Shubert was an adorable, gray, lop-eared bunny, who would occasionally let you hold him. Because his back legs did a full 360-degree rotation at a high rate of speed, for months after taking custody of him, I had slash marks from my wrists to my armpits.
When he outgrew his wire cage with the wood shavings, my parents commissioned my engineer grandfather to design and construct an outdoor hutch. It was a sturdy affair. The primary enclosure was a solid wooden box I painted the same color as our house, with a large, hinged top that latched with an eye hook. A small doorway lead from the box into a much larger run, entirely covered in small-gauge wire mesh, with openings *just* large enough to let droppings pass through. The entire thing was elevated about two feet from the ground on thick legs.
Once in his manse, Schubert was forlorn. I lobbied hard and he was soon joined by Midnight, who was smaller, skittish and all black. At the time, for whatever reason, we thought they were both male. Of course, Midnight soon birthed seven tiny rabbits in various shades of gray and black. Some, irresistibly, with one ear up and one ear down. I carried those babies in my pockets, hand feeding them sliced discs of carrots. I set up a run in the backyard with portable fencing, so they could dine on fresh spring grass. And I interviewed families to find them good homes. While I was doing all of this, my parents were frantically searching for a vet who would neuter a bunny.
Amazingly, they found one.
Soon Schubie was returned to the hutch, the babies were weaned, and we were left with our original couple.
Every morning I would bring them fresh water and food. In the winter, I had to heat a kettle to melt the ice in their dish. That was what I’d had to do the last morning I went to feed them. Rushing to get my chores done before school, I didn’t let the water fully boil before taking it off the stove and trudging into the backyard. At first, nothing seemed amiss. I was about a foot from the hutch when I finally saw him, spread along the ground with his internal organs clearly visible. Little crystals of frost were just beginning to form on the red jelly that oozed onto the grass. I don’t think I stepped on any bits of him, but it’s possible I did. The underside of the hutch had been torn away, wire twisted in every direction.
I don’t know why I yelled, “Middie!” She was gone, just a tiny puff of black fur with a little white down was visible near the edge of the woods. Evidence, I hoped, that she had outrun her attackers, whoever they might have been.
Steam was still rising from the teapot in my hand as I turned and walked back to the house. Slowly, quietly. I did not run, and I did not cry. Upon entering the kitchen, I just kept repeating stoically, “I don’t know what happened, I don’t know what I saw. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what I saw.” When he couldn’t get any explanation out of me, my Dad feared the worst ran to see the carnage for himself.
The damaged hutch was temporarily moved to a part of the woods where it was shielded from view until it discreetly and permanently disappeared from our yard. I went door to door later that week to see if any of my neighbors had seen or heard anything suspicious that night. No one had, although everyone was quite sympathetic and vowed to be more vigilant with their own small pets.
Shortly thereafter, a local television broadcast aired a public interest segment about “dobbit” sightings, reporting that a previously-unknown animal had been spotted in the region. According to eyewitness descriptions, and the resulting charcoal rendering by a sketch artist, this creature had the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit.
Were they carnivores? Herbivores? Did they have steely claws that could shred chicken wire? Did they eat rabbits? And how could there be an unidentified species? I could accept there may be undiscovered beasts in the Amazon or Antarctica, but … Connecticut? The uncertainty of the dobbit unraveled me.
I checked the newspaper every day to see if there had been any new sightings. I became vigilant of roadkill, wanting to ascertain whether the decaying furry piles were skunk or dobbit.
“It’s someone playing a prank,” my mom insisted of the whole story.
“Or it was just a dog with big ears,” my dad suggested.
“And the person that saw it had bad eyesight,” my mom piled on.
But I would not be easily talked out of my concerns. If the news producers in Hartford were reporting a new animal then there was a new animal.
A few weeks after the story first aired, I was invited to sleepover in the screened porch at a friend’s house. Christine and I had both moved to town the very same week in fourth grade, which made us simultaneous outsiders in our small elementary school. She was tall with long legs, a jubilant sense of humor and blue eyes, bright as marbles. Her family had driven down from Alaska in an enormous red van when her father’s military post had been re-assigned.
After our very first play date, having bid goodbye just minutes earlier, the doorbell rang. My mom cocked her head to the side and returned to the front porch.
“I just wanted to let you know that I bumped your mailbox,” Christine’s mother announced cheerfully, to her daughter’s obvious mortification. “Suddenly, it was just right there at my bumper. I got out and gave the post a good shake – still seems solid. So, I think it’s okay,” she assured us.
Soon we were carpooling to softball and sharing Blizzards at Dairy Queen.
Christine knew about the dobbit, but wasn’t worried. Polar bears had strolled outside her bedroom in Kodiak. She was tough.
Lying in a sleeping bag on her enclosed patio, I listened to the movement of leaves in the trees, the wind rattling the panes of the oversized screens, the faraway sound of cars. When some dogs bayed nearby, I sat up. Could those be dobbits? I shook Christine awake.
After listening for a moment, she said, “Nah, those are coyotes,” and rolled over.
I crawled over and latched the storm door.
After that, when my mother prepared the cats’ food dish, setting it on the kitchen counter, I had to leave the room. I would get anxious to see a fox dart into the woods behind our house. Then I refused to touch the garbage cans, convinced raccoons scaled them trying to scavenge our leftovers. That summer at the beach, I began noticing the little footprints of the skunks cleaning up Dorito crumbs and errant grapes. In the winter, I studied the crisscross of tracks in the snow as we drove by the golf course or little league fields. I observed with concern the shrubs nibbled by deer.
Nature, even the seemingly tame kind, now required very close monitoring.