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    red fox in the night on a sidewalk

    The Elemental Strangeness of Foxes

    In pursuit of London’s wildlife

    By Zito Madu

    May 18, 2021
    21 Comments
    21 Comments
    21 Comments
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    • Fatima

      The downsides of cute are very sad: Many young foxes get run over by cars, the lucky ones die there and then. Those that survive in the city, usually have mange that is left to fester until it gets so bad the animal dies in some quiet place somewhere or starves to death, whichever comes first. Mange is evil and excruciatingly painful. Then there are the people who helpfully live-trap the foxes and dump them in the country sides, where they usually die of starvation because they only know how to hunt take-aways in bins. Foxes might have adapted to survive in the city, but it's not really a good life for the animals at all. The city doesn't have a strategy how to protect foxes, if it was a dog that was starving, injured and mangy, it would not be ignored. Saying the animal is wild and that this is just 'nature' doesn't quite cut it. Foxes are London's communal pets and it's time the city stepped up to taking responsibility.

    • Fennec

      As a Kiwi living in London I adore foxes. In New Zealand we have no foxes; not only are they not a domestic animal, but they are, in fact, illegal. I used to love doing the same: walking back from drinks with friends, colleagues or both and enjoying the chilly, quiet world of the early morning in which one can encounter foxes and all a manner of things that we do not notice during the day. Until I got mugged. My first few years here I didn't understand what people were talking about when they mentioned London could be unsafe. Now what I used to enjoy is ruined by the paranoia. Perhaps one day I'll feel safer again and remember that the likelihood of such things happening is still quite low, but it will take time. My advice to you: stay in lit streets, don't use your phone while wandering and most certainly do not go off the beaten path or linger for too long in any area. Speaking of the devil and foxes, Black Fox by Heather Dale is an enchanting song that I think you'll love if you like foxes. Stay safe.

    • Dalipep

      Garbage post. Full of purple prose. It's catshit.

    • Patricia

      Beautiful reading! Thank you for sharing it!

    • Anne Harris

      We live in the Chicago area, and have a number of red foxes in our neighborhood. They're especially visible in May and June, when they establish dens and have kits... in our back yards. They have an uncanny chilling cry--a scream that sounds human. And they look exactly like storybook creatures, right out of Mother Goose. Each time I see one, I'm stunned. They're so beautiful.

    • Lili

      Wonderful story on your first encounter with a London fox. It has survived due to its ability to adapt, much as we have though I wonder if it will outlast us.

    • JoAnne Zito

      Thank you for such a beautiful story. My brothers in law lived in a small flat in London and they had a small garden. Their most thrilling story was of a fox that would come up to their deck. I am enthralled. I live in Alaska, and have seen a fox in the distance in a few residential areas near the woods. They are magical creatures.

    • D. Redington

      No mention of "The fox went out on a chilly night"?_ An American classic. Illustrated by legendary artist Peter Spier. Wonderful childhood memory. Also, no mention of a foxes ability to climb a tree.

    • Argent

      Denver, Colorado, has an extensive park system, many connected by bike paths, or old rights-of-way for irrigation canals, or various creeks that run through the city from the foothills to the prairie, in the east. We see a fair amount of wildlife, here, and foxes are not at all uncommon. Coyotes tend to stick to suburban business parks and golf courses, but I've seen a fox walk across the lawn of the Colorado State Capitol building, in the heart of downtown. I stopped and said, "Bon soir, Renard," and it stopped for a moment, also. Then, it realized I had no interest in feeding it, so it went about its nocturnal business. I watched it trot away, and the continued my walk home. :)

    • Sherri

      I love how you told the story, from the points of view of not only yourself, but the fox and the cat. The story has an intended mysticism to it, which added to its appeal. Much enjoyed!

    • Wren

      My partner passed away last year. His name was Fox. My friend sent me this article and it has brought tears to my eyes. The way you describe the want of touching this creature but not wanting to disrupt the balance, really spoke to me. I cannot reach my own fox with my touch. He is only touchable in my dreams and memories. I cannot yet cross over to feel his teeth or mend his broken leg. Thank you for touching me today. You have opened my heart.

    • anton

      Down the rabbit hole, Alice went. Captivating.

    • Linda Peck

      What a wonderful piece on the fox! Thank you for presenting it to us! I will now follow this writer.

    • je

      wow the writing the flow the description and your words!!!!! a piece of heaven to experience

    • Saida

      Beautifully written. I love foxes and see them frequently in Plattsburgh, NY.

    • Elizabeth Parker

      Your beautiful, lucid prose just redeemed a rocky morning. Thank you for this lovely piece!

    • Leslie Forsyth

      Nice piece, but a wee bit fanciful. I saw my first fox close up in London in 1987 or so, so it's not a recent phenomenon. Part of the reason there are so many foxes in London is because the city provides a habitat the fox can exploit. London is still very green, particularly the outer boroughs. There are far more urban foxes than habitat destruction alone can explain. Most Londoners rather like foxes. There is the odd burst of hysteria about cats (and once a baby!), but lots of people leave food out for them. This is part of their success story.

    • Lois

      What a lovely story - poignant and thought provoking, delightful, and full of pathos! Just what was needed to start my morning in New York. Thank you!

    • Jose

      Great storytelling. Where I live I see Coyote’s all the time. There’s a certain mystique about them that makes them very interesting to me.

    • Elizabeth Claman

      I love this!!! Beautiful writing and an exquisitely described encounter. I've always seen foxes as beautiful beings. Though I've never been close enough to touch one, I've been delighted by those rare occasions when one would peek out from behind a tree during one of my forest hikes. Zito Madu's encounter makes me jealous!

    • Barbara

      Exquisite recall of an unnatural encounter. Thank you 🙏!

    I was in London when I first encountered a fox. When it happened, I was expecting to be spoken to by a cat.

    One of the most wonderful things about walking through north London in the early mornings is the many outside cats who loiter around. Sometimes when they’re perched in rows on top of houses and walls, I feel as if they’re welcoming me into their realm. Other times, they seemed to be judging me for encroaching on it.

    Walking through this imagined animal kingdom feels more surreal on nights I’ve been out partying with friends. The walk home becomes an intoxicated glide through the streets, alone but for a few individuals coming back from work and others leaving for early shifts. On those nights, I feel as if I’m lingering on the edge of some wonderland, a magic world to which I might be granted access by a sudden word from one of the cats, that I might suddenly hear one asking me calmly if I had lost my way.

    Weeks before I met the fox, still hoping for a cat to speak, I told a friend about my love for foxes. To my surprise she said there was a good chance that I’d run into one in London. According to her, it’s harder to avoid foxes than to encounter them; they’re so numerous in the city that some people see them as equivalent to rodents. They dig through trash and sometimes attack cats, which naturally angers home and pet owners.

    I had always thought of foxes as creatures of the wild. In stories and nature shows about foxes, humans are rarely seen. It never occurred to me that to meet a fox, all I had to do was go to one of the most populous cities in the world and simply walk down the street. A conversation with a cat felt more possible.

    But there are reportedly over 10,000 red foxes in London, because urban expansion has destroyed their habitat over the years. In order to survive, the foxes moved into the city and learned to live around humans. City life has its benefits: there’s always plenty of wasted food to go around, and it’s easier to find shelter with so many structures and alleyways. But the city comes with unique dangers, from traffic to the violence and cruelty of its human inhabitants. The same human race that took away their natural homes still punishes foxes for adapting to their new urban life.

    red fox in the night on a sidewalk

    Photograph by Ben Aviston on Flickr

    The fox is a “fictional animal,” the folklorist Hans-Jörg Uther once said; there are “more tales of the fox than of other animals, such as the dog or the wolf.” While in the modern Western world the fox seems to have become the incarnation of the cunning trickster – in the figure of Reynard and others – it has a vast and diverse literary history. Tricksters survive and thrive by manipulating others – friends, family, and enemies alike. The trickster is amoral and only works for its own self-interest: depending on perspective and outcome, it can be hero or villain.

    Early Christian and medieval thought painted the fox as a symbol of evil, as demonic when it wasn’t mischievous. As Saint Dunstan prayed, the devil tried to distract him by changing into a fox, to which Dunstan responded: “You are revealing how you usually behave: by your tricks you flatter the unwary so that you can devour them. Now get out of here, wretch, since Christ, who crushed the lion and the dragon with his heel, will overcome you by his grace through me, whether you’re a wolf or a fox.”

    I knew a great number of fictional foxes before I ever met a real one. There was the fox Tod from The Fox and the Hound, Swiper from Dora the Explorer, the Fantastic Mr. Fox, Disney’s Robin Hood, the foxes from Redwall. And Japanese culture has myriad fox creatures, from the playful fox to the shape-shifting vixen and their own culturally specific evil and demonic foxes. In the anime Ushio and Tora the antagonist, Hakumen no Mono, is a gigantic silver fox with nine tails, over two thousand years old, who is the physical embodiment of evil. During the final battle, one of the protagonists says that Hakumen tends to have his face down with his eyes looking upwards – a posture that an individual or animal takes when he’s ashamed. Hakumen doesn’t deny it. He tells the story of his birth, that when the world was created, good energy floated upwards and formed humans, and bad energy floated down and became him. His hatred of humanity comes from his envy that he was made corrupt and ugly, that he couldn’t be like them. In response to the revelation, he blinds himself and rages against the heroes.

    In The Blue Fox by the Icelandic writer and musical artist Sjón, the idea of the fox as immoral and cunning is flipped when the fox engages with a human. The fox’s deceptive and clever nature suddenly becomes a way to avoid and survive the hunter. In encounters with humans, it is the fox who is the vulnerable one:

    Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves; indeed, they’re far trickier than white foxes, which always cast a shadow or look yellow against the snow.

    A blue vixen lies tight against her stone, letting the snow drift over her on the windward side. She turns her rump to the weather, curls up and pokes her snout under her thigh, lowering her eyelids till there’s the merest hint of a pupil. And so she keeps an eye on the man who has not shifted since he took cover under the overhanging drift, here on the upper slopes of Asheimar, some eighteen hours ago. The snow has drifted and fallen over him until he resembles nothing so much as a hump of ruined wall.

    The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

    The night I encountered a fox, I was coming home around three in the morning, walking down a small street toward a passageway that usually had cats watching from the tops of both walls. I swayed along, hoping as ever to be invited into their world. In that blissful state of mind, I met a wounded cat going the opposite way. I took about three steps before I stopped. I knew what a cat looked like. What I had walked past was not a cat.

    I turned slowly, not to scare the animal, and saw that my suspicion was right. It was a fox, an injured fox at that. It limped for a few steps before it also stopped and turned to look at me. I crouched in front of it. In that moment, it seemed that time was frozen, even as my heart was beating so fast. I had been so entranced by the idea of a magical world guarded by cats that I almost forgot the fox I had hoped to meet. The encounter with something fictional made real, the possibility of touching a real fox, was suddenly more enticing to me than anything.

    Knowing about a fox, learning its behaviors and life through shows and books, was much different from seeing one. I had its different fictions in me, while inches away was the living flesh.

    I knew that the fox was a wild animal. No matter how close it had been to humans in the city, it was not tame. Even the domesticated foxes I saw in videos retained a danger, a wildness, to them. That closeness to humans might have even made it more dangerous. Its injury was likely the consequence of being so close to human life, the continuation of that violence that destroyed its countryside home and pushed it to scavenge for survival. The small fox must have tangled with a human or a dog, or come in contact with a car. I knew that if I moved to touch it, it might well attack me in defense.

    Yet how badly I wanted to reach out my hand and feel its fur. To touch its body, its face, its nose. I wanted to scoop up the injured, lonesome creature, to carry it back with me and nurse it to health. It needed help, and the more it limped down the street, the more likely it was to encounter further danger. I wanted to save it. To reach past the barrier of the fictional to the real. To truly know what a fox is.

    Even as I wanted to avoid it biting me, I wanted to feel its teeth. I wanted to be rejected by the wild. For the fox to remain a fox, wild and unattainable, even in the streets of London. For the blood it would draw from my hand to be evidence of the permanent barrier of strangeness, of human and animal, the line between fiction and reality, that existed between the two of us. I wanted to know a fox, and at the same time, to know that I could never know him.

    The thrill of the encounter was part of enjoying the trickster, of not knowing its intentions. Would it come to me or betray me? Is betrayal even possible for a creature who was never meant to be grasped? The delight is in the horror of being lured into a trap, and the gratitude in being chosen to be part of its plans. The pain of being bitten and the joy of possibly knowing what it feels like to be bitten by a fox. Not only to see one, but to be marked by one.

    I don’t know how long the fox and I looked at each other, but it finally broke the connection, turning and limping away. I was no use to it and its survival in the unforgiving concrete jungle. I stood and watched until it was out of sight, just as the cats sometimes watched me.

    I’ve seen many foxes in person since then, on other late nights as well as in the daytime. Once I’d seen the first one, the rest were revealed. I’m glad that I never touched it. To do that would somehow have been to take away what I admire most about the creatures, their elemental strangeness. Maybe that’s just another fiction, but I feel that it was correct to resist the human urge of contact, that drive to grasp and dominate every creature and part of the world. It was faithful to the nature of the animal to respect the distance that has inherently remained, even as more and more foxes move into the human world.

    Contributed By Zito Madu Zito Madu

    Zito Madu is a writer living in Detroit, a contributor for GQ, and an avid lover of poetry.

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