Incredible Lives of Foxes

by Jennifer Howard

As most of you know, here at Procyon, we have admitted high numbers of foxes due to an explosion of cases of mange in the local fox population. A couple of foxes also came in that collided with cars. In 2021 we had more foxes than ever before. Admissions for foxes began on January 21st and continued throughout the year until December 26th. We lost one of our critical mangy foxes and the two from car collision ones. But overall, we were very successful in getting them back to the wild. We had rescued, rehabilitated, and released at least 28 foxes by year-end.

2022 is not off to a good start since our first fox of the year arrived at the Centre on January 6th. In our care from last year, we currently have three that are still healing. There are still at least three that I am trying to get in Innisfil. We usually get a break from animal care during the winter; however, this year is a different story.

In my article this month, I’m going to talk about foxes. Foxes are incredible animals, fantastic, dedicated parents. They are playful, curious, and wonderful teachers to their young kits and us. They have taught me so much about themselves by live trapping mangy foxes.

I should mention that Procyon does not have a rescue team; we certainly will lend a trap and help with instruction, and depending on where the issue is, there may be a volunteer who might be able to assist. Maybe. However, that’s not how we work since just keeping afloat and caring for the animals who come in is our priority. Hopefully, one day it may be that way, but for now, we rely on the public to bring in animals in distress to the Centre.

In my case, I live in Innisfil, and the first fox I got last year was close to my home. But then more and more calls came, and I began live trapping any foxes suffering from mange within a half-hour radius of my home. I couldn’t say no. A life is a life, and I took on the challenge at hand as long as it was nearby me. I messed up a few times; as I mentioned, we do not rescue, but with some assistance from a good friend who is a rescuer I learned just how live trapping should be done. Even the foxes helped me learn. People ask me, “Why can’t I just go get the fox, it’s curled up on my porch?” Believe me, I wish it was that easy. It’s not. It’s a wild animal, and it will protect itself. We cannot risk getting bitten. I’m not trained to do that kind of rescue. These animals are very strong, and I won’t risk anything going wrong. So, we work together with a live trap.

I’ve been a wildlife photographer for at least 30 years, but also an educator, and l have put a lot of time into helping and saving wildlife and species at risk and their habitats in years past. But that’s who I am and what I love. It’s what keeps me going. With every mistake I made, I learned, and watching those foxes taught me so much about their behavior, their condition, their routine, and what they love to eat. I needed to establish their routine and or schedule so that I could work with community people to get them into care. And it was successful.

I should have recorded the hours I spent with these foxes and the people who were caring enough to assist. I guarantee there are many. And I don’t regret any of them. In total, in 2021, I caught 19 mangy foxes. And because of our success in caring for them, all but one was released back to the wild of those 19.

One fox named Benny, despite everything we did to give her the best veterinary care, was in too critical condition to fight any longer, and losing her broke our hearts. It was one of the toughest losses I have dealt with. But when you have saved so many, that my friends, is the most beautiful part of any wildlife rehabbers job. And you must focus on the successes.

We get asked a lot about why there is so much mange. I don’t know the answer. Mother Nature has her own plans and things run in cycles. But as much as yes Mother Nature does consume many, the ones we don’t see out in the true wilderness, for example, if they come to us, it’s usually because of us, we treat them and do our best. Why? Because humans have taken away their space. Their homes. And it just keeps going. More trees, wetlands, fields are being consumed by buildings. With this more people feed wildlife as well. Not just birds but animals too. Stop! This is wrong.

I have fed birds for as long as I can remember, but I have learned that keeping the ground under the feeders clean is very important. And I know birds are not dependent on it as when food is plenty, I don’t even see them at my feeders, they are in fact, busy in the trees feeding on natural food. I use seed with no waste also, so there is no wasted seed left on the ground for our nighttime wanderers. Not feeding wildlife is a topic to discuss in a future article, however, we believe this may be causing issues with mange, as well as distemper and raccoon ringworm. You have no control over what animal comes to visit. A sick animal showing up like a mangy fox, a distempered skunk, or a raccoon, can spread diseases to healthy animals. Feeding brings them into close quarters and even having leftover seed on the ground brings in rodents. Seed can also become sour making birds sick.

Should a vixen (female fox) catch mange during their mating season in January, she can pass this on to her kits. One sick parent is all it takes for the whole family to contract mange in the dens. This is what happened last year.

Sarcoptic mange is a tiny mite that burrows into the skin under the animal’s fur, it lays eggs, the eggs hatch, the cycle keeps going. The animal is very uncomfortable, itching, scratching, biting, shaking. It won’t get better without help. Leading to open sores and emaciation. The fox grooms its hind end, and that’s where mange starts, this, in turn, causes the mites to transfer to the fox’s face. Then the process starts there and moves into the eyes, sometimes creating conjunctivitis in the eyes, and the mites cause eyes to crust shut. We have had some foxes that had nasty crusts that were an inch thick. It’s so sad.

At this point, the fox can no longer hunt, or regulate its body temperature; It will depend on its sense of smell to find food. If the animal isn’t caught to be given treatment, the result is death, since the mange starts to affect the animal’s organs until they shut down. The animal literally starves to death as well.

With all the construction going on it is stirring up and disturbing rats and mice and so many others, and they are moving near us. We don’t want mice, rats, voles, etc., so some people use rat poisoning. I got a screech owl once when a lady found it just sitting at the bottom of her stairs, clutching a dead mouse. It didn’t have the strength to eat it, it was so emaciated. It did thankfully recover and was released. The mouse could have already been dead, poisoned, an easy meal taken by so many. The predators now get a buildup of poison in their system. And some die. Others immune systems are weakened meaning they will catch diseases easier. Prey animals and birds don’t know their catch is full of poison. So please, do not use rat poisoning. In fact, in California, it has been banned after testing showed it was even in their deer population.

Live trapping and relocating mice and rats are a kinder approach. Even snap traps can catch things they aren’t supposed to and don’t always kill the animal outright. And never use those sticky traps, they are deadly to so many animals, birds, bats, insects, snakes, you name it, the animal can get caught in there, and it is far from humane. It’s cruel.

Foxes love mice and rats. They are your perfect rodent control. Safe, free, and if you have rodents, the predators will take care of them until they are gone, it’s a win-win for all except the mice, of course. But this is why mice are incredible breeders and how Mother Nature intended it to be. One dies for another to live in the wild. We don’t like seeing it, but we know that’s what happens. Perfectly normal. And that’s why the prey animals like mice, rats, rabbits, and squirrels, for example, are little breeding machines.

Also, if we are trying to live trap a sick animal and other people are feeding it, it is interfering with our success. If it is already emaciated, you can cause more harm than good for that animal’s chance of survival. They get what is called refeeding syndrome. If we get a critically emaciated animal, we must put it on a very strict slow feed protocol for our best chances of it to survive. Overfeeding can kill them. Let us do our work and don’t feed. If they need help, do not take it into your own hands, call us for help. We will work together at sorting it out. The animal will not recover from its illness unless it is treated with the right medications.

Why do we not medicate in the field? Introducing medicine in an uncontrolled environment in the wild, does not guarantee the medicine is consumed by the intended animal. Ivermectin can be fatal to some animals. Some breeds of dogs can even die. We weigh the fox before we treat them to get their proper weight so we can give a safe dose. Medication needs to be given safely and to the right animal, it is intended for. They may have wounds and eye issues that also need to be looked after and may need antibiotics for a full recovery. Again, please call us. We can’t get them all, but we sure do our best. In the end, it’s up to the fox. And they are very smart animals and will not let their guard down easily. It appears to be much more difficult this winter as the weather has been so up and down, snowstorms, then deep freezes. Warm, cold. And the mating season is upon us as well. These foxes are everywhere. But traps are set and being monitored and it’s just a matter of time and patience. And 100% luck.

Here are some fox facts:

Vixens are females and males are dogs, the young are called kits or cubs and they are members of the canid family. They are not big animals at all weighing between 10 and 15 lbs.

Foxes breed during the shorter days of winter, temperatures, the length of nights, and their body condition all affect when the vixen goes into season. They mate in January and the female should be pregnant by February, the gestation period lasts about 52 days, or just under two months. The vixen is about 10 months old when sexually mature. They have more than one den, and when she is ready, the vixen usually gives birth to 4 to 6 kits in the whelping den. Vixens have been known to have as many as 13, although that would be very difficult for her as she cannot feed that many mouths. Kits are born eyes closed and fully dependent on their mother. At that time, she depends on the dog or male. Kits come out of the den usually mid to late April at 3 to 4 weeks of age.

The weather however isn’t as stable as it used to be, so mating and birthing times are variable with any species now it seems. As I sit here in January writing, my squirrels are certainly behaving strangely out there for this time of year. On January 20th, a family of raccoons was found in a cat shelter. Two tiny babies with mom all snuggled in. Thankfully the wonderful homeowner is allowing them to stay. Mom will be their best chance and they will remain warm and healthy with her.

When raising their families, they are known as either a ” leash of foxes” or ” skulk of foxes”.

Foxes are very friendly and curious. They are very affectionate parents and mates and have learned very well to coexist with us out of no fault of their own. So, to have a fox asleep on your front lawn, back deck or driveway is not uncommon. Don’t worry. It feels comfortable and is just taking a break. And they will not take your cats or dogs. In fact, foxes have been seen playing with cats and especially dogs. Oh, and foxes may also be attracted to your dog’s or kid’s toys left in the backyard. They will play with them and may even take off with them. So, keep your good gardening shoes inside. I have seen them on the golf greens playing tug of war with the flag poles standing in the holes where the ball goes! I’m not a golfer but watching them play with the flag poles and in a joint effort taking off with them was my chuckle of the day. It was so cute.

Foxes can climb a 6-foot fence and can also be seen resting curled up in the sun on your roof.

Foxes have unique sounds in which they communicate with each other or warn their kits with. If you hear a frantic bark, strange bark or scream maybe a better word, it’s probably your neighborhood fox calling her mate, talking to each other. Especially during the mating season in January. And during kit rearing time. Outside of kit rearing times foxes live solitary lives usually. But then come back together.

Rodents make up 50% of a fox’s diet (moles, mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels, shrews etc.) but they also eat fruit, worms, slugs, etc. They are good to have around and are a very important part of our ecosystem.

They may den under a shed, cottage, embankment, or garden, but if you can just let them be. There is nothing more rewarding than watching these beautiful animals raise their families. By the fall, the young are pretty much fully grown and heading out on their own around the age of 7 months. Sometimes a female will stay back to help with the next family. I have known people to have families under their home and not even know it, while others have them under a back shed, just enjoying every moment of the entertainment those foxes gave them. The young start coming out of the den at about 3 to 4 weeks as mentioned and until then you may not even know they are there.

The dogs or males can be bigger than the vixens or females, but if the family is from a good area, lots of food, lacking human interference, and in good body condition a vixen may be bigger than the male. Our first fox admission of the year, Geetika, came in at 6.5 kg or 14 lbs, even with mange. We weighed her twice because Crystal Faye, our Animal Care Coordinator, was surprised at her weight. I can’t wait to see her healthy again. She will be magnificent, I’m sure.

If there is a sick fox out there and you are feeding feral cats, don’t be surprised if a fox doesn’t show up and take up residence. We caught a couple foxes because of the food and shelters last year this way. They are very smart and to have food and shelter available to them they took it.

When we finally do capture the sick animal, please clean everything, and replace your bedding with nice fresh and clean bedding*. Wash dishes. Mange mites can live for a few days or so and will look for a new host.

Foxes are monogamous, which means they mate for life. Although there is such a high mortality rate it’s possible that up to 80% of breeding pairs are compromised. They are incredible partners. But some males do roam. And if they lose a mate, they may take another. Especially males.

Do foxes mourn? Yes, they do. Even the young mourn the loss of a sibling. I watched three young raccoons in the middle of the road trying to get their dead sibling up. It was the saddest thing I ever saw. They wouldn’t leave it. I stopped and moved it far off the road so they would be safe and move on with mom. They breathe, they bleed, they feel pain, fear, happiness, stress, love and they mourn the loss of a mate or young one. A mother fox will try to get her dead kit to move if it gets hit. It’s so very sad.

There is so much to say about foxes that would take pages to write. Thing is. They are amazing, incredible animals. You do not need to fear them. But you do need to learn to coexist with them as they have done very well coexisting with us. It’s the way the world is going. Development is taking over every open field, every wetland, trees coming down. It’s horrible and it must stop for everyone’s sake. We need all these things as they are all part of a healthy ecosystem and our environment. Our water, our air. The wilds are home to many animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, you name it. This is their home and we have taken over. More green space needs to be kept. As predators go, we are at the very top of the list, unfortunately. All animals, regardless of species, are all an extremely important part of the ecosystem, and they tell us if we have issues so we can fix those issues. For the goodness of all life. Foxes are very smart and are incredibly therapeutic to watch. Even entertaining. But give them their space, respect them, and do not tame them by feeding. As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead one. The same goes for coyotes and foxes. They lose their natural fear of humans. And not all humans are kind. This is not just a saying, it’s the truth, unfortunately. They don’t know any differently, but we do, or we should. Keep them wild, keep them safe. Because they are sharing their space with us.

Learn to coexist. You will be rewarded.

Jen Howard
Procyon Wildlife
Volunteer/photographer
Beeton, Ontario

  • From the Editor: The best insulation for feral cat shelters is straw. Please avoid using conventional fabric blankets or towels, which absorb moisture and can make the interior cold. Placing the shelter on a pallet or other surface to raise it off the ground can provide additional insulation.
  • Recently, Procyon Wildlife was featured in FERN & FEATHERS. Click on the link to read this informative article.

    Wildlife Rescue: The year of the Fox

Enjoy these images of foxes. Photos courtesy of wildlife photographer Jennifer Howard.

 

Incredible Lives of Foxes
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