiskers twitching.

There are seeds out there for the birds and the excess is usually gobbled up by a passle of squirrels. (Just try keeping squirrels away from a food supply. I dare you.) When the birds are roosting and the squirrels are curled up somewhere and our two big dogs are inside, the bunny climbs the steps to nibble at the seeds.

People say the rabbit might be someone’s pet who was abandoned or ran away. One person tells me that if it was wild, it should be white. Someone else points out that this isn’t the Arctic, cold as it is – wild rabbits can be a shade of brownish-gray even in winter.

Mention the bunny once and the advice comes pouring in: Make it a bed. Take it to a shelter. Put out a blanket. Always check to see if it’s out there before you release the dogs. Feed it. Don’t feed it.

I grew up on a magically disappearing farm. Our farm vanished as my father’s dedication to training horses left the farm untended, and it was sold off a piece at a time. Still, it was a farm and animals were animals. We had horses, cattle, chickens and pigs (one of them a six-hundred-pound boar that slashed my forehead open with a tusk when I was eighteen months old).

Animals were very much part of our lives. I would wake in the night and tiptoe to the kitchen for a glass of milk and find a sick colt or calf lying on a blanket. If we rose early enough, there would be deer in the field, morning fog curling around their quick legs until at the least sign that we were stirring they would be off, bounding over the fence and into the woods down by the North Platte River.

Caring for the animals was an around-the-clock job, from milking cows with frozen fingers to chopping the ice out of their water tank with an axe. I once spent a frigid Christmas Eve with my father and a veterinarian, trying to help a cow give birth until, sometime around midnight, they finally they wrapped a cloth around the calf’s legs, tied a rope around the cloth, wound the rope around the loader on the front of a tractor and guided me with hand signals as I backed the tractor, an inch at a time, until the calf was free. Cow and calf survived despite my shaky legs and uncertain grip on the frozen pedals of the tractor.

On a farm, the relationship with animals is different than it is in the suburbs or the city. They furnish meat and milk. They help with tasks like riding fence or herding sheep. We weren’t cruel or indifferent to our animals, we simply had different rules. Dogs slept outside at night. I was taught to castrate pigs and calves with a pocketknife. And on my grandfather’s farm, wild bunnies were shot for meat.

My grandfather, the only one I knew, was my mother’s stepfather – a big-shouldered, soft-spoken, gentle Swede. We called him Grandpa Jim, and I spent a lot of time with him when I was a kid, riding around in his pickup, reading his old National Geographics, enduring endless services at his Lutheran country church where they started praying in the New Year at six o’clock on New Year’s Eve and kept it up until past midnight.

By the time I was ten or eleven years old, I was a good shot with a .22 rifle. Far better than Jim himself. Anytime he spotted a rabbit, he hollered for me to shoot it – but while I was hell on tin cans and once split a string tied to a fence with a shot from fifty feet away, I couldn’t hit a rabbit on a bet. Sometimes they would squat, unmoving, while I fired five or six shots from that single-shot rifle and missed all of them.

Once in the badlands we spotted a big jackrabbit out in the flats. We were on a low bluff above it. Jim motioned me to get down and shoot it from the prone position, because it was a good two hundred feet away and I needed to be steady to hit it firing downhill.

I got off two shots and saw the dust kick up where the bullets ricocheted far from the target – then the jackrabbit was off, bounding out of sight before I could reload. Jim cursed. I was crestfallen, mostly because I kept letting him down.

My luck changed not long after that. I was in the woods where I regularly patrolled with my best friend Sonny, a few years before he was sent off for a different sort of patrol in Vietnam.

On this day, Sonny was somewhere else when I spotted the rabbit a dozen feet away, shouldered the rifle and shot it almost as a reflex action. Perhaps that was why I didn’t miss – there was no time to think.

The rabbit fell, but it didn’t die. I shot it again, and again, and again. Trying to put it out of its misery. The damned thing still wouldn’t die. Finally I stood over it, tears pouring down my cheeks, and finished it off and then dropped to my knees, crying, feeling as miserable as I ever have. I managed to dig a shallow grave for the rabbit with the butt of the rifle and buried it under dirt and leaves and walked home, making a solemn vow never to shoot at another living thing.

A vow I have kept to this day, apart from encounters with a few dozen rattlesnakes and a couple of skunks on the badlands ranch where I was employed as a ranch-hand. The dogs always went after the skunks, the rancher always expected me to pull them off, and I was the one who was hit with that noxious yellow spray from head to toe. In case you’re wondering, it’s a good deal worse than tear gas.

Many years later, I had a fracas with a raccoon who had been ripping up garbage on the deck. I was feeling at a disadvantage going up against that fearless animal, dressed only in boxer shorts and wielding a broom, which he immediately tore out of my out of my hands. I finally managed to knock him off the deck railing by hurling one of my size-15 sneakers, but he got even by ripping up every ball in the yard.

(The moral of this story? Don’t mess with raccoons, especially when you have no protection should he decide to attack where, uh, you’re most vulnerable.)

There are many things that form you in life. Your parents, your teachers, friends and lovers and accidents and sheer luck, good and bad. Would I have become a staunchly anti-war pacifist if I hadn’t shot that rabbit and felt so horrible about it afterward? Would I have had the guts, ten years later, to walk away from the Vietnam War and head to Canada?

I can’t answer that, except to say that killing that rabbit changed me as much as anything that ever happened. After that, I didn’t want to kill anything, except maybe mosquitos. Now, living in a place where we are constantly elbowing other creatures out of the way, I try to offer a little help where I can.

For years we’ve had a groundhog who gives birth to a litter in a burrow under our front steps, with our blessing. (A friend yesterday dropped a line asking why they have to disturb that poor groundhog from its hibernation on Groundhog Day, a sentiment with which I wholly concur.)

Our groundhog sometimes digs up part of the lawn, but oddly, she leaves the garden alone. Perhaps she has a pact with us: let me give birth to your babies under your steps, and I won’t dine on your radicchio.

The squirrels and birds inevitably take more than half the fruit from our unproductive handful of fruit trees, but so be it. Live and let live. For the most part, they show no interest in the one tree that really does produce – the crabapple tree that sheds at least a thousand sour little crabapples every year.

Or perhaps they’re just smart. In winter, they feed on the withered, frozen fruit still clinging to the tree. Our front sidewalk is littered with the remnants of frozen crabapples. The culprit is a robin, who pecks them off the tree and flies down to the sidewalk, where it impales the apple on its beak, hammers it on the concrete until it falls apart, and then pecks at it.

When the snow gets deeper and it’s hard to get to the feeder, I shovel off enough of the deck to spread seeds around, because juncos like to feed on the ground and it cheers my heart to see a squadron of juncos feeding with a fat blue jay early in the morning, or a female cardinal pecking away inches from the back door.

They are all part of a world too seldom seen, a world now vanishing day by day as humans encroach everywhere, on every living thing. I can’t reverse all that, but I can tolerate the groundhogs and the squirrels and feed the birds and the bunny in the back, because feel my heart swell with delight when I spot it out there, shivering in the moonlight and nibbling sunflower seeds off the deck.

I like to imagine that perhaps he’s the soul of the rabbit I shot all those years ago, the one that altered my path so that I ended up in a different country, in a cold winter, putting out food for a rabbit who will eat the lettuce and seeds and turn up its nose at the carrots.

He’s the bunny in back, the one who lives in a burrow under an old compost box near the back fence. He’s the point where our bruised modern world encounters the one I knew decades ago, when the Soviets were bad and Americans were good and our parents knew everything there was to know and we were so much more certain about pretty much everything.

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