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Stop, thieving rabbits!

Maybe Peter Rabbit's Mr. McGregor wasn't so bad. He just wanted to protect his garden.

By Pamela Underhill Altendorf / May 1, 2008



'Now, my dears,' said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, 'you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden; your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.'
– Beatrix Potter

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Beatrix Potter wrote the tale of Peter Rabbit more than 100 years ago, and it has taken me just over 60 years to come to the conclusion that Mr. McGregor has been much maligned.

When I was a child, my first impression of Mr. McGregor was that he was an angry old man who was not kind to animals, a viewpoint that lodged in my memory – until recently.

Not long ago, I picked up a copy of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" at a book sale. Every time I turned the page of this 1988 edition, I marveled at the artist's rendering of the adorable bunnies.

When I reached the first drawing of McGregor, however, I was awe-struck. This was not the Mr. McGregor of my childhood! My childhood Mr. McGregor was a very old man.

Perhaps it was because it had been almost 50 years since I'd last read the story, but this Mr. McGregor had actually become a little attractive to me.

He wore what appeared to be mirrored sunglasses and a hat that looked as though it had been purchased at a store selling clothing for the casual country gardener.

Was it possible that I had been wrong about him all these years? I picked up the book, read every word, and concluded that Mr. McGregor just wanted a garden to feed his family.

I, too, wanted a garden to feed my body and soul. I live in Wisconsin. During the cold winter months, I spend countless hours carefully planning my garden and browsing through plant and seed catalogs in hopes of an early spring.

I think I'm a fairly nice person. I enjoy the process and ritual of working in the garden. I am willing to share; I know animals have to eat, too.

Basically, I just want a salad. Have I asked too much? I believe in proper nutrition, and I thought my method of pesticide-free gardening would give me the added motivation I needed to eat properly and help save the Earth.

Instead, the fruits of my labor have been rendered beyond recognition because of the rabbits. Green beans, lettuce, and carrot tops have been sculpted down to nubs by the cunning cultivators, who often leave only a leaf or two dangling from the stem as if to announce that they will be back for dessert.

Like mean old Mr. McGregor, I have begun to run after the rabbits, yelling, "Stop, thief!"

I doubt that Beatrix Potter could ever have foreseen the emergence of the billion-dollar garden industry we have today. The variation of plants, the number of hybrids, and the expansion of nurseries and garden centers have been followed by an outpouring of garden information in the media and the increased popularity of horticulture classes.

Yet with all the changes and all the advice, we are still plagued by Mr. McGregor's problem – rabbits!

My challenge eventually took me to the Internet. Maybe it was just my frustration with reading the same ideas over and over, but I began to feel a pull toward the cooking sites, and it was all I could do to stop my fingers from clicking on a search engine and typing in the words: "Mrs. McGregor's rabbit pie recipe."

This year, I walked out to my garden armed with rabbit-repelling knowledge and suggestions, an assortment of tools, packets of marigold seeds, a bag of dried blood, and fencing materials. I must have startled the furry creatures who were in the yard because they took off running.

As I began my work, however, I got the feeling I was not alone, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.

I could have sworn that one of the rabbits was smirking.