What Does the Fox Say?

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In the past weeks, Yosemite biologists had the wild fortune to see the rare Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) in the northern alpine wilderness of the park. California’s Sierra Nevada red fox is a rare critter. There may be less than 50 such foxes remaining in the wild and they haven’t been seen in nearly a century. How much are we encroaching on wild spaces–how has our landscape changed–that the species is endangered? What can we learn?

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Foxes have been congregating in the creek alongside my property. The wails of a native gray vixen (or a nonnative red), are not the beautiful yips and huffy songs of canis latrans, her coyote cousin, or canis lupus, her more distant cousin, the wolf. Hearing a fox for the first time—especially a red fox—can be a disturbing experience. Hearing a fox in my creek, a friend’s eyes widened as she asked, “what is that?!” Where the cry of a gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) sounds like a haunted whisper: “help!” the scream of a nonnative red fox (Vulpes vulpes) sounds like a banshee (from the Irish: bean sí, a spirit woman who rides the outskirts of twilight, warning of coming danger, and death).

Like coyotes, foxes are hunted as “pests.” My friend’s response to hearing a fox was concern: is a child being strangled in the bushes? Or is perhaps a wounded animal crying for help? Unfortunately, others respond by wanting to shoot foxes, even though nonlethal methods of coexisting abound, and shooting them usually increases, rather than decreases, their reproduction rates. They are also killed for their fur (on fur farms they are kept in horrific confinement, then electrocuted and skinned alive—very few if any laws protect them).

And if that’s not bad enough, foxes are “cool” and “cute,” so they are becoming the “new” trendy hipster accessory. People are trying to raise (or import) foxes as pets. They are so playful (the foxes, not the hipsters), even goofy like dogs. But why must we “tame” the wild? Why must we put our human paw prints on everything? Owning wildlife is a terrible idea—international trafficking in exotic animals is a multi-billion dollar, cruel industry.

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Smug hipster fox was cool before hipsters were cool

But it also points toward a desired disruption of the border between wild without and wild within. We want wildness within so much we will wear it without, or cage it in our backyard. As is the case with “puppy mills,” where dogs are bred like machines and kept in small boxes for people who want to buy, rather than adopt, an animal, wanting a pet fox means condemning thousands of other foxes to life in a cage as it becomes a pet industry.

We want to touch, and yet fear so much, beings that are wild. Even with my injured leg, I’ve limped through the darkness, standing still with a darkened flashlight in hand, hoping to catch sight of my nocturnal neighbor. But, foxes upset birders by hunting small mammals and birds, some endangered. And they madden farmers, who raise chickens and lambs for slaughter. I live in a borderland of crisis between farmed animals and wild animals; between humans and wilderness.

My country lane is lined with farms, surrounded by vineyards, on the border of a shrinking wilderness. At dawn, I hear cows, chickens, horses, pigs—and there are donkeys, llamas, and goats. In the daytime, I see jackrabbits, quail, hawks, vultures, crows, and other birds. In the dead of night, I hear owls, coyotes, foxes, and I know there are  many more creatures in that mysterious wild.

This winter, I’ve had a mouse under my bed, a tarantula in my windowsill, a bird in the garage, a bat in the attic, a snake in the grass, a lizard in the pantry, a quail in the driveway, a bunny in the backyard, raccoons on my doorstep, vultures devouring a chicken by my well, feral cats in my creek, and coyotes, foxes, hawks, other birds, squirrels, and the wild turkeys who conjugate down the road. I welcome the presence of the ones outside the house, as long as they are outside the house. I haven’t quite resolved myself to accept their presence inside. Yet all of us are shaded by the slopes of the Mayacamas, dreaming of a space where once we were more wild and perhaps more free.

Foxes, like coyotes, have adapted—and thrived—in urban spaces (like the coyotes who’ve set up shop in downtown Chicago). But do we really want them to? What Does the Fox Say?(by a Norwegian comedy duo) has nearly 500 million views online. A better question may be — what do we say about foxes? We call women vixens, foxes; we say we were outfoxed; we say, with some admiration and irritation that someone is as sly as a fox. Culturally, our language coexists. So why can’t we?

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