When you think of a fox, a red fox is most likely what comes to mind. Most people are more familiar with the red fox. Rusty red to orange coat. Large pointed ears trimmed in black and black legs. Large bushy tail with a white tip. A white chest and belly. It is the fox of movies. Clever, stealthy, and fast. If you chance to see one in the wild it is usually only a fleeting glance. Indeed, I have caught a glimpse of three at different times.
However, there is another fox in Minnesota, the gray fox, less common and less known by most people. It is equal to a red fox in intelligence and stealth and, like the red fox, it learns from past experiences. It is also called the tree fox for it is the only member of the Canidae family that climbs trees. It can climb as high as twenty feet. Though it mostly climbs trees to escape predators, such as coyotes, it can also hunt in trees. Sometimes it will rest in a tree. Gray foxes live in dens, generally in natural cavities like a log or crevice in a rock. They are omnivores eating mice, moles, voles, rabbits, berries, apples, nuts, fish, and insects. Its varied diet makes it an important and desirable species in our ecosystem. Gray foxes are thought to mate for life. A male often travels up to fifty miles to establish territory, therefore it is important they have a lot of habitat available.
The first time I saw a gray fox, it was curled up in a tight ball, sleeping. Its pointed, red ears, trimmed in white were the most distinguishable features. I couldn’t see its face, its head was down, nose tucked under its body. I wasn’t able to make out its bushy, black tipped tail. Its furry coat was a grizzled gray. It took up residence in one of our sheds three weeks ago, perhaps even longer. Our dog, Spencer, did not approve of this new tenant. His first encounter with it was almost fatal for the fox. Mom managed to pull him off, saving the fox. Spencer was reprimanded harshly, we hollered at him to leave the fox alone every time we passed the shed. One of those times, I saw its mouth open wide, trying to defend itself from Spencer. I yelled at Spencer until he left the fox alone.
Walking into a different shed, a week later, I found Spencer and Allie had the gray fox more or less pinned to the west wall. I yelled at Spencer to leave it alone. Allie wasn’t trying to hurt it, but was scared and curious, with curiosity winning as she got close to sniff it. The poor fox cowered in fright. I was somewhat surprised at its small size, only twice as big as a common barn cat, half the size of a grown female golden retriever. Spencer hesitantly backed off, though he stayed in the shed. The terrified fox crawled behind an old John Deere tractor. Once I got the dogs away and quiet, I crouched down to look at the fox through the axle. Then I moved around the big back tire to get a less obstructed view. It hung its head. It was scruffy looking, thin, and not nearly as regal as a fox should be, lacking the majestic beauty of a healthy fox. Not even its tail was bushy, as it hung between the fox’s legs. The winter must have been tough on it. Perhaps it was sick, after all besides its starved and mangy appearance, it didn’t behave like a normal fox. It should have run away, not returning after Spencer had terrorized it. I was within a foot of the creature, but not once did it look me in the eye or hiss. I wanted to see its face, to look into those kingly, knowledgeable eyes. To connect with it for just a moment, touch each other’s souls. But it wouldn’t hold its head up. I tried soothing it with my voice, reassuring it. I had an urge to touch it, desiring to know what its fur felt like, but I held back, respecting that it was a wild animal and should remain untainted by my touch.
Tuesday afternoon, I walked into the shed where the fox was residing. I looked in the corner it had made into a bed. It wasn’t in a tight ball, but lay with its head stretched out and it was on its back. I could see some teeth sticking out from the upside down lips. It didn’t seem to be alive. I gently nudged it with a stick. It was hard, solid like a rock. Most definitely dead. I was filled with sadness and questions. Could we have saved it if we had given it food? Had it been sick before we found it? Is there anything we could have done? I was sad for the loss. Indeed, it was a loss – foxes keep rodent populations in check and it would have added an air of wonder and mystery to the farm. I had liked the idea of having a resident fox, being able to observe it once in awhile. Marvel in its beauty and grace. Yet its death is a part of nature. Most likely it had been suffering, but no longer. Everything dies. But its memory will continue on as we tell its story.