Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Coyote Mystery

My dogs and I have had some strange adventures lately. Every night, wind, rain, or snow, since November of last year, my three dogs and I have enjoyed the peace and solitude of our walks on the desert sandy hills west of town. We would arrive anywhere from early afternoon to dusk, sometimes watching the sunset together, or the black-tailed jacks race through the sage brush. Sometimes my husband would join us, but most of the time we would go alone. Chewy the chihuahua would chase after the chocolate labs for a bit then jump back into the truck, never traveling more than twenty feet ahead of me. Holly liked to explore a bit further, but her brother, Buddy, usually stayed nearby.

About two weeks ago, early in the afternoon, we were driving down a paved road near town when we noticed two coyotes standing in the middle of the street. They turned and looked at me. It was an odd moment. I felt as if they were staring into my eyes. I raised my camera to take a picture through the windshield--I didn't feel comfortable leaving the truck. They looked for a few minutes longer, then ran into the brush. After they disappeared into the sage brush, I opened the door of my truck and looked into the field. They had simply disappeared, as if the sage had swallowed them up. Then, as I climbed back into the truck, I glanced out the passenger side window and noticed a third coyote, her head raised slightly above the brush, watching me.

I had a strange sense of foreboding. I wasn't sure what to think. We were so close to town, and it wasn't even dusk! My apprehension grew the next night when we drove down a dirt road and saw two coyotes crossing in front of us. They made me wait as they slowly crossed the road, watching me all the while. I drove to the end of the road, turned around and drove back to the top of the hill, quite a distance from the two. I climbed out of the truck and Chewy ran across a ditch then stopped about twenty feet ahead of me. Holly and Buddy were still beside me. Chewy seemed to be looking at something. A white truck pulled up near the end of the road and a man waved to me. I waved back, assuming he was just saying hello. I started after Chewy.

Suddenly, a coyote stepped out from the sage brush and I realized why the man was waving. He started chasing Chewy. In one swift movement I screamed to the labs to get "up" into the truck, which they did, then I screamed to Chewy to run as I ran to the ditch. Chewy reached the ditch and seemed to fly across it. The coyote reached the ditch, saw me standing with a large stick in my hand and skidded to a stop, baring its teeth. I grabbed Chewy and ran backwards a few feet and the coyote moved forward into the ditch. I turned and ran to the truck and jumped inside just as the coyote cleared the ditch. When I started the truck, it turned and left.

The next night, I decided to take the dogs for a drive. We saw two more coyotes deep in the field, but I wasn't planning on staying. I took them closer to town and stopped on a dirt road in a quiet neighborhood. I parked in front of a house and left the truck with Chewy still in my arms, planning to carry him while I walked the labs a few feet down the road. I'd seen many people walking their dogs in this neighborhood. The labs were a few feet ahead of me and Chewy was still in my arms when three coyotes stepped out of the brush. I turned and tossed Chewy back inside the truck and Buddy jumped in behind him, but the coyotes circled around Holly. I grabbed my stick and swung it at them, but they ignored me, circling her fast, leading her to the sandy hilltop. By the time I got into my truck and chased after them they had her on the motocross track. I drove over the sage straight at the coyotes and laid on my horn just as one prepared to jump on Holly's back. Holly dodged the coyote and I jumped from the truck with my stick. Holly ran between two coyotes and jumped into the truck. I was stuck on the track for an hour trying to find my way out and the coyotes sat on the hill the entire time, watching, while Holly shivered with fear beside me.

I decided to take them to the hills above the high school instead, and decided I would go much earlier in the day. The first day, my husband went with me and all was well. On the second day, we stayed for half an hour, then I put Chewy and Buddy in the truck. I turned to look for Holly and she was gone. Then I heard the most hideous screeching sound I've ever heard. I think my heart stopped. I ran to the edge of the hill and saw a coyote chasing Holly. I have no idea what happened. Was it by the truck? Did it chase her down the hill? Did she wander off? I ran for Holly, waving my walking stick, screaming for her to run faster to me as the coyote came closer and closer. She reached the truck. I turned around and the coyote had disappeared.

The next two days I took the dogs for walks in empty fields in town, then took them for drives on the sandy hilltops around town. They stayed in the truck while I got out and took pictures of the mountains and sunset. The first night, I was photographing some crows when I noticed a gray spot in the corner of the view finder. I lowered the camera. It was a coyote, standing at the bottom of the hill, staring at me, baring its teeth. The second day I went to a different hill. I shot some great scenery pics and when I downloaded them onto my computer, once again I saw a gray spot in the corner. I cropped and enlarged it. Off in the distance yet another coyote was watching me, baring its teeth.

It's been four days now and we haven't seen one coyote. My husband has a week of day shifts so he's been with us on our walks. I don't know what to think about these coyote encounters. Were they after my dogs, or me? Why do they fail to appear when I'm with my husband? Why do they appear when I'm alone? It's a mystery.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Little Rabbit

I took the dogs to the desert hilltop tonight to watch the sunset. As the sun lowered in the sky the clouds turned a bright, glowing pink. I positioned my camera so I could photograph a cholla cactus at the same time I was photographing the clouds when suddenly I heard a scream like a frightened baby. I turned to see my male chocolate lab, Buddy, with his head to the ground and I knew he had a rabbit.

By the time I reached the rabbit she was very still. The dogs were trying to get to her and I couldn't hold them all back at the same time, so I picked up the rabbit and held her against my chest. She was still alive. I could feel her heart pounding. I told her I loved her and whispered short prayers, trying to focus on making my hands warm so she could feel my warmth, knowing she was going into shock. She was the softest little creature I have ever held in my arms.

I could have been making it worse. I didn't know what to do. I led the dogs back to the truck. I knew she would not survive if I set her down, they would go after her again. I held her as gently as I could and as I carefully led the dogs back to the truck I felt her heart beat begin to slow down. Her tiny head fell limp against my chest. Her heart beat even slower. She made a faint choking sound, then her heart beat stopped. She had died in my arms.

I reached the truck and shut the dogs inside, then walked back to where I had found the rabbit to look for a hole. Mother rabbits tend to return to their babies at dusk, but if they sense a danger, they will move away from the nest to distract the predator and save the babies. I couldn't find a nest. I dug a hole in the sand with my free hand, but I couldn't bring myself to set her in it. For awhile, I could not admit to myself that she had actually died. She didn't appear to have any wounds. I pressed lightly against her chest trying to give her bunny CPR. I checked her eyes, and they did not glaze over. I placed my finger near her tiny nose, but I could not feel her take a breath.

It was dark. There was a full moon, but I knew if I stayed too much longer I would not be able to see well enough to find my way back to the truck. I had to say goodbye to her. I placed her in the hole and tried to cover her with sand, but I just couldn't do it! Her eyes were still open and I didn't want her to get sand in her eyes. If she was still alive, I wanted her to be able to see if another predator came near. I kept her head uncovered, then found some dried tall grass and draped this across her tiny head. I lifted it once more, just to make sure, but she hadn't moved. She was still warm. I scraped some of the sand off so that if she was still alive and in shock, when she calmed down she could crawl out, but in my heart, I know she was dead.

I keep replaying the scene in my mind, wondering if I could have helped her sooner. Did I hesitate? Did I respond at the first cry? Why was I taking pictures instead of watching the dogs? Should I have left her on the ground and tried to drag all three dogs back to the truck? I know that would never have worked, but this is what is going through my mind as I try to think of other things, and can't. One of God's precious little creatures has died a horrible death, a death of fear.

Fear is a horrible thing. I know. I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have lived a life of fear for many years. It is incurable, but there are some treatments available. Still, I know what it means to be the frightened rabbit.

This is not the first time I've been through this experience. We bought Buddy and his sister, Holly, from a woman who was selling chocolate and black labs out of the back of a farm truck in a grocery store parking lot in Colorado. She told us their parents were hunting dogs, but two females were pregnant at once, both had eight puppies. As we walked through the parking lot with our groceries, Holly made eye contact with me. She placed both front paws on the truck's back gate and watched me pushing my cart. We placed the groceries in the truck and went back to take a look. She walked over to Buddy, who was the largest puppy in the truck, sprawled in the center like he owned the truck bed and watching us. "I think we have been chosen," my husband said. Sure enough, as the other puppies played, Buddy and Holly walked over to us, wagging their tails.

We lived on 35 acres of prairie land and hills in Wellington, Colorado. I ran with the dogs twice a day. We had great adventures, leaping over the eight foot bull snake who liked to lounge in the sun, chasing each other, watching the sunset. One morning, my husband went with us. Suddenly, he grabbed my arm and nodded toward Holly. She was pointing with her nose straight forward, one paw bent, her tail straight out. Buddy ran up behind her and started to dig. Then we heard the scream, the baby rabbit scream.

I ran to the nest and found one of the babies in Buddy's mouth. It was already dead. Steve took the dogs back to the house and buried the dead baby rabbit while I re-covered the nest then crossed it with sticks to make sure the mother returned. That evening, I checked the nest. The sticks were moved. She had returned. We watched over the nest carefully to make certain that the dogs did not try to dig it up again. A few months later, as we stood on the back balcony, we saw them playing with each other near the hole. Soon, we had the mother and four babies romping around our backyard, and we guarded them all carefully.

My garden quickly disappeared, and when winter came, the bark on the trees and all shrubs disappeared. We tried repeatedly to grow a garden and trees on the property, but something was eating them down to the ground.

The following spring we noticed more rabbits, then more rabbits. Soon, the property was over-run with rabbits. There were jackrabbits all over the hills, but the rabbits that lived near our house were cottontails. One bold mother built her nest beneath our bedroom window. Another built it in a runoff ditch and we had to rescue the babies in the middle of a midnight storm. When we decided to sell the house and move to Texas, there were so many rabbits on the property that when we drove down the driveway in the evening after work we could see six or seven sitting beneath the wagon, a few more in the front garden, five or six in the fruit tree arbor, even more bouncing around the backyard.

In Texas, I learned to watch my dogs carefully on walks and when Holly would point, and Buddy dig, I would run to the nest and pull them back. My husband made a few wire fence cages that we kept in the garage and when the dogs located a nest, we covered it with the cage. The mothers always returned for the babies and we only lost one other rabbit the entire time we lived in Texas.

I do not regret saving that first nest of rabbits in Colorado, even though they nearly ate the house. They were all blessed gifts from God, precious little creatures, soft and warm, gentle, loving. I wish they were not prey animals. I wish they had the boldness, the fierceness to protect and defend themselves as I often wish the same for me, but I also know that it is the soft and gentle creations of God that bring balance to this earth. My heart is broken, still, for that sweet little bunny that I covered with sand on the desert hilltop, but I know that now she is lying in the arms of God, her soft body pressed against His robes where she is safe and warm and no longer afraid.