Archive for Sunday, February 2, 2003

Animals with names are hard to eat

February 2, 2003


My dogs see themselves as mighty hunters and often I catch them striking heroic poses, the canine version of bodybuilders flexing their muscles on a beach.

They can be athletic performers when on the scent of a field mouse, and our hillside is disfigured with craters they've dug in search of that noble quarry. I admit they're successful. It's not unusual for one of them proudly to deposit a mangled mouse like a scrap of wet black rag at our feet, tail wagging, expecting praise.

Rabbits are a different story. Many times I've watched a rabbit lose them with a couple of hip fakes or seen them come to a puzzled halt before a brush pile while the object of their pursuit hops merrily out the other side.

Every morning when I take them down to fetch the newspaper, one particular bunny appears and takes up his position on the gravel drive, offering himself to the chase. His first encounter with my dogs was probably terrifying, but he soon learned he has nothing to fear from them. Now he views them as agents of amusement. He sits there with his whiskers twitching and his ears erect, waiting patiently for them to get close enough to give them a sporting chance.

The instant my dogs spot him, they're off with a fanfare of bedlam barking. The bunny feigns panic. He zigs, he zags. The dogs close in. Just when their jaws are about an inch from his tail, he executes a 360 and into the shed he darts. The hounds follow and what a commotion they raise trying to follow his scent. Down come the fishing poles with a clatter. Over goes the minnow bucket with a bang. Round and round they go in crazy ellipses, thundering over a sheet of metal roofing and the camper shell.

After a while, the madness subsides. They emerge from the shed, frustrated and confused. Where did that "dwatted wabbit" go? Oscar, a springer spaniel, heads for the barnyard, his nose to the ground. Max, a German short-haired pointer, looks up in the tree where chased cats flee. Phoebe, the tubby one, heads for the bird feeder in hopes of finding some bread crumbs and sunflower seeds spilled on the ground.

Meanwhile, from some safe vantage point in the tall weeds, the rabbit watches. He chuckles and nibbles a blade of grass. Once more he's given his tormenters the slip, like Osama bin Laden in the labyrinthine caves of Tora Bora.

Anyone who's lived in the country knows that it's a mistake to bestow names on animals, domestic or wild, especially if you intend to eat them. A name creates a personal connection. I have a wonderful recipe for "Blanquette de Lapin au Confit de Poires et Gingembre" -- rabbit stew with preserved pears with ginger. But the minute I'm tempted by the thought of incorporating this clever fugitive into that dish, I'm overcome by a sense of guilt, accompanied by a sudden loss of appetite. I know Bin Rabbit personally. We're on a first name basis...

The coyotes, bobcats, hawks and owls that flourish in our neighborhood have no such qualms. Nature red in tooth and claw suits them just fine. A day hardly passes when I don't come across some tufts of bunny fur covered with blood or a few bird feathers and some bones, all that's left of a ravenous predator's meal.

Some animal rights people find this abhorrent. In his book, "Dominion," Matthew Scully calls predation, "the intrinsic evil in nature's design ... among the hardest of all things to fathom."

"A deep puritan streak pervades animal rights activists," wrote Michael Pollan in response. "An abiding discomfort not only with our animality but with the animals' animality too."

To judge nature according to our own prejudices and pieties and call it "evil" is an egregious example of anthropocentric hubris. We insist that our way of seeing things has to be the only way. "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together," says the Bible. "The lion shall eat straw like the ox." Where will this line of thinking lead? Must we provide the lions, tigers, sharks, falcons some kind of Purina chow to make them abide by our morality?

We should be humble before the dictates of Nature, of which we are a part. The problem is that most people today have little contact with the natural world other than television shows and pets. We forget that predators and prey are interdependent. The wolf protects the deer herd from overpopulation.

Still, how can we ever know for sure that "the ripped mouse, safe in the owl's talon, cries Concordance," as Richard Wilbur wrote? And what human impulse prevents me from harvesting Bin Bunny when I wouldn't hesitate to shoot an anonymous rabbit flushed up in the field?

Part of the answer lies in a Salish totem pole we bought some years ago. It was carved out of a cedar log in the form of an owl and came shipped in a box like a coffin. The moment I opened it, I felt the owl's enormous, penetrating eyes locked on my own with ominous judgment. Before his arrival I was not a superstitious person, but the owl intimidates me like the raven that haunted Edgar Allen Poe.

I've made a pact with him that would make some of my country neighbors laugh. I won't kill any animal that I'm not willing to eat if he won't cast some spell on me. This includes the scoundrels that prey upon my quail, including feral cats, regardless of the bumper sticker that says, "I like cats, they taste like fried chicken."

I have yet to find a rational explanation for my reluctance to harvest the rabbit that torments my dogs. But I remember that my in-laws once bought a 4-H steer out of a sense of civic duty. They filled their freezer and were looking forward to many a fine beef steak and roast. But the scheme was spoiled when they received a note from the boy who raised their beef. "Thank you for buying my steer," it said. "His name was Chip."

By George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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