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What do we do about predators in the family?

CELIA KRAMPIEN/The Globe and Mail

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Memories weave and connect with each other, and the essence of something that happened 15 years ago shows up again, somehow, in the making of a new memory.

Our older memory was a sad one, a day when nature got the best of our dog and gave us a stark reminder of the horrific relationship between predator and prey. The newer memory isn't so much different.

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On a summer day in the late 1990s, the kids and I were headed down the driveway, home from shopping at last. This was a time of car seats and grocery bags for us, with snaps and handles caught up in the relentless grabbings and holdings of parenting young children. My son, then 7, and daughter, 5, gazed quietly out the long side windows of the family van.

In the middle of the yard we saw Slade, our German shepherd. He was sniffing near a massive, moss-covered stump, framed by wild ferns and unpruned shrubbery in a plant cave protected by the canopy of an ancient cedar.

Shepherds are large dogs, but Slade's head was colossal and he had a mane more than a neck. His thick black-and-tan fur stood out in all that green, yet he suited nature's palette, where large animals always look at home. As he shifted his long black muzzle back and forth through ivy, his pointy ears were pulled back in concentration. He stopped and threw his lion head up.

Our affectionate companion was paying no attention to our arrival. A small, insecure feeling heated up my chest.

We pulled in beside the sweet-smelling jasmine bush by the carport. I was uncomfortably aware of the kids. I decided to go check on Slade by myself. Parents learn to be quick with distractions. "Everyone grab a bag of veggies to carry inside," I said. They shuffled out of the van, waiting and watching for the dog who wasn't coming.

He was still at the stump, nose down. Again, his big head pulled back and up. This time, something flew from his mouth into the air.

"Slade's playing," my daughter murmured sweetly. She forgot about getting a bag. Her brother turned his lithe little body to look and consider. They took a few steps together.

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"Wait!" I called out. "Let's bring the watermelon in first." I began to herd them with my weighted-down arms. But it was no good. Slade began barking excitedly, and they wiggled away and ran diagonally toward the stump. I set my bags down on the driveway and followed.

Slade had found a rabbit's nest. Woven clumps of brown grass and grey fur were piled left and right. Six tiny, almost hairless babies with bright pink ears, chins and bellies were left huddling together in a dry-twig-and-leaf nest. Two were not far away on the lawn, where Slade had thrown them. They weren't moving. The triumphant dog grabbed another and tossed it into the air just as my fingers closed around his collar. I saw the mother rabbit dead near my feet in the ivy. I had almost stepped on her.

The children were frozen and speechless.

This is the memory that returns a decade later when someone we love behaves cruelly. It's a mystifying connection. Perhaps the knowledge that Slade found pleasure in his brutality that day is at the heart of it.

Ten years later, when our children were in high school, a trusted older family member tried to seduce our daughter.

The girl who once innocently said "Slade is playing" is now an adult who recalls the man's stealthy approach when she was 14. He started by making comments about how she was acting "older."

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"When you are an adolescent, around people you've been able to trust since you were a small child, these comments feel like compliments," she says.

Later, as they sat in an intersection in his car, the brute said: "I guess I should kiss you now. It's getting pretty weird in front of your parents."

Unlike nature's beasts, when family members behave like predators, they try to hide. "This man still isn't honest about what his intentions were," our daughter says.

Though many around him know the truth, some remain frozen and speechless. Recognition is so bleak, it stops people in their tracks. But fortunately some can see through.

"I am so thankful I had people in my life supporting me in order to get to a place where now I feel stronger than ever," our daughter said last spring. "It has taken me years to feel okay speaking openly … Only maturity has helped relieve my sense of remorse."

The soft linings in the safe nest that parents build for their children are all the same – learning, music, sports, friends and family. It was the gentleness of that place, the smell of naiveté, the human predator was after.

We took the surviving baby rabbits to a wildlife shelter in a shoebox lined with feathers from an old pillow. Four lived. We were told any survival is miraculous when a nest is desecrated.

As for our daughter, we all boxed ourselves up in a life lined with feathers for a while. But that's another story. This one is simply about the day half the rabbits died.

Marlene O. Maier lives in British Columbia. Her name has been changed to protect her daughter's identity.

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