It was a morning just like any other. I had packed up the milk stuff, grabbed the egg basket, and headed out for chores with our two trusty farm dog gals Luna and Rialey in tow.
I was in the poultry house getting the goat feed together in preparation for milking when I saw Rialey streak by the screened door in hot pursuit of something. Thinking she had taken up her usual game of "let's chase the barn kitty whether he likes it or not because I think it's funny," I yell through the door, "Rialey, cut it out! Blaze does not think you are playing!" and went back to loading alfalfa pellets into the bucket by the handful.
I had just picked up the milk bag in one hand and the goat feed bucket in the other when I saw a little streak of movement come through the small chicken door behind me. Thinking the barn cat had found an escape from our crazy puppy, I was just about to apologize to Blaze for Rialey's rudeness when I realized that I was not looking at a large orange tabby. I was staring at a terrified little creature with long ears and bulging eyes. I took me a full second to comprehend that I was looking at one of our rabbits.
I stupidly looked up at all the bunnies around me in securely locked cages and thought, "Where in the heck did you come from?" before I remembered that the teenage bunnies out in the pasture tractor had just reached "that age." For some reason it's like clockwork: if we don't get the adolescent rabbits processed before they reach the 12 week mark they start digging their way to freedom.
In the time it took me to figure this all out, Rialey had popped her head into the little doorway and the rabbit jetted out under the door on the other side of the poultry house. I sighed, put down the feed bucket, put down the milking stuff, and went in search of the fishing net we keep handy for just such an occasion.
In the process of getting the net, I located two more bunnies between the poultry house and the feed shed, and I could hear Rialey in hot pursuit somewhere near the milking room of another wayward bun. I got the net and called Rialey back to me before she actually caught some poor rabbit, or at the very least gave it a heart attack. Our morning chores had just gotten a lot more interesting.
I was able to catch one of the two rabbits between the two buildings by just moving very slowly then quickly snatching it up by the scruff ninja style. When I emerged with my prize, a little white bunny who was in too much shock to move much, Rialey jumped up and poked it with her nose ("gotcha!") before sprinting over to one of the ducks' kiddy pools and plopping down in the water to cool off.
I carried the bunny back over to the tractor where I could clearly see the place where the rabbits had made their bid for freedom. After I put the rabbit down, I was able to move the enclosure so that it was secure at least for the time being, then it was back to the hunt!
Rialey bounced up out of the pool, shook herself off, and dropped her nose to the ground trying to find fresh rabbit tracks. I followed her and Luna and found a bunny heading into the garden area. I ran around the side of the garden and ducked through an area of broken fence as fast as I could while brandishing my net. The herding dogs did their best to herd the bunny in my general direction, but despite all our efforts I missed netting the little sucker by just inches! He wriggled his way through the fence and around the corner of the goat shed. By the time I finished swearing, recovered my composure, and crawled back through the fence, the bunny and both dogs were no where in sight.
I trudged back toward the poultry house where I saw Rialey and Luna playing a merry game of ring around the feed shed. Ah ha! The bunny had returned to the narrow alley between the two buildings. I tried getting on one side of the alley and sending the dogs around the shed to the other end to try and spook the rabbit my way, but the goofballs just kept running by. After two or three tries, I blocked my entrance with a handy bit of sheet metal and ran around the other side. Once there, I showed both dogs the opening to the alley and told them to stay there! Then I ran back around the other side, set up my net in the opening, and called the dogs to walk up on the bunny. This was enough to spook the rabbit right into my net, and I caught prodigal bunny number two. Whew!
Walking back, I caught sight of another loose bunny, but my heart sank when I realized it was on the other side of the neighbor's fence. I was sure the minute I got near that rabbit would run for the hill, but amazingly I was able to walk up, very slowly crouch down, put my hand through the fence and grab that bunny without it even moving. Maybe it was tired out from watching me and the dogs run around like headless chickens in the heat all morning.
After that, we couldn't seem to find any more bunnies on the lamb, so I headed back into the poultry house to grab up the milk stuff again and get to feeding the ever more impatient group of lady goats waiting for their breakfast. Rialey had followed me into the poultry house and instead of plopping down in the cool shade like normal, she started sniffing and circling the old rack brooder that takes up the center of the building. When I heard her little, "something isn't right here" whimper, I knew our rabbit hunt wasn't over.
I moved the goat chow bin to one side, squatted down in the dirt, and peered under that old brooder and there looking back at me were two more sets of bulging bunny eyes. Sigh.
Since they were already in an enclosed area, and I had no interest in getting into a foot race with a couple of hares, I set to work securing the poultry house so that those bunnies had nowhere to go but into my net. I blocked up the small chicken door and laid an old cat litter on its side to block the space under the opposite door.
Using my now perfected technique, I crept back over to the brooder. I slowly crouched down again, reached out my arm, made a fast grab at the closest little black body, and missed! Crap! The little guy made a mad dash out from under the brooder and between the legs of a rather startled Rialey. She recovered quickly and started in pursuit of the bunny in the small enclosed space with Luna not far behind! The poor thing was running blindly in circles. He even ran into my boots twice, but I was too busy calling off the dogs to even make a grab for him. After a few seconds, he tried to head for the door and somehow ended up running right into the old litter bucket. I yelled, "Rialey, wait! Watch him! Stay right there!" (for some reason I never thought to teach her a "keep that rabbit in that bucket" command) and to her credit, Rialey plopped down with her big old nose right outside the opening of the bucket and held that bunny in place until I could climb over all the tumbled feed bins and buckets to toss my net over the bucket's opening.
By comparison the last bunny was easy. When I came back from securing bucket bunny in the pen, I walked into the poultry house and Rialey chased that last bun right into my boots. By now, I was less surprised by this and was able to do my part and scoop the little one up and bring him back to the safety of his pen.
Whew! With that last catch, I was almost certain we had caught all the escapees. What a workout, and I hadn't even started morning chores yet!
The girls and I headed over and with a bit of twisting and turning, I was able to get Amelia freed. We went back to putting away birds and when we were done, I noticed Rialey running back across the pasture to where Amelia was stuck. I just figured she was checking for more stuck goats and didn't think much of it.
I fed the rabbits and headed in to milk the goats. Rialey never came into the milk room, but it's not unusual for her to plop down outside the door and only come in if she thinks I need help moving goats so again, no big deal.
By the time I was done milking it had gotten dark out. I scooped up some sheep feed and headed into the dark pasture to feed to the sheep. Rialey appeared next to Luna at my feet so I put both dogs in a down stay and called the sheep over for a bedtime snack. The minute I released the dogs from their stay Rialey jetted back over to the fence. Something wasn't right.
I followed her and she led me right to a little black rabbit laying in the grass. Rialey laid down and starting licking and gently mouthing the bunny. It was obvious that something was wrong with thing. It was limp and soggy from head to toe from Rialey's ministration. Shining the light from my phone, I could see that the little thing was still alive but just barely. I picked it up very carefully and carried it back to the light of the poultry house. The bunny was dead before I even got inside.
I grabbed up the milk stuff and egg basket and brought them and the soggy bundle of bunny back to the house. On closer inspection, it was clear that this rabbit had broken it's neck. In fact, the front teeth were almost completely knocked out. My best guess is Rialey spooked the little one and it ran headlong into a fence post or tree not long before I found it. Rabbits are not known for having good near-sighted vision.
Not wanting to let this bunny go to waste, I decided to process it for the dog's dinner. What amazed me was that that little bunny did not have a single bruise. Rialey, a month old puppy, had spotted, chased, and eventually caught a small rabbit out in the pasture without any supervision and yet she hadn't laid a single tooth on this bunny. There wasn't a single tear in the skin or bruise to the meat. If that bunny hadn't panicked and run into something, it would probably be alive today.
Since this incident, Rialey has proved time and time again that she has the remarkable ability to catch small and wayward animals without causing them any harm. I've seen her chase down and stop rabbits in their tracks, corner young turkey poults, and even pounce on a young runaway chicken and pen it down with a foot on its wing!
The value of a good farm dog cannot be measured in dollars and cents. It's measured in days like this. In times when I wouldn't have even known there was a problem on the farm until Rialey alerted me, then she and Luna helped me catch up all those lost rabbits. There is something to be said for finding a properly bred farm dog and raising her to do her job. Rialey surprises me every day with her ability to help make even the simplest of jobs around here just a little easier. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for this promising pup.