This is a story told to me by my friend Peter Dolan. It isn’t a story about Africa, but I was telling it to someone as we inched through traffic, northbound in our chauffeured company car to the University of Ghana’s Legon campus. A good part of the traffic was simply due to rush hour, but there was a bottleneck where two tro-tros – shared-minibus-transports – had merged into the same lane at the same time.
Actual damage to the vehicles was minor, but there they sat, blocking two (okay, one and a half) lanes while their owners circled each other angrily in the lee of the congestion, exchanging words and trying, unsuccessfully, to land a punch. As we watched, squeezing through the gap before finally streaming into the free-flowing venturi of cars beyond them, I was reminded of what Peter had told me about Mr. Duncan.
Peter and his wife own a lovely house on a wooded plot up in the hills. They have chickens, cats, and a rabbit named Mr. Duncan. No, sorry – only the rabbit is named Mr. Duncan; I don’t know what the cats are named, and I’m pretty sure the chickens are bereft of personal nomenclature.
Anyhow. They’d had the cats for a while, and by Peter’s reckoning, they could be fairly ornery creatures when they wanted to be, which was often. But they didn’t actually fight much. You see, cats have claws, and when they fight for real, they can do terrific damage to each other in a startlingly short time. So instead of constantly risking injury, cats have evolved an elaborate protocol for determining who would have won a fight. They face each other and pose and posture, making snarly sounds in an attempt to get their opponent to do the cat equivalent of flinching, at which point the flinchee is considered to have forfeited the match.
Rabbits, on the other hand, are about as far on the “prey” side of the predator-prey equation as you can get while still possessing a central nervous system. I get the idea that if one rabbit were inclined to hold a grudge against another, the aggression would take the form of sneaking their victim’s rabbit chow when the other wasn’t looking. The rabbit algorithm for adversary evaluation, as Peter described it, goes roughly like this: 1) Run! 2) If you can’t run, stay where you are. 3) If, after some duration of staying where you are, you haven’t been eaten, the creature in question must not be a threat. Go about your business.
Mr. Duncan was already a large’ish rabbit when Peter and Andrea bought him, and they debated how to best introduce him to the Dolan household. Given the sometimes ornery nature of the cats, they set Mr. Duncan a safe distance away in one corner (recall the bit about “If you can’t run…”?) and let the cats in to have a sniff.
The cats, as Peter tells it, saw the newcomer and went into their feline posturing and furry little chest-beating routine, attempting to get a proper cat-like flinch out of Mr. Duncan. But that wasn’t part of Mr. Duncan’s genetic program. He watched from the corner, probably counting “One carrot, two carrot, three carrot…”, waiting to get eaten by the fanged and hissing demons.
But when he reached something like “Ten carrot” and discovered that he had not been eaten, something went click. “If they haven’t eaten me yet, they must not be predators. Maybe they’re friends!” And he went bounding toward the unsuspecting cats in enthusiastic rabbit-worthy leaps.
The cats, of course, scattered. Here they were, each trying to top the other for feline macho, and this weird new long-eared cat comes at them like he doesn’t give a damn. He was clearly the craziest, most badass cat ever born, and you don’t mess with crazy.
From that day to this, Mr. Duncan roams the Dolan household with impunity he could never suspect. The cats give him a wide berth, and if he wonders why they don’t play with him, he doesn’t seem to put too much time into it.
Is there a moral here? Undoubtedly. But I’m not going to dig too far for it. So often, stories are constructed specifically to illustrate a moral that the storyteller wanted to hammer into their listeners. A story like this? I think it’s a good enough one that we can each find our own little nugget of gold in it.