Last evening, just before sunset, with a hot, 100 degree wind blowing off the water and into our faces, Jackson (my blond, 60 lb, Chow/Lab mix who is sometimes mistaken for a bad golden retriever by folks not familiar with dogs) and I were walking back down our driveway, which is made of what they call plantation mix. It’s very common here, a mixture of crushed granite and granite dust, Sometimes there’s an addition of crushed oyster shell as well to even out the texture, we put oyster shells in everything here, but this is just straight mix. This section of the driveway is about 1/3 mile long from the road & gate and meanders leisurely between 100 ft. tall water oaks and enormous moss covered live oaks with three running wood fenced horse pastures, populated more sparsely with more oaks, on our left for half the distance to the barn. Then on for another 1/4 mile to the house at the edge of the marsh. We were perhaps half way down the drive near the end of the paddocks, heading home after a “successful” walk, Jackson on a long retractable lead 10 feet ahead of me, when an irregular ball of reddish brown fur comes crashing out of the thick brush perhaps 50 ft ahead and to our left. Jackson immediately freezes and I see his muscles tense. His nostrils flair, to catch every wisp of information, ears are erect and forward, head slowly, almost imperceptibly, flattens and lowers, stopping just a few inches from the ground. His rear right leg, which stopped in mid-stride, starts to quiver slightly and his back starts to tuck under and coil with the anticipation of a chase. I say “leave it” in a faint whisper, not sure whether he can hear me, but the quiver stops abruptly and the tension in his body so visible seconds before is gone. But his head stays low.
Immediately the brown ball split in two and I realize they are Fox Kits maybe 12-13 weeks old. Beautiful dense fur, reddish brown all over with black stockings and full, puppy faces. They don’t see us since they’re so involved with each other and because we are downwind from them. They roll and bound, playing closer and closer to us and Jackson starts to tense up again when I see movement 18 inches from his right rear foot . A large, maybe 1+ inch, bright red & black fuzzy insect moving, with purpose, toward him. A Velvet Ant. They are beautiful. Brilliant red & black with a dense fuzz that resembles velvet and six legs that can cover ground. The females are wingless. They’re called ants but in reality they are one of the flightless wasps and are common here in the Low Country and, for that matter, all the way up the east coast. They’re commonly called “Cow Killers” … not because they kill cows but because of the extreme intensity of their sting which folks say is “so painful it could kill a cow”. I reflexively lean forward, to intercept the “Ant”, and tell Jackson “leave it”, more forcefully this time, and at once the Kits freeze as they see us. Their eyes are wide realizing their mistake and the close proximity of what must appear to them terrible danger, not 35 ft away. After 5 or 6 seconds of frozen indecision the closest one gives a quick flick of the very tip of his tail, and instantly they are gone, exploding back into the scrub from which they appeared seconds before. I say “here” just before the Ant and Jackson meet, and he comes over and rubs up against me with what looks like a grin on his face. He had a good time. “You want to eat dinner?” I ask. He barks, spins around and we head home. Fun walk.