Urban foxes and love lost through familiarity

January 4, 2012 / Showcase, Writing / 6 Comments /

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.


  1. Wilber

    January 4, 2012
    / Reply

    Lovely piece. I wish I could find grounds to disagree but I'm afraid at my place of work we are always asked about how to get rid of wildlife, and have spent the last few years fending off questions about foxes attacking children after one over-blown media story. My colleague also took a protracted call from a gentleman insisting that he had a water vole in his garden, despite lengthy persuasion that given the location and description it was almost certainly a rat. Eventually my colleague relented and said 'well if it is a water vole, it is a really exciting record'. The gentleman's next remark was 'great... so how do I get rid of it?'
    I have a pet theory that in this country we are almost uniquely disadvantaged by our own act of removing almost any species that can genuinely harm us. In so doing we have collectively reached some sense of a right to be untouchable, and externality to the environment that surrounds us. I believe that in countries where a walk in the countryside can leave you at genuine risk- be it from bears, large cats, or anything similar, you are brought up with an understanding that you are but one piece in a jigsaw. I have not yet come up with a solution to this conundrum but I fear it is just one more contributing factor to this national sense of need to be totally in control of nature.

    • Ask Auk

      January 4, 2012
      / Reply

      I think you are unfortunately entirely right, Wilber. We in the UK have nothing to fear from our well-behaved wildlife, yet we manufacture fears that are entirely unfounded. I was going to say "entirely irrational" but perhaps there is a perverse logic to this. Perhaps we are hardwired to need a level of anxiety and when it doesn't exist we fabricate a cause. Every good drama relies on conflict to hold an audience's interest. Horror movies do consistently better at the box office than do documentaries. Eastenders receives its highest ratings for its most depressing story-lines. Are we so cosseted in our urban lives that we seek out the drama we are lacking elsewhere? Perhaps we want to be in control, but we also need to fight for that control? We need something to battle to make us feel our victories were worth winning.

      You reminded me of our time on Skomer - being asked by a school teacher what time we fed the birds. The concept of "wild"life, not dependent on humans for their survival was totally alien to her.

  2. Rob Gray

    January 5, 2012
    / Reply

    Thanks for your article - foxes are often talked about locally and this discussion will help me to respond a little more knowledgeably.

    There are plenty of foxes in our part of Twickenham - either significantly more than there were 20 years ago when I moved here or both more visible and vocal. Most evening walks after dark will be enlivened by the sight of a fox - particularly on a Tuesday before bin collection on Wednesday mornings.

    Interestingly local behaviour with respect to recycling has been influenced at least in part by the foxes - separation of organic waste from the general means that they are much less likely to open and strew the contents of bin liners across the street. A number of neighbours have commented on this secondary benefit of changing their approach to recycling and this is one example of where local people have accommodated the fox and serendipitously also reduced their waste footprint.

    Another example was given by a neighbour I found putting out pieces of bread smeared in honey. These contained a mange treatment designed to improve the condition of a local fox and also reduce the risk of it being passed to her dog.

    Generally foxes are accepted and enjoyed locally although there are complaints about being woken by vixens at night - and the digging up of the vegetable patch for worms. They are assumed to help control the local rat population and also blamed for the loss of hedgehogs - which used to be fairly common when I first moved here. How much responsibility they have in reality I wouldn't know. Certainly the cats locally know the foxes and seem to rub along with them ok - and neither seem a particular threat to the other.

    • Ask Auk

      January 5, 2012
      / Reply

      Hi, Rob. Thank you for your comment. I don't know if you've been party to the beeri discussion on the subject? There have been some interesting thoughts about both the importance and the dangers of relying on anecdotal evidence. On the one hand, we run the risk of doing exactly what we criticise non-ecologists of doing by relying on anecdote rather than fact, on the other hand, anecdotal evidence is often the precursor to genuine hard data of changes in species numbers, as was the case with house sparrows.

      As I've said on the beeri, what interests me most is how the mythology appears to be changing. The prejudice may have always been there, but the stories people tell to back up those prejudices seem to me to be relatively new. Perhaps I'm wrong about this? After all, I'm relying only on my own experience and conversations, which may be far from typical.

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