WHEN Jimmy Carter was president, he reported an incredible tale of being attacked by a rabbit. As I recall the press accounts, he and his party were boating on a small lake when they observed a rabbit swimming after them. The belligerent animal had to be beaten away with the oars. Although there were several witnesses to this incident, it was the subject of some skepticism and even derision. Having spent my formative years on a farm and a good part of my adult life out-of-doors, I have seen thousands of rabbits in all sorts of circumstances. But I have never witnessed anything similar to Jimmy Carter's encounter nor have I ever heard of a similar incident. However, I haven't the slightest doubt that this event took place because I have seen rabbits perform completely strange and unaccountable acts.
In our normally well-ordered world we tend to stereotype the behavior of all the familiar creatures. Timid as a mouse, curious as a cat, faithful as a dog, and so forth. We expect each species to fulfill our idea of its normal conduct. But abnormal behavior may be as common among animals as it is with our own species. While we know that all creatures tend to fall into general behavior patterns, we must accept that each of them may do something entirely unpredictable.
One of my most vivid memories is being awakened by my mother in the middle of a bitterly cold winter night. She took me to the window where we gazed out upon a full moon glistening on a blanket of deep powdery snow. In that brilliant light a congregation of rabbits had gathered. How so many assembled, I have no idea, for we regularly hunted them and had a dog and several cats that kept their numbers down. It was as though a call went out to gather here for a rabbit winter carnival.
They were animated to a degree I have never seen before or since - leaping, tumbling, and rolling in spumes of flying snow.
As we watched in amazement at this animated winter wonderland, we began to see game-like patterns in the rabbits' frolicking. One would frantically chase another in zigzag fashion while the others watched. Upon reaching a line of rabbits, the pursued one would stop and another take its place. In turn each of the rabbits took part in this game of pursuit, replacing the previous performers as though they had numbers on their backs.
The most spectacular game was their version of chicken, in which one rabbit would run full speed at a line of sitting rabbits, which would each leap high into the air as the runner passed underneath. This seemed to be their most popular sport, and they appeared to improvise variations. What stands out in my memory is that when one rabbit performed a specific stunt, the others followed suit. I have never witnessed animal behavior that more closely resembled an organized game.
WE stared through our frosty windowpanes for what seemed like a long time, but the performance never slowed.
The rabbits rolled and tumbled, leaped and vaulted, charged each other and veered away. The scene reminded me of a ceremonial dance in which each participant attempts a feat no one else can duplicate.
I have often wondered if anyone has ever seen wild rabbits displaying similar game behavior. Otherwise I suppose I'll arouse a few skeptics. But so did Jimmy Carter.