Rabbit Run

In western Palm Beach County, the sugar harvest also brings a bumper crop of bunnies

Four self-propelled harvesters clank their way through a sugar-cane field at the south edge of the tiny hamlet of Pahokee. The 20-acre stand abuts a finely coifed yard and tidy ranch-style house to the north. To the east lies State Highway 715; narrow canals and miles of cane border the rest of the parcel. Soon after school lets out around 3 p.m., three teenage boys loiter under a palm tree beside a canal. The field is thick this year; the harvest machines don't get far before wagons are filled and must be taken for unloading into trucks. That slows down everything, as far as the boys are concerned, because rabbits will remain scarce until the unpicked rows of cane are fewer than five. About 25 more rows must be plucked before rabbits will hightail it for new cover and set the boys scrambling in pursuit.

This town of 6900 souls has been waiting for this day since reaping season commenced in November. That's when testers began roaming the fields, judging the sweetness and water content of the plants in each parcel before selecting the best time for harvest. The folks here know there's more than just the raw product for table sugar to be garnered from these fields. A host of wildlife inhabits them, and hunters -- human and animal alike -- linger in expectation of the pending pick. Turkey vultures and hawks float above and scan for a meal. Cattle egrets scrounge on foot. And young boys show up for "rundown," a mad rush to catch and club rabbits scurrying away from machines or pre-harvest fires set to clear foliage.

The rundown is a longtime tradition in this isolated community, nestled on the southeast shore of Lake Okeechobee in western Palm Beach County. The ritual has even been credited with honing the town's young boys into superior football and track athletes. The custom had drawn little outside attention through the years until February 2001, when a New Jersey tourist claimed to have seen dozens of screaming rabbits on fire while they escaped a burning cane field. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal-rights activist group, called for an end to the burning and urged consumers to boycott U.S. Sugar Corp. until the practice was discontinued. The boycott remains in place, says Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist at PETA. She adds, however, that her group is encouraged by a three-year study commissioned last summer by area growers that will evaluate the impact of agricultural practices on wildlife.

A four-legged harvest by (clockwise from top left) Richard Rowe, Li'l Buck, Thomas Crawford, Hugh Metrus, and Diondre Thompson
Colby Katz
A four-legged harvest by (clockwise from top left) Richard Rowe, Li'l Buck, Thomas Crawford, Hugh Metrus, and Diondre Thompson
Colby Katz

Such high-minded struggles are of no concern to the three boys waiting beneath the palm tree during this weekday in late January. Kevin and Hugh McKenzie, 14- and 15-year-old brothers, and their friend, 17-year-old Tony Richardson, peel the fibrous skin off cane stalks and suck out the sweet juice. Tony, a tall, well-dressed boy, says he caught 32 bunnies last season and sold them for $2 apiece to "people who are too old to run after rabbits." Kevin has been chasing rabbits since he was eight years old -- about as young, he asserts, as a boy would have a fighting chance to capture one. Cottontails are highly elusive and greatly prized. The slower, smaller muck rabbits are the common catch. All claim they will not snatch the black rabbits, which, Hugh explains, are vicious biters. They're soon joined by Robert Tomlie, an athletically built 15-year-old wearing steel-rimmed glasses and a black nylon skull cap. He's cocky about his hunting prowess and promises a good show if given the chance. "They stop working at 6," he says of the harvest crew, "so we've got three more hours."

They keep their distance from harvest foreman Russell York and mechanic Alan Parham, who are parked in trucks near the highway. The pair work for the Sugar Cane Cooperative of Florida, a collective of about 40 growers that owns the harvest equipment. The boys needn't be concerned about them, Parham says. Most farm owners are pleased to get rid of as many rabbits as possible because the animals can damage crops. In fact, the men get some small entertainment from the rundown. "The cottontails play a game with them," Parham says. "They seem to almost let them catch up, then shoot off in another direction." One time, a boy pulled off his "$125 high-top sneakers" and threw them at a fleeing rabbit -- valued at $2, Parham recalls with great amusement.

For most of the kids in this rural town, rabbit income is the best prospect for earning pocket money, and they take it seriously. That intensity can be troublesome for the pickers, Clarence Lewis says while seated at the controls of a harvester awaiting a wagon's return. "If they're after a rabbit, they'll run right in front of me," he relates. "Usually they walk between me and the wagon. If they see one run under the wagon, they'll circle it and walk until the rabbit makes a break for it."

By 5 p.m., a couple of dozen kids mill about the periphery of the field and wait for the magic number of five rows. A hundred egrets scurry madly about the shorn patch with lizards and field mice drooping from their beaks. Five vultures soar overhead on the humid air made sour-sweet by crushed cane. Many boys are horsing around or wrestling under the tall palms that line the highway. Tony mocks Robert for the dirt now on his face. "Shows my mama I've been working," Robert retorts. An old white pickup truck pulls up behind them -- a "professional" hunter who will likely sell skinned rabbits in Fort Lauderdale or Miami for $4 or $5 each. Two men drop the tailgate, and a reddish, three-legged pit bull named Solomon bounds out and makes a clumsy tripedal landing. With no rabbits available, Solomon finds an alternative target: Scruff, a long-haired mutt belonging to one of the boys. The pit bull bites deep into Scruff's ribs, and by the time his owner pulls him off, Solomon is breathing frantically, his brisket-sized tongue bloody with self-inflicted punctures. In the absence of dashing rabbits -- the crew begins to shut down for the night without cutting enough cane to flush them out -- the youths are gleeful over the diversion of the dog fight.

Four days later, the boys of Pahokee get another chance. On this sweltering Sunday morning, a tractor-drawn flame thrower rolls along the edge of a cane field set back about a mile from Highway 715. The torch blasts into the tangle of green, setting a smoldering fire that moves slowly across the cane stand. The thick smoke can be seen for miles. Within minutes, fragments of color and movement appear at the far end of the lane leading to the cane field. On bikes and on foot, about 12 boys race toward the black column. They zip past the charred field until directly behind the tractor, then dump their bikes and BB guns. Some grab heftier stalks for clubs; others find stones, then plunge into the wall of smoke. A few boys find the fumes overpowering and run back out.

As the muck rabbits dart, the boys swing cudgels, fling rocks, and hurl themselves to the ground in chaotic pursuit. It's serious work, with none of the triumphant laughter that will come when the job is over. Thomas Crawford, a 12-year-old who manages to tolerate the smoke, lands in a sprawl several times as his prey dodges. Finally, he plants his torso atop the bunny, grabs it, and gives it four or five punches to the head. To finish it off, Thomas fetches the BB gun and shoots it in the head. He bounds back into the fray. For the next 40 minutes, Thomas and his three hunting buddies run, crawl, and roll through the black, mucky soil, which clings to their clothes and limbs like grease. When it's over, the party strings its ten bunnies on a bike for display. Heading back into town, where they'll sell them for $1.50 apiece, they tell and retell exploits of the hunt and await the smoke plumes in the weeks to come.

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