Sunday, July 21, 2019

Rabbit vs. squirrel

     Do-overs are rare in photography. If the Hindenburg explodes while you're still loading film into your Speed-Graphic, well, tough. It's not like you can show up at Lakehurst the next day and hope for a second chance.
      So a couple weeks ago, when I missed out on taking documentary evidence of the rabbit vs. squirrel struggle over seeds scattered beneath the bird feeder outside my kitchen window—amazement rendered me inert—I never dreamt a second chance would occur. 
     But occur it did, Saturday, with my younger son announcing that they were back at it, and I sprinted to the window in time to photograph some of the action. Had I been thinking I'd have switched to video, to capture the distinctive hopping behavior of the bunny. But I'm satisfied that I got something. 
     There may be scientific literature on combat between rabbits and squirrels, but I'll be damned if I can find it. I did run across a charming 2008 children's tale, "Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War & Peas" by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Scott Magoon, where the two, both gardeners, come to blows over a dispute involving missing vegetables: 
     "You've ruined my garden, and my house!" cried Rabbit, giving Squirrel a push. "You are my sworn enemy!"
     "Well, you've ruined my garden, so you deserved it," said Squirrel, giving Rabbit a push. "You are my sworn enemy."
From "Rabbit & Squirrel" illustration courtesy of Scott Magoon
     The only other rabbit/squirrel conflict I could find is alluded to in Watership Down, Richard Adams' improbable best-selling 1972 leporine epic. The despotic General Woundwart "fought rats, magpies, gray squirrels and, once, a crow" before finally flinging himself at a dog, with the expected result. 
    Otherwise, rabbits and squirrel are mostly on their own, with rabbits by far better represented in popular culture: rabbit ear TV antennas, the Playboy Bunny, a popular vibrator. The once-common euphemism for pregnancy, "The rabbit died," referred to the Friedman test, where a woman's blood was injected into a rabbit, with certain changes in the rabbits' ovaries revealing if she were pregnant. Though rabbit didn't die, it was killed, to check its ovaries to see if the structural changes were present that would be caused by hormones in a pregnant woman's blood. So, pregnant or not, the rabbit ended up dead. A common occurrence—rabbits are one of the most hunted mammals in North America, and some species are considered endangered. 
      Literature clearly favors rabbits—Flopsy, Peter Rabbit, Pat the Bunny, to name a few. Watership Down isn't even the only rabbit-o-centric best-selling novel—John Updike did a series of five Rabbit books (thought that was just the nickname of his main character, Harry Angstrom, given in childhood for "a nervous flutter under his brief nose.") 
     Rabbits also have a significant presence in TV and movies—with Captain Kangaroo's Bun E. Rabbit on the small screen,  to cinema's Harvey, Roger Rabbit, and the killer rabbit in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."  
     Not to forget the top bunny of them all, star of both TV and the movies, Bugs (whose character, some readers might not realize, was a loose take-off on Groucho Marx).  
Laqan kachina
     Squirrels are are far more marginal. No culture has a Christmas Squirrel. Although, the Hopi Pueblo do have a squirrel kachina spirit, Laqan, who, almost needless to say, is known for its "noisy and aggressive behavior" and would "frequently spread gossip, instigate trouble between other animals, or annoy others with their rudeness and bossiness."
     Sounds about right.

     Though to be fair, Native-Americans also honored squirrels as caretakers of the forest, and viewed them as messengers. And despite squirrels twitchy, aggressive, rat-like demeanor,  rabbits seem to carry more disease, including rabbit fever, and in general are greater pests, particularly in Australia.
     I've already gone on record with my hatred of squirrels, and am not surprised that the odious animals are relegated largely to second-tier cartoons: Scrat, the voracious squirrel who I suppose could be considered the star in "Ice Age," Rocky, the Flying Squirrel, from the early 1960s Cold War parody cartoon "Rocky and Bullwinkle," certainly has the intellectual advantage over his dim-witted companion. Not to forget Hammy, voiced by Steve Carrel, in "Over the Hedge," a modest 2006 effect. 
      Sick of this yet? I know I am. It's like Vietnam; I've gone in full of good intentions and now can't find my way out. 
     Patience, we're almost there. But I can't let the subject drop ("Please, do, Neil," you're no doubt thinking. "There's always tomorrow.") without mentioning "The Great Rupert," a truly strange bit of black and white B-movie treacle starring Jimmy Durante. The film that hinges on a talented squirrel who befriends a family of down-and-out vaudevillians. Watch this clip of Rupert doing a Scottish jig. Really, take a look. And we think we live in strange times now.
    Ready to cry "uncle"? But wait. Aren't you curious to know how "The Great Rupert" was received at the time? Movie-goers might have been less sophisticated in 1950, but they weren't dolts, right? 
     Or maybe they were.
     "The Great Rupert," now at the Palace, may not be the year's most humorous film..." begins Bosley Crowther's review in the April 14, 1950 New York Times. "...nor is it the last word in slickness, so far as script and production are concerned. But within its acknowledged limitations of the modest, low-budget comedy, it is a wholly ingratiating item."
     Not having viewed the entire movie, nor willing to do so, I'm in no position to argue. The worst thing Crowther calls the "The Great Rupert" is "a little stiff and vaguely amateurish." Which, now that I think of it, is exactly how I'm feeling at the moment. Maybe I—and you—will have better luck tomorrow.


  1. Well, that is a pretty cool action shot with the rabbit in midair, while the Great Rupert was...not so much. And I did really enjoy the Rabbit Angstrom books years ago. Interesting column. Get well Neil.

  2. A squirrel is just a rat with better PR. They are destructive to homes and cars and people. Take the advice of a California insurance agent about deer and include squirrels also. He said if you encounter a deer while driving, do not swerve to avoid it. You risk running off the road into a tree or an innocent human. Of course his concern was rooted in the costs involved, but his advice is valid none the less. Rather than swerve or slow down when approaching a squirrel in the road, I speed up and aim for it. And not just because the bastards build nests in my engine compartment or climb on the window screens. There should be bounty on squirrels and Canadian geese, whose latin appellation translates to Canuck Shit Machine. Next time you see the battle of backyard rodents, better to aim a 22 than a cellphone. Just don't hit the bunny.

    1. Glad you’re not my neighbor, JP.
      The “squirrels are just rats with better PR” line is partly true, I guess, because both are rodents. (Actually, 40% of all mammals belong to the rodent family.) But squirrels generally don’t lurk in alleys or garbage; they are happy outside, living and building their nests in trees, not looking to get in trouble. They can be a nuisance at times, for sure. But then, so can we humans.

    2. Sandy, I have never owned a firearm and would not actually discharge one in a backyard. But should someone choose to please do so from an elevated position and at varmints on the grass to avoid ricochets. If you have ever walked your young nieces to Einsteins through a minefield of goose crap, you might now think twice about slowing down when encountering them crossing the street. People a nuisance? like the women who buys bread at Meijer to feed the geese across from me and then drives away?

    3. You just made yourself look worse, JP.

  3. Can't believe you left out

    1. He didn’t. Harvey is mentioned along with some other famous cinematic hares.


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