|THE RABBIT TEST
Copyright 1994 By Ken Dunckel
Once upon a time a fox lived in a forest. He fed himself by catching rabbits. He liked eating rabbits so much that he hunted nothing else. Because it was all he did, the fox became quite good at catching rabbits.
The other foxes in the forest liked rabbits, too, but couldn't always catch one. When a hunt failed they always had reasons: The rabbits were too fast, too wary, or just too lucky. When they couldn't catch rabbits, they settled for less tasty prey, like field mice. Mice were abundant, and easier to catch.
The rabbit specialist saw it differently. On days when rabbits weren't about, he preferred going hungry instead of whining and settling for field mice. He used the lean days to improve his rabbit-catching. He would review what he knew about rabbit behavior, improve old hunting methods, and devise new ones. He knew that the more he practiced his craft the better he would get at it, and the fewer lean days he would see.
He was convinced that a rabbit specialist needed to know more about rabbits than foxes who liked rabbits but ate whatever came their way. He accepted the fact that no matter how good a rabbit catcher he became, some days there just wouldn't be any rabbits to catch.
The other foxes talked constantly about how they liked to catch and eat rabbits. The rabbit specialist often heard them talking loudly about rabbit catching as they crashed through the underbrush, scaring every rabbit in earshot into hiding. Often the rabbits they scared would run straight to where the fox lay quietly concealed. It was one of his tricks.
It was obvious from their talk the other foxes thought the trick to rabbit catching was knowing where to find them. The foxes who believed this used rabbit maps, which they sent away for. The maps gave exact locations where rabbits could be found.
Many foxes who owned rabbit maps believed that owning the right rabbit map automatically made its owner an expert rabbit catcher. They hunted by going where their maps told them to go. Then they would sit, waiting to pounce on the first rabbit to come hopping by. Sometimes there were problems; rabbit maps were so popular that groups of rabbit-hungry foxes would collect at places marked on the rabbit maps. The rabbit specialist often wondered how such a big forest could feel so crowded.
Another complication was that map-owning foxes would often alert their friends of a rabbit hunt. It wasn't uncommon for their friends to forsake an entire day's mouse-catching to act as rabbit-hunting assistants. The rabbit specialist sometimes saw groups of foxes laden with cameras and maps, sitting in the middle of rabbit trails, wondering why rabbits weren't hopping directly into their jaws.
The perplexed foxes often were surrounded by rabbits they couldn't see. After much loud speculation and fidgeting, the rabbit hunters would usually grow impatient, agree that the maps probably weren't up to date and that there wasn't much chance of a rabbit catch that day. Then they would fold their maps and hurry off in search of mice.
The rabbit specialist had seen some of the maps. While they were enough to get a fox to a likely rabbit trail, they didn't guarantee a catch. In fact, it often happened that soon after the dust raised by the foxes with their maps had settled, the specialist would be dining on "uncatchable" rabbit. For some reason those meals always seemed to taste better.
The rabbit specialist thought the problem wasn't so much the maps as it was the map owners. It seemed to him they thought all they needed to know was where to get maps; didn't realize that maps only helped if the map reader knew something to begin with. They never put any effort into learning rabbit lore, didn't believe in silence or patience, and didn't think it necessary to know what made rabbits act as they did. That was making something complicated out of something easy.
The rabbit specialist knew the other foxes' thoughts on those matters from talking with them and watching the other foxes hunt rabbits. Sometimes they questioned the specialist about rabbit hunting. He would take time from his own hunting and try to help. He usually wound up sad or frustrated.
It seemed to the rabbit specialist that many foxes who talked constantly about wanting to catch rabbits didn't respect the craft enough to even learn rabbit-hunting terms. He could see their eyes glazing over when he tried to answer their rabbit hunting questions. They were ignorant of things they should have known before taking the first step of a rabbit hunt. The questioners usually didn't know a front paw from a hind leg, couldn't tell a cottontail from a March Hare.
There was a rabbit catcher's newspaper the other foxes could have read, but the rabbit specialist noticed that few mouse eaters made use of the information it held. When the rabbit specialist would ask one if he'd read an article in the rabbit catching news, they had excuses. Some didn't know it existed. When the specialist told them where to get it, they would say maybe someday they would. They never did.
Some foxes who did know about the rabbit catchers' paper said it cost too much. A few got it, but said it took too long to read. At first this made the rabbit specialist wonder, because the rabbit catchers' paper was devoted to exactly what the other foxes kept saying they were so interested in. Oh, but they wanted to catch rabbits, though.
It was the same when it came to rabbit catching classes. The rabbit specialist would suggest a class to foxes who wanted to learn rabbit catching. But the foxes whined that classes were always scheduled on days when field mice were most abundant. Few were willing to sacrifice a single day of easy mouse catching.
After thinking it over the specialist realized that one of the biggest problems the other foxes had was the general feeling that rabbits should be as easy to catch as mice. Anything that required extra time and effort to learn was suspect in their eyes.
To hear the mouse catching foxes tell it, the only problem with mice was unfair competition from housecats. The foxes felt cats should have been content with food their owners gave them. But cats liked catching and eating field mice, and didn't worry too much about what foxes thought.
There were more than enough mice, but the foxes thought only foxes should be allowed to catch them. Many cats were better at mouse catching than some foxes for whom mouse catching was a mainstay. That seemed odd, since house cats didn't depend on hunting. Worse yet, many offending cats did just fine without half the mouse catching gadgets most foxes owned. The foxes felt it made them look bad, as if they were making something complicated out of something simple.
The other foxes rarely left their forests. When they did, it was usually to meet with other foxes and talk about how much they liked rabbit-catching and share mouse catching tricks. They were always asking the rabbit specialist if they could watch him hunt. Although it was flattering, he preferred hunting alone. He hunted better alone. Most foxes he had taken with him thought they could learn rabbit catching in an afternoon or two.
They wanted to master the rabbit catching craft, but didn't think that being able to tell the different types of rabbits apart was interesting or important. They attached no importance to learning rabbit anatomy before hunting them.
The other foxes finally hit on a plan they hoped would get them more rabbits. They decided to give each other rabbit catching tests. Every fox who passed would get a medal that said he was a good rabbit catcher. A fox with a rabbit-catching medal could not fail to be a better rabbit catcher, said foxes who liked the idea.
It sounded good to the foxes who wanted to catch more rabbits, so they lined up for the test. Most who took it passed, went home with their medals, and waited for rabbits to fall into their jaws. A rabbit catching medal entitled its wearer to certain privileges. One was the right to hold one's tail a certain stylish way as the wearer trotted through the forest.
So many foxes earned rabbit catching medals that it got like a club. Some foxes with medals lamented the fact that they had paws instead of hands, because they would have liked to contrive a secret handshake.
The only problem was that nobody except other foxes with rabbit catching medals knew what the medals meant. The rabbits certainly didn't know. For them, rabbit-catching medals were a new way of telling when foxes were about, because they jingled and reflected as their wearers moved through the forest. The house cats didn't care one way or another; they just kept on catching field mice whenever they pleased.
The rabbit specialist thought the medals looked nice, but noticed that most medal wearers were den leaders. Medal wearers who were den leaders all spoke favorably of the medal program, but very few of them changed their own den policies to reward den members who earned a medal. Den members with rabbit-catching medals didn't qualify for extra mouthfuls at food-sharing time, nor did they get a better sleeping spot or a voice in den decisions. Den leaders also frowned upon foxes who complained about shortcomings in the medal program. After all, the complainers were mere den members. They had no idea what it took to run a successful den.
As they saw more and more foxes with rabbit catching medals, the rabbits became curious enough to begin asking the other forest animals questions. What were they and why were so many foxes wearing them? From his hiding place one day the rabbit specialist overheard a rabbit approach an old mouse and ask what he knew about the medals.
"Oh, don't worry about them too much," the old mouse told the rabbit. "Them foxes have a thing about medals and awards. Been doing it for a few years with mouse catching. They got tests on top of tests, a whole step-by-step program for proving to each other how much they know. Was only a matter of time before they wanted to pat themselves on the backs for how much they know about rabbit catching."
"Is it something we rabbits ought to worry about?" asked the rabbit in a concerned voice.
"No more than you did before medals." answered the mouse. "There's really only two kinds of foxes who hunt rabbits, and medals isn't how you tell `em apart. Either kind might pass a rabbit catching test, but answering questions about rabbit catching isn't the same as going out and catching rabbits."
"So how do you tell the two kinds apart?," the anxious rabbit asked.
"Well, with the first kind, if you got half a brain and any luck at all you'll hear them coming. They hunt in groups whenever they can. But whether you get jumped by a herd or just one, sometimes it's not pretty. They kill by maiming, same as cats do us mice. Only difference is, cats know better. Cats go slow on purpose to make the fun last."
The rabbit shuddered. "And the second kind?"
"Don't worry none about them," said the wise old mouse. "When your number's up with one of them, it's fast and clean. You'll never feel nothin."
"So where do medals come in?"
"A medal don't make a fox a danger, just makes him feel better about himself. A fox who never caught a rabbit can earn a medal that says he knows all about it. Foxes with medals don't take nothin away from foxes who are too busy catching rabbits to get medals for it."
"So a medal doesn't mean anything?"
"Didn't say that, did I?, came the testy reply. "Nothin that makes you feel good can be all bad. All I'm saying is things're like they always was. You don't know which fox knows what until they go rabbit hunting. But do you care if the fox who eats you is wearing a medal or not?"
The rabbit knew the mouse was only trying to reassure him, but the mouse seemed to be something of a fatalist. It was rather unsettling, but he didn't worry for long. When the fox pounced, it was another clean kill. Thinking he was dessert, the old mouse squeaked in horror then froze.
The rabbit specialist glanced up from his dinner, saying, "I've been eating nothing but rabbits for so long that even a nice fat mouse like you would give me indigestion. You can go, but I wouldn't use the north trail if I were you. Heard a gang of foxes crashing around up there. Sounded like one of those rabbit hunts that ends with a dead mouse."
The mouse gratefully turned down the south trail, leaving the fox to his meal. As he scurried away it occurred to him that he hadn't seen a hint of a medal on the fox. He would have liked to point the fact out to the rabbit, but he figured that by then the rabbit was beyond caring.