I was greeted by a sad sight on Monday morning. Sometime during the night, a fox had been hit by a car and crawled as far as my front garden to die. It was, despite severe impact damage to its jaw, a beautiful animal which had been in the peak of health.
What saddened me most was the reaction of the neighbours gathered for their morning gossip. One, chihuahua in arms, looked at the fox and said; “Oh, that’s a shame, but I can’t say I’m sorry. There are far too many of them. They snatch chihuahuas – they’ve taken them in this area before – I have to be careful with Lily.”
At my incredulous look, she continued; “It’s in surprisingly good condition, but most foxes have mange and pass it on to dogs.” I resisted the temptation to say that if a fox got close enough to snatch her dog, it wouldn’t have a chance to contract mange. It’s a nice dog. I wouldn’t want to upset it.
The pack of neighbours (actually only three but “pack” sounds better in the context of this story) nodded and murmured assent while I, highly suspicious but singularly lacking in evidence, withdrew to phone the council to arrange to have the maligned fox collected.
Feeling pathetically ill-equipped to respond to this kind of friend of a friend story, I dropped an email to London’s collective conservation minds. The next time the subject came up, I wanted to have a few expert-verified evidence-based facts, whichever way they pointed.
I doubt that the ruthlessly pragmatic response from some of my colleagues that carnivores need prey and we should be aware of this before breeding diminutive dogs, would be happily received by non-ecologist, dog-owning neighbours.
Predator-prey relationships aside, none of the experts in London conservation could provide any real-world, verifiable evidence for foxes snatching pet dogs. Given the slavering hunger with which elements of the press leap onto any such stories, I would expect a news search to find more than just the one (Daily Mail) story that it did. A search on “fox snatches dog” and “fox kills dog” reveals only stories where dogs have killed foxes, not the other way around. The story of the Norbury baby attacked by a fox in 1996, fizzled out of the press before it was proven that the attack was actually carried out by the family cat. I suspect most people may remember the original story, but not the final result.
The fox website meanwhile, established and run by the Mammal Research Unit at Bristol University and as such providing probably the best evidence-based information available, makes it clear that the chances of a fox transmitting mange to a dog are slight.
The parasite causing sarcoptic mange in foxes, Sarcoptes scabiei, is a mite that can infect both foxes and domestic dogs. The disease can be fatal in foxes but can be easily treated in dogs (contact your veterinarian for advice).
However, the chances for dogs to catch mange from foxes are pretty slim. In Bristol, only when fox density was very high (one the highest ever recorded in the world, i.e. 37 adults/km2) was mange transmitted from foxes to dogs. Since then, fox density has decreased but it is still higher than in rural areas. At this lower, more typical, fox density the number of cases of mange in dogs has fallen to negligible levels.
What intrigues me most is an apparent change in attitudes toward urban foxes. Thirty-years ago, foxes were the poster-species of the campaign to save wildlife sites such as Gunnersbury Triangle. Today, I find myself party to anti-fox conversations with depressing and increasing regularity. When some twelve-years ago I worked for a London conservation charity, I was the first line of defence in fielding enquiries from the general wildlife-plagued public. Then, I never had to answer questions about foxes eating pets or children. The only fox complaints I ever heard related to missing shoes, excessive fox poo and trampled vegetables. (I also had some bizarre conversations about saving frogs from drowning, how to tell which direction frogs are traveling, and the best place to adopt squirrels. None of which are relevant – just indulging a small divergence down memory lane.)
Now, it seems that familiarity breeds contempt. Whether that familiarity is a function of greater numbers, or simply of our being more used to seeing something, people appear happier to see wild animals when they’re a rarity. What hope is there for conservation of any species or habitat if we stop caring about something the moment it becomes familiar? Does something have to be on the verge of extinction for us to give a damn? Richard Jones, entomologist and writer finds every time he mentions foxes on his BBC Gardeners’ World blog, he is inundated with comments about them being pests. “I think you are right. We are now becoming rather jaundiced about what we once took to be their fun frolics.”
Perhaps this is just a function of the innate human belief that we have more right to the spaces where we live than any other creature. They’re fine and cute and cuddly as long as there aren’t enough that we actually have to think about or modify our own behaviour. I suspect this is a principle that applies to all manner of subjects – animal, human and communication-related. A subject for another blog post, perhaps.
In the meantime, I think I can only modify my own behaviour to ensure a peaceful life alongside both my human and animal neighbours. Next time the subject comes up, I’ll quietly suggest that, if she’s so inclined, my neighbour may like to check out the fox website to put her mind at rest.