Miley finally caught something.
On our evening jaunt last night, Miley dived into a clump of tall grass about twenty feet from the barn. Her blond plume tail waved from side to side, while her eyes focused with the determination of a seasoned huntress.
Then I heard the shrieks of pure terror. Miley had caught something!
When she finally emerged from the grass, I could tell that she was holding a small rabbit.
Eastern cottontails, unlike the European rabbits which they closely resemble, give birth in scrapes on the ground. Usually, the does find thick stands of grass or brush heaps to place their natal scrapes. They care for their young for about a month, at which time the doe gives birth again. (Rabbits have post-partum estrus, which means that during the breeding season, a doe is constantly pregnant and nursing). Those little month-old rabbits are quite tiny, and because they have no burrow in which to hide, they are very vulnerable to predation.
Miley had caught one of these little month-old rabbits. It was no bigger than my hand, and I thought that she had killed it. She trotted down the trail with her catch in her mouth. You could tell that she was very proud of her catch, for he steps were a little higher than normal. Her head was carried high, and her long tail slowly waved from side to side. She looked like a proper hunting golden, if only she had been carrying a pheasant, duck, or even a large rabbit or hare. This miniscule rabbit was hardly classical retriever prey.
It is nearly a half mile from the barn to the house, but when we arrived, I saw Miley deposit the bunny on the ground. Then I saw it leap away. Miley stopped it with her paw and picked it up again. The rabbit was not dead!
She did this three times before I felt mercy for the little rabbit. It would have been one thing had she killed the rabbit quickly, but now she was torturing it. I think she thought the rabbit was some unusual toy– one that you drop on the ground and it runs off for you to catch. I couldn’t stand to watch it die such a terrible death, so I took the rabbit from her.
I examined the little bunny. He was covered in saliva (“retriever slime”), but he didn’t have a scratch on him. Then I remembered something. Golden retrievers have a very soft mouth. It has been selectively bred for many generations in that breed, and in retriever circles, the golden’s soft mouth is quite celebrated. My first golden’s favorite parlor trick was to retrieve eggs without breaking them, yet this dog also knew how to use her teeth to dispatch rabbits.
But then I also remembered that my first dog had to learn how to kill rabbits. She learned from my grandfather’s half gray-half black Norwegian elkhound, who would never have picked up a month-old rabbit without trying to eat it.
So this little bunny was quite lucky to have been caught by a dog that came from a long line of soft-mouth animals.
As I held him, I noticed that his little heart was racing. After all, he’d just journeyed half a mile in the jaws of a dog. I have had experience rehabilitating cottontails of this size, so I knew the best thing was put him in a shoe box and let him calm down. If I stressed him too much more, he would go into shock. So I put him in a shoe box and waited about a half hour, then I corralled Miley and carried the rabbit in the box back to the tall grass where he’d been captured.
I then released him. He charged deeper in the base of the grass. It was his lucky break. He probably wouldn’t have that fate the next time a predator captured him in the grass. I knew that the next predator could be a cat, a fox, a coyote, or even a raccoon or opossum, and these predators don’t have soft golden retriever mouths.
But I gave the lucky little bunny one more chance, and that’s all I could do.
Of course, Miley wasn’t too happy that I’d taken away that wonderful new toy.
Miley tells me that this is her first step on her way to becoming like Old Yeller, her hero: