Our fields, woods and riverbanks have become the habitat of the most widely distributed carnivore in the world: vulpes vulpes, the red fox. It’s not as if he’s roaming our property. It’s quite the opposite situation: we happen to be in the middle of his habitat. At least, that’s the attitude he seems to project as he emerges from the woods, prances over the fields, inspects the pond, and sizes up the ducks on the river. He owns the place, and it’s okay with him if we observe at a distance his daily tour of his proper domain.
This fellow’s a “swell,” and he seems to know it. At least, I think of him as a “fellow” — it’s very difficult to tell a fox’s sex from a distance, I understand. The male, bearing the suitably elegant Gallic name, “reynard,” is a little larger and heavier, with a broader head and narrower snout than the vixen, the female of the species. That’s identification enough for me. The specimen who takes his daily constitutional across the fields is quite imposing. Large, broad and long, he sports a magnificent tail that’s equal almost to the length of the rest of him.
“Swell” only begins to describe this fox. His pelange, (that elegant term naturalists use for his coat of fur just fits this creature), is a shimmering rust-red extending from shoulders to hind quarters. He has black-stockinged legs and an ebony tail that sports a jaunty shock of ivory-colored fur at its tip. His underside from throat to haunches is a brilliant white. The outlandish ears are his crowning feature. Poised like spinnakers running before the wind, these oversized spherical sections make you wonder whether they served as the inspiration for the iconic design of the Sydney Australia Opera House.
More than mere adornment, those magnificent ears are, in fact, acoustical weapons perfectly suited for the hunt. They enable the fox to hear the skittering mice and voles in the fields from five or six feet away. Once he locates his prey, this wily hunter will not run after it. His approach is from a different direction altogether. He crouches, then springs, leaping more than twice his height into the air and descends on the unsuspecting rodent from above. The poor field mouse doesn’t stand a chance against slyboot’s advanced sonar weaponry and stealth aerobatics.
This monarch of our fields does a lot of his pouncing down by the pond. I watched him the other day jump from the bank and disappear into the tall grass at the water’s edge. The rustling of the cattails told me some kind of struggle was taking place. At last, the dog/fox, his coat slick with wet, emerged from the rushes and walked across the path to the sun-soaked fields. There he dropped into the grass and began rolling over and over, toweling himself off with the warm straw. He then stood up and shook his body in sections, for all the world in the same way my Lab Retriever Molly does when drying herself. Then, refreshed and presentable once again, he trotted off in search of his next conquest.
Our Monsieur Reynard is certainly not the first fox to make a splash on Johnson Point. To hear my neighbors tell it, he has been preceded by another storied creature, also a handsome and exceptionally accomplished fellow. It seems that some years ago, one misguided neighbor, (now no longer with us), was in the habit of feeding a fox table scraps — never a good idea, for the fox, or for the rest of us. The feedings reduced the animal to a state of semi-domestication; he would lounge on people’s lawns, graze in their gardens and pillage their garages at will. My neighbor tells of having four pairs of outdoor footwear lined up in a row on his garage floor. One afternoon, he swears, that fox stole every other boot in the line. My friend delights in recalling how he combed the woods in mis-matched boots for days trying to recover his gardening and hiking gear.
Another neighbor tells of helping her grandchildren build a snowman one wintry day. Lacking the traditional bits of coal for the snowman’s eyes, mouth and buttons, she gave the children ginger snaps to do the job. Bad idea. At the end of the day, as the kids were sipping cocoa and gazing out the kitchen window admiring their new creation, the fox appeared, ready for business. The youngsters watched with fascination and horror as the animal lunged at their snowman. In a matter of seconds, the fox knocked off the snowman’s head, reduced its body to pieces, and ravenously consumed its eyes, mouth, and buttons for his late-afternoon snack.
Another friend tells the story of a fox family who built their den close by his home. The kits, whose eyes remain closed for the first twelve days of their life, became a regular feature of his day as they gained their sight and their running legs. The entire litter would play close by their hunting mother and watch my neighbor as he watched them. As the spring grass grew, so did the young foxes’ skills. While scampering through the fields across from his front porch, the kits would keep an eye out for my friend by leaping in place above the top of the grass every few moments to check on him.
The fox who roams our fields these days looking like the proprietor of Johnson Point is not, in fact, a native to these parts. It seems there were no foxes to be found on the entire eastern seaboard when the European settlers arrived in America. They were imported from England for sporting purposes between the years 1650 and 1750. Even with the severe limitations on cargo space in those days, the English satisfied their passion for blood sport by making sure there was room for breeding foxes on ships bound for the New World. Over the centuries, these introduced animals interbred with native species from other parts of the continent so that today there is only a single species of North American red fox. Thus, from the beginning, the fox has had an ambivalent relationship with humans: highly valued, yet avidly hunted, ever a thing of beauty, sometimes bearing a bounty on its head, always an admired creature, more often than not, a thoroughly despised pest.
I had a conversation with my farmer friend Hilary recently who unapologetically declared herself to be of two minds on this matter: she wishes all foxes well except when one of them becomes too interested in her chickens. Even as she affirmed her allegiance to a policy of mutual co-existence with the beautiful fox, she went on to declare from bitter experience that “there isn’t a fox alive who believes in the principle of ‘live and let live.’ A change came over her as she warmed to her subject. When our conversation began, she had spoken in soft tones and seemed to view the world with sweet regard; then, as she recounted her struggles to outwit the ruthless fox who ravages her henhouse, a steely edge crept into her voice and there was fire in her eyes.
We struggle with our feelings about wild things. We admire feral creatures, but fear them, as well. They fascinate us because they are so different from us, and yet, those imposing differences can make us feel threatened. We find it difficult to accept wild things on their own terms: often our reaction is to domesticate, depopulate, or entirely destroy them. What I wish for our fox is that he might be himself. When I see him standing on the hill with the grace and elegance of a Japanese netsuke as he surveys our fields — fields that, by right, belong as much to him as to us — I give thanks for the gift of beauty he offers me. He and I also agree, (for different reasons, of course), on the usefulness of his rodent population-control efforts in our common habitat.
Our job is to live together. The fox’s job is to follow his wild instincts. Mine is to insure that he can remain who he is: a wild, wary, regal creature whose comeliness and companionship bring joy and satisfaction with every sighting.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012