Sunday, June 13, 2010

Urban foxes and Urban legends.

The story of twin girls in a UK suburb who were savaged in daylight by a fox while asleep in their cots in an upstairs bedroom, filled a large slot in the news cycle this week. Urban foxes are part of the landscape and fauna of Britain nowadays. Recent wildlife census estimates a population density of 30 foxes per square mile in urban Britain. This is significantly higher than some population densities in the wild. In cities we now hear of humans and foxes interacting in closer and closer ways. Our relationship with this native wild species is thus changing.

Foxes are large predators who live on worms,beetles, mice,voles,birds and by scavenging.They are known to avoid human contact and are normally nocturnal in their habits. In the urban landscape foxes have no natural predator,if human hunters and pest control are taken out of the equation. Their habitat has dramatically altered in 100 years or so of urban sprawl.The British whose landscape once was parkland, forest and farmland are now essentially an urban people. How rapidly has the fox evolved to adapt to this change?

Perhaps our expectations about fox behaviour need to change to take into account its evolved lifestyle, instincts and even diet in an urban landscape. Householders in the UK now put food out for foxes at the end of their gardens and are forced to weigh down wheelie bin lids. Disposable nappies,filled with human excrement are a favoured target. Foxes are now known to enter kennels to eat dogfood, kitchens to eat catfood. Fast food outlets which throw out vast quantities of food are favourite gathering places for urban foxes.If they no longer fear humans as predators then it may not be long before the fox sees us as prey.

In common with foxes, urban living has separated humans from our predators. On first hearing of this fox attack on human babies I doubted it's veracity. The likelihood is that a young fox was attracted by the smell of freshly soiled nappy into the sleeping babies' cot. The injuries probably occurred as the startled fox struggled to leave the cot after the babies woke. But to have entered through patio doors, crept upstairs into a bedroom and then to climb into a cot, undeterred by human scents? This scenario implies an individual fox lacking the inhibition expected of its species. Is it hysterical to fear this mix of new brazenness and native cunning?

Foxes do not have a genetic history of centuries of coexistence on the edge of domesticity with humans as feral cats do.Domestic felines revert to feral with ease when survival instincts dictate.Dogs of course are wholly domesticated.Our pampered pooches, even the macho ones, bear little resemblance to the wild pack animal which was their ancestor. Yet even pet dogs can sometimes attack and even kill humans. Attacks which occur often when humans neglect to train their dog and assert the proper pecking order.

These isles which were thronged with wolves, bears and even large cats are now home to just one species of feral canine-the fox. Other indigenous wild species died out over thousands of years of whittling numbers and changing environment. Yet the fox has thrived through seismic habitat changes wrought in a mere 200 years since the onset of the industrial revolution.To survive these changes the laws of natural selection infer that today's fox must have evolved into a very different species from its pre-industrial forebearer. Our relationship and assumptions about foxes are formed from our tradition as farmers and hunters where the animal's fear of people is the key dynamic. If we no longer hunt the fox and we domesticate ourselves beyond recognition, surely that fear dynamic which works to OUR advantage could crucially alter.

We now live cocooned in concrete and no longer kill by our own hand to survive. Instead we rely on remotely processed produce which we eat from plastic. We forget that natural eco-systems are not stopped by the city lines.We dont live in a bubble. After hurricane Katrina, crocodiles were caught in the flooded streets of New Orleans. Alligators are said to live in the sewers of some cities in the deep south of USA. When pet owners die in locked homes their hungry pets will eat their masters to survive.In April this year a particularly brazen fox crossed a frozen lake, scaled a fence and entered an island compound to kill 12 flamingoes in Helsinki Zoo.Wild foxes are showing exceptional ability to evolve and adapt to whatever environment and food sources are available.

As a Vet I have taken an oath to work for the care and welfare of the animal kingdom. I am however a farmer's son. My link with my rural past is only one generation broken. All farmers know there are inherent dangers in working with horses, dogs, cats or in close contact with livestock. Indeed any Vet would agree that the wild instincts of all companion animals should be treated with caution. In our interactions with nature we rely on a pecking order that we impose on animals, not by brute force but by millenia of conditioning and control. The majority of people now in the UK are six or more generations removed from rural life and the familiarity with animals that rural living gives. Those who put food out for foxes at the ends of their gardens are part of an altering dynamic,an evolving natural order and are sending mixed messages to this wild animal on the edge of domesticity. Sending mixed messages will have mixed results.

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