Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Napoleon's Defeat by Rabbits

Napoleon Bonaparte provides a tale of canned hunts as well as the power of operant conditioning.

It seems than in 1807, after signing the Treaty of Tilsit, Napoleon's trusted chief-of-staff, Alexandre Berthier, decided to organize a rabbit hunt for his Corsican boss. To ensure that there were plenty of rabbits to shoot, he bought thousands of rabbits from a local vendor. Unfortunately, they were not wild rabbits, but pen-raised rabbits.

As the Archie Archive web site notes:
Rather than fleeing for their life, the rabbits spotted a tiny little man in a big hat and mistook him for their keeper bringing them food. e hungry rabbits stormed towards Napoleon at their top speed of 35 mph (56 kph).

The shooting party – now in shambolic disarray – could do nothing to stop them. Napoleon was left with no other option but to run, beating the starving animals off with his bare hands. But the rabbits did not relent and drove the Emperor back to his carriage while his underlings thrashed vainly at them with horsewhips.

According to contemporary accounts of the fiasco, the Emperor of France sped off in his coach, comprehensively beaten and covered in shame.

So why do wild rabbits run
when they see a man or a dog?

Because they know that it is "maladaptive" to hang around when something new, that they have never seen before, shows up on their little patch.

For wild rabbits, fear and caution are essential elements of survival, same as they are for a fox, a wolf, a bear, or a lowly rat or mouse.

If you watch a rabbit in the field through binoculars, however, you will see it ignores robins, cows, and swaying grass.

It has seen these things its whole life, and there has never been a chase or some other negative consequence associated with them.

But if you put a dog, a cat, a hawk, or a person in that same picture, things may change quickly depending on the animals experience, at a very early age, with that particular stimulus.

In the case of Napoleon's rabbits, which had been farmer-raised and fed from a bucket their whole lives, the presence of man was not only not a new and cautionary stimulus, it was a well-known and extremely positive one - food.

But what was "old" for the rabbits was terrifyingly new for Napoleon!  What was he to do with a 1,000 rabbits storming at him? He had no idea, and so he fled.

When faced with the entirely new experience of a 1,000 bizarre animals chasing him, an ancient and deep code for self-preservation kicked in.

Were these animals rabid?  Were these even rabbits?? It was best to run like hell and figure it all out later.

And what was true for Napoleon is normally true for wild rabbits and every other creature large and small.

Fear and caution in the presence of the new and strange is fundamental to self-preservation; it's one reason a very small terrier can bolt a pair of fox, or a den full of raccoons that significantly outweigh it.  It's almost always that fox's first terrier; it's almost never that terrier's first fox!


mugwump said...

If only all canned hunts could end the same....

Jacob L'Etoile said...

Most of the time, when a rabbit sees a hawk or a dog, it hunkers down tight. They only get caught when they run and they know it. For every rabbit you scare up in the field I bet you walk by 3 or 4 with out even realizing it. Even when being chased by a hawk rabbits will stop and freeze at their first chance. In order to catch them you have to keep the pressure on enough to keep them moving. In front of a dog they run as short a distance as they can and then stop. In front of a slow, loud beagle I have seen a rabbit stay in a 30ft by 30ft briar patch for an hour. I say this as a falconer, with a beagle who hunts rabbits with both, at the same time.

Buenzlihund said...

Our dog saw his first (and my 5th) hare just the other morning, running straight into his face on our morning walk. When the hare realised there was a something coming he just angled 90 degrees to the north and a few meters later 45 to the east, barely speeding up at all. Good dog stopped quickly on call after a short pursuit. But the hare really seemed to not care much. Could it be the hares here are acustomed to dogs NOT chasing them? (i.e. nothing chasing them)

PBurns said...

A hare does not have too much to fear from the average single dog --they can jinx away so fast (ziging and zagging), but if you get too close they will put on speed

I supposed a note should go here about rabbits and hares: broadly speaking there are three kinds and some confusion. An American Jack Rabbit is not a rabbit, but a hare, and it does not den underground, but depends on "speed and weeds" to get away and hide. An American cotton tail is a rabbit, but it too does not den underground (not matter what Walt Disney says), and rarely strays too far from cover. If on a lawn, it will sit still and pass for a rock until you get close and then they prove suprisingly quick and agile. European rabbits den underground and generally come out in the evening are not quick and agile, but also use their burrows and darkness for escape. Both rabbits and hares use the lay of the ground to work hawk and dog, as predators tend to miss on slopes.