|Today is World Rabies Day|
I dig in the eastern United States, and we dig all year. There is no season here. All we have is the end of the calendar year.
The good news is that red fox are extremely plentiful.
The bad news is that unless you are running them with hounds (and I am not), they only go to ground in my area between January and February due to our relatively warm weather.
Of course, we have more than red fox. We also have grey fox, an animal not closely related, but quite similar in appearance, but with a dun-colored coat and a rather surprising ability to climb trees if pressed. This animal tends to den in rocky escarpments, and is more common in the mountains than in the farm country I normally hunt.
Groundhog are common all over, from mid-February to the first of December. They are a large and solitary marmot weighing 10 to 15 pounds, and they hibernate for a few months in winter, losing perhaps a third of their body weight during these lean times.
Though their jaws are short, their bite is more powerful than a fox, and their teeth are like sharpened chisels. Groundhogs do not look like much, but this animal can away dig like a badger, has no neck to throttle, and has a skull as thick as a frying pan. They are tougher than they appear, and I have seen more terriers punished by groundhog than by fox.
Possum can be found all year long, but I do not count them for much. They are an ugly and smelly creature that looks like a large rat, and they weigh anywhere from 9-15 pounds. Though this marsupial has more teeth than any other mammal in the America's, its teeth are small and they have light jaws and cannot do much damage to a dog.
Skunks are generally located to ground in late Fall, and are not a game species, but a small nightmare on legs. Yes, they can carry rabies, but this is not the main issue; it's the spray. A dog sprayed by a skunk underground may be dead in only a few minutes. Even if the dog is gotten out alive, skunk toxic shock may set in as red blood cells explode inside the dog due to the peculiar chemistry of the offending mist.
Finally, there are raccoons. Most raccoons den in old trees, but they will also go to ground and I often find them jungled up in old groundhog holes when the weather begins to turn cold. There is nothing quite like this animal in the U.K. -- it has hands almost as nimble as that of a small monkey, relatively powerful jaws, and can weigh up to 40 pounds, though in my experience those found underground rarely weigh over 20 pounds.
I dig on 25 to 100 animals a year, most of them groundhogs, and most of the time there is no drama to report.
The variation in numbers is a reflection of my work and family schedules, the weather, and my changing style of attack in the field.
When I was younger, I wanted a big bag at every outing, and so I would spend nine hours in the field making that happen. Now I am happy to bag one or two in a day, and trundle home a little past noon for some family time.
This year my count was 34: 19 groundhog, six raccoon, five fox (all let go), and four possums. A light year.
I mostly dig alone, not because I am a recluse, but because it's a long way between diggers in the U.S. If you dig very much over here, you learn to dig alone and to carry all your tools.
Looking back over the last year, I am happy to report no serious harm came to the dogs. There were a few muzzle rips, of course, but these were of no concern -- mere "shaving cuts" in the vernacular of American terrier work. The only thing that required a veterinary staple gun was when one dog was ragging a dead animal and, in its enthusiasm, it ran up against my sharpened machete which was stuck in the ground after the dig. Stupid me! The dog was stuck back together and out in the field two weeks later.
I do not count drama a mark of success in the field, and I am happy to report I have never had to call anyone else to help get a dog out of the ground, not have I ever had to call out heavy equipment. Knock on wood!
I am also happy to report I have never had a dog killed underground, though in the interest of full disclosure, I will say I did have one dog paralyzed for six hours after a Black Widow Spider bit her underground on a blistering hot day. Months later that dog later had a heart attack or embolism above ground after successfully working four earths earlier in the day. She would have died that day regardless -- I am happy when she went, she was out in the field, above ground, running down a freshly mowed field, and generally doing what she loved more in life than anything else. We should all be so lucky!
Did the spider bite weaken her heart? I do not know for certain, but I have always thought so. She was a much-loved dog, and I received condolences from four continents such was her fame. She was not much to look at, but she was the light of my life.
The ground where I dig is complex and the geology variable. Rocks and roots are common, sand almost unheard of.
The good news is that most settes are less than four feet, and two-foot "pop holes" are common enough to keep me happy.
A 10-foot dig? I do not count that a bonus!
The last dig of the year was a bit memorable.
It was, in most ways, a typical dig. I was walking the edge of a field, checking possible fox settes with my little bitch Pearl, when I noticed Mountain, my slightly larger bitch, had disappeared.
I found her a few minutes later, just inside the woods line. She was underground and baying up a storm.
I laughed, as I always do, and downed tools. I love to hear to code explode inside the dogs!
The sette was on a steep slope below the field, and there was a fair amount of loose rock at the hole -- a sette dug by a groundhog, without a doubt.
I staked Pearl 12 feet from the entrance, and located two possible exits. I slid a rock over one, and left the other one open -- a possible exit for the dog should a skunk be found to ground.
Mountain sounded, and from her baying, I could tell she was right up on it. I listened, and then I heard it -- the rumble of a big wooden table being pulled across a floor.
I boxed with the locator, and was pleasantly surprised to find Mountain only three feet down. Excellent.
I started to take the first foot and a half of dirt off the top.
Dirt? What dirt? This earth was a jumble of shale and cobble. No doubt the stone made the dog sound deeper than she actually was.
I popped into the sette at only two and a half feet. Excellent. This was going to be an easy one!
Mountain was right where I dropped the hole, but my digging had caused a few stones to slip out of place. I pulled her out by her tail, gave her the harsh grunting sound that she understands to mean "let the man do his job," and I reached in to clean out the pipe.
She wanted back in, of course, but I pushed her away to shine a small flashlight up the hole.
Looking back at me was the face of a raccoon. Excellent!
I let Mountain back into the pipe to hold the raccoon at bay while I pulled a small pole snare from my pack.
I encourage the use of a pole snare at the end of a dig, as it saves the dog a lot of damage and allows an animal to be pulled, photographed and released without harm, or dispatched with a minimum of fuss.
If you dig as often as I do, your goal is to keep your dog healthy enough to work next weekend as well as this. There is also the little matter of rabies, which is endemic in the eastern U.S., especially in the mid-Atlantic region where I dig. The dogs are vaccinated, of course, but I am not.
My goal here was to pull Mountain, slip in the shovel, tie up Mountain, and then pull the shovel, and snare out the raccoon. Standard stuff. What could go wrong?
Of course, Mountain had not read the play book! While I was getting the snare from my pack, she grabbed the raccoon and pulled it clean out of the pipe.
Whoops! The battle was on!
Now to be clear, hunting with terriers is not animal fighting, and a dog is not supposed to be engaged with the quarry outside of the pipe.
Such is theory.
Of course, in theory, practice and theory are the same, but in practice they never are!
It all happened very quickly.
With the raccoon free of the den pipe, Mountain and the raccoon were a rolling ball of fur and teeth.
There was no place to put in a boot to pin the raccoon, so I reached in to pull the raccoon's back haunch, in the hope of seeing, and getting hold, of its tail.
Like a flash, however, the raccoon spun around and sank a canine tooth through my leather glove and into the base of my thumb.
A few second later, it was all over; the raccoon was tailed out, the boot was on, and the animal was humanely dispatched as quickly as it takes to say it.
My thumb did not hurt, and I was not even sure the raccoon had bit me. When I pulled the glove off, however, there it was: a single puncture and a spot of blood.
You see, rabies is endemic in my area, and it is particularly common in the raccoon population. I know that, and act accordingly. As a consequence, I have never been bit.
Up to now.
Still, what were the odds? This appeared to be a healthy animal.
I washed out the wound, let it bleed, and washed it out again.
I thought about the options. It was Sunday. Even if I took the animal to be tested, that would not happen until tomorrow, and they would still require me to get rabies shots while the testing was being done.
I was conflicted. The chance of this animal being rabid was very low, but it was not zero.
If you Google "rabies" in this country, you find a couple of articles a day, and a lot of them are from my area and involve raccoons.
On the upside, there had been only one fatal case of rabies in the U.S. in the last 10 years.
On the downside, it had occurred just 20 minutes up the road.
I washed out the wound again, checked over Mountain (she was fine), and examined the raccoon. It looked healthy.
I thought about the production and drama that would be made if I took in the raccoon, or told my wife I had gotten bitten. I would never hear the end of it.
Of course, on the other end of the stick there was the prospect of dying from rabies. Would my son have to go out to the wood shed and shoot me like the rabid dog in the Disney movie, Old Yeller?
I repaired the sette and removed the stone from the blocked hole.
I packed up the tools, and swung the dead raccoon up high into the fork of a small tree to get it out of the way so the dogs would not rag it.
And then I left.
I fretted about my decision for the next few days, but my decision had been made by my actions, not by rational calculus.
I read up on rabies. It was slow acting. An early symptom was a headache that would not go away.
If that symptom occurred, I would take drastic action. By then, of course, treatment would be too late. I would have to choose my own exit.
In the interim, there was nothing to do but go about business as usual, which I did.
But of course, I still worried.
Two weeks later, and with no headache, I began to make a private joke. If I said something out of line, to a coworker, I would laugh it off. "Don't mind me; it's just the rabies talking."
Everyone laughed. They had no idea.
I seemed to be passing for normal, which is better than most days.
I relaxed, and the worry orbited out of the front room in my mind.
Now, four months later, I am in the clear.