Just inside the woods behind our kitchen, a feldspar outcropping was blasted about a century ago, leaving a vertical ledge that looks like an ancient ruin. Ashes and maples have grown up in the rubble at its base; ferns and moss have colonized all but the steepest parts of it. For at least 50 years, porcupines have occupied one of its deeper crannies. They are model tenants. They mind their business; we mind ours. When we happen upon one, it seems abashed and bustles off as best it can.
Early one morning this spring, I glanced out the kitchen window and found we had new tenants. A red fox cub sat on a flat rock under the bird feeder, about 30 feet away, staring intently in at me. I watched it until the coffee was ready. When I looked out after breakfast, it was curled up on the rock and fast asleep. It was about the size of a six-week-old kitten, and just as fluffy.
It turned out to have two equally unshy siblings; the parents were more circumspect. The vixen was much the smaller — subtract the tail and she was scarcely bigger than a housecat, perhaps half the size of her mate. She would hang back in the woods while the kits came out to sun, sleep, or frolic under the bird feeder. Within two weeks, both parents spent their days hunting, leaving the kits unsupervised. The kits began venturing farther from the den, sometimes together and sometimes separately.
Before myth became history, did foxes consider the trade-offs involved and cast their fate with ours, then think better of it?
Red foxes are astonishingly adaptable, inhabiting most of the Northern Hemisphere, from above the Arctic Circle down deep into the tropics — deserts, alpine meadows, tropical rainforests, the Mongolian steppes, and the Siberian taiga. But they are partial to our species, and have hung around us so persistently as to inhabit a particular cranny of our collective imaginations, as evidenced by folklore, proverbs, and fables that go back for millennia, and, more recently, by nursery rhymes, children’s books, and animated cartoons. They are never entirely wild and fearsome, but familiar and local, skulking around barnyards, henhouses, and rabbit hutches like pickpockets and shysters around country fairs and racetracks. In most stories, they outwit everybody, and then themselves. We apparently have a sneaking fondness for such sneaky fellows, and our stories generally let them off with nothing worse than a comeuppance and a bruise or two. They will be back; the game will go on.
As they grew accustomed to us, the kits would sit and watch, cocking their ears quizzically when spoken to, or else prancing flirtatiously. In my experience, this endearing behavior is typical, as though kits cannot decide whether people represent threats or potential playmates. Even adult foxes, at a safe distance, sit and study us attentively: they the ornithologists and we the birds. Their behavior most closely resembles that of feral cats — too familiar with us greatly to fear us; too independent to crave closer contact.
Before myth became history, did foxes — like dogs, cats, chickens, and livestock — consider the trade-offs involved and cast their fate with ours, then think better of it after a few eons? Throughout the historical past we have trapped, hunted, hounded, and poisoned them to the best of our ability. Samson caught them by the hundreds, set their tails on fire, and became a hero of the highest order. Yet they don’t dread us and can’t quite leave us. Behind their predatory opportunism and our persecution there seems to be a sort of reproachful longing for a might-have-been that neither species can quite ignore.