Niko operates with a clearly defined hierarchy of prey desirablility. Insects are fun, but too easy and not very satisfying in the long run, even the crunchy midsummer versions. Chipmunks occupy a slightly higher notch in his fantasy world, but they live mostly in slim wall cracks and rain drainpipes, which, while enticingly noisy, never yield a chipmunk.
Up one more notch are squirrels. Squirrels are very plentiful at this time of year, and Niko has a keen eye for spotting slight movements in the shadows. When a shadow moves, he stands stock still, feet firmly attached to the ground, with an intent gaze meant to terrify his opponent. My job is to stamp my feet and make threatening throat sounds. The squirrel will eventually saunter over to the nearest tree and climb out of sight. Sometimes Niko leaps and tries to climb the tree like southern hound dogs, but the squirrel knows this dog's limitations and sits securely out of reach, making rude and derisive noises.
Higher still: rabbits. Rabbits are very desirable
in Niko's prey hierarchy and the world is currently awash with young, naive, trusting, and, presumably, tasty rabbit souls; they graze on local clover without a care in the world. The other day Niko became fixated on a rabbit five feet to our right. This was a standoff; the rabbit ate, Niko froze. Down the block a little gang of three more rabbits headed our way. They drew near, then veered into the road, just to the left of our sidewalk position. They began a little circle dance, right in the middle of the road; around and around they danced. They whirled, stopped, and whirled some more. At one point they paused to do their bit to ensure the next generation, but that didn't take long. They gradually swirled off to a neighbor's bushes to engage in who knows what activities. Niko, meanwhile, continued to be concerned only with the lone rabbit to our right. We did finally part: I was firm, Niko was unwilling, the rabbit was unconcerned and turned its back on us as it foraged for sweeter clover.
Finally, we get to cats. Niko has never met a cat. A cat did approach him once. It plodded over in a friendly manner and started to rub on Niko's astonished head, but when Niko went down on his elbows to play, the cat changed its mind and hissed and spat, but, at the last minute, decided not to attack further.
We have two new cats in the neighborhood, brother and sister, both black and white. The male is friendly, and one morning as I let Niko out to greet the day, I spotted the friendly cat in our yard. Alas, Niko spotted it a split second before I did. Like a shot, he tore after that cat, who in turn tore back and forth by the fence, trying to climb or leap over it. It failed on both counts. He then stopped and turned to face Niko; all his hair stood perpendicular to his body as he doubled his size, his huge tail straight up, back arched, ears laid back. Niko was at his ferocious best, and at that point I decided I had better intervene, and stepped onto the terrace to mediate. I needed to save my dog's pretty face or the cat's life, I wasn't sure which.
And then, Niko just calmly turned away. He put his nose to the ground and went happily off on another errand, most likely pursuing a rabbit trail. The cat took stock, hesitated, saw his salvation, and ran off to the gap in the fence he had presumably entered through.
It all seems like a game to Niko. Did he think he had won and that was that? Is the point of the game to freeze? Stare? Chase?
Then last night, Niko got a bit of a turnaround We had bats hunting flying insects near the back door; We were in the yard for last outs, and the bats blocked our re-entry. Oddly enough, Niko was not intrigued by their soft fluttering and wanted to get in the house fast; he apparently didn't think games with bats would be much fun.
We have other wildlife in the area that would put Niko on his guard. Every few years we spot a neighborhood fox. There are raccoons and possums. And we periodically spot bears on the block. A neighbor sent photos around last week of a mama bear and her cub in his front yard, crossing the street in the direction of our house on their way home to the dingle that they would cross our yard to reach. I like the idea of bears passing by in the early morning, me with my coffee and newspaper, my faithful dog sleeping on my feet, twitching and dreaming of his next exciting chase/freeze/chase encounter. How do these end in his dreams?
And now for something completely different: Niko loves his possums. He has three: One that still grunts, one that occasionally grunts, and one whose grunting days are over. They play fair and let him catch them, toss them up in the air, and entice visiting dogs with. What more could a hunting dog ask for?