Not long ago, a friend told me she was having fox problems in her garden. Having taken over a rotted tree trunk as a ‘breeding earth’, or den, they were making a nuisance of themselves.
My friend lives in Kilburn, in north-west London, but her experience is common to neighborhoods across the city, the well-kept and the grubby.
Visiting my friend, I saw fox cubs cavorting, snapping at fresh green blades of grass, charming but pesky. The fox situation came at a time when she had other things to be worrying about. Her worries were the stuff of an ordinary urban life; to do with raising a toddler, hustling for gigs as a filmmaker and trying to care for an ailing mother overseas. The last thing she needed was a breeding earth out the back.
The dilemma of that fox invasion, smack bang in Zone 2, got me thinking. Not because I’m any great naturalist; I’m not. From Aesop onwards, foxes have appeared in our literature as a species whose capacities and traits serve as a mirror for our own.
There was Archilochus, the Greek poet of the 7th century BC, from whom we take the aphorism: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Preserved as a fragment, it was famously repurposed by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin as a way of dividing thinkers with a singular vision (hedgehogs) from those who delight in variety (foxes).
Then there was Aesop with his moral fables; 28 of them feature foxes. Aesop’s fox is a smooth talker, a raconteur much like his creator: tradition has it that Aesop was a slave whose talent for storytelling won him his freedom.
My favorite, the Fox and the Grapes, tells of a fox that, after trying in vain to eat the grapes from a vine, remarked that they were unripe and sour in any case; this was the origin of the expression ‘sour grapes’. The tale has been retold many times, including by Jean de La Fontaine, the seventeenth century poet, whose sculpture in the Louvre shows him sitting with a fox at his feet.
The well-known Reynard the Fox, a trickster figure in the medieval tales of northern Europe, became a prototype for characters with cunning, wit and a dash of the libertine. In Japanese lore, the kitsune, or fox, is a shape-shifting spirit that can appear in human form.
And, in a nod to the creatures’ association with deceit, Shakespeare put a fox reference in Henry IV, having Falstaff tell a tavern hostess there is ‘no more truth in thee than in a drawn fox.’
I’ve been trying to pin down why it matters to think about foxes. Why bother to catalog their appearances in literature and in our lives, the occasions when they deign to reveal themselves?
I started thinking about foxes when they began appearing in a book of short stories I was writing: that breeding den in Kilburn turned up in the first story. The collection is really about people, about the shapeshifting that goes on in contemporary life. I gave the book the title In The Time of Foxes.
Foxes crop up often in our stories for a reason. They have long crossed paths with humans in real life: fox bones have been found in prehistoric human graves in Spain and the Levant.
In global terms, the red fox, vulpes vulpes, is a hugely successful species. Humans aside, they are the land mammal with the greatest geographical spread of habitats. They are furry conquistadors, colonizing every continent bar Antarctica.
The first fox I remember encountering as a child was on Australia’s Mount Kosciusko, in the high country near where I grew up. It looked absurdly content, with a luxuriant coat and an inquisitive gaze. In Australia, foxes are an introduced species (and therefore doubly feral). They are loathed by sheep graziers and backyard chicken-keepers alike. I knew foxes were considered animalia-non-grata, but that first alpine sighting enchanted me anyway.
Lately, foxes have taken to living like cosmopolitan urbanites. The fox is in decline in the English countryside despite the hunting ban imposed in 2004. But it has the run of cities like London, where there are an estimated 18 foxes per square kilometer.
In 2011, workers erecting the glittering edifice of the Shard, the London skyscraper, were astonished to find a fox had taken up digs on the 72nd floor. It evaded capture for two weeks before it was trapped and released into the wild.
Researching recent fox-human relations, I trawled news reports and YouTube. The animals provoke wildly different feelings: some would have the blighters shot, while others feed and encourage them. Council attempts at eradication have generally failed; as soon as a fox is removed from an area, another will claim the territory.
The fact that foxes live among us is part of their fascination. This is something that the writer Jon Day touched on in Homing, his book about raising and racing pigeons in East London. Pigeons are feral rather than wild birds, and not especially romantic. This makes them, writes Day, ‘what biologists call “synanthropes”: creatures that live alongside rather than apart from us, thriving in the environments human beings have created for themselves.’
The same goes for foxes. We tend to think our cities are for us; they may well think otherwise. They find easier pickings here than in the countryside. There’s lots of pet food, rats, and the bins at the back of the high street chippie.
It’s a version of another familiar tale: the provincial drawn to the big smoke. This is a human story too; I for one could not leave the small towns of my school years soon enough.
Great cities call to us with a siren song: opportunity, possibility, an infinite variety of activity and ideas. Usually, they promise theatres and gigs, spaces peopled with bodies in real time, and chosen communities that feel especially precious against all that atomised, teeming life.
In the early Nineties, the sociologist Saskia Sassen, the Dutch-born, American-resident scholar of globalisation and migration, first wrote about global cities, coining the phrase to describe cultural and financial hubs, wielding power and influence. She meant London, New York and Tokyo; now other cities quibble over whether they make the grade.
In 2009, it was reported that for the first time in history the world’s urban population outnumbered its rural population. This marked a momentous shift. It was the year we became, by a narrow but ever-growing majority, a species of city-dwellers.
In paying attention to foxes, then, we are compelled to notice how and where we live our (human) lives. Our habitats, in a word. And there’s the rub: the more that we, as humans, opt to live in cities, the more foxes do too.
Now, of course, things are starting to look a little different.
In a year marked by the novel corona virus – reportedly a zoonotic virus that jumped from a non-human animal, perhaps a pangolin via a bat – we human city-dwellers have been forced to withdraw from the urban commons.
We’re spending more time in our private spaces, with fewer of those siren pleasures that first drew us to city life. My flat, like many others, is feeling cramped, a borderless tangle of home office, abode and gym.
My Instagram feed shows friends (or some of them, the ones who can) vacating their city lives for apparently bucolic retreats. It’s a handy time to have a familial acreage in upstate New York. Londoners have been criticised for decamping to second homes in the countryside, potentially burdening the health system in regions where resources are lacking. But retreat many have; one couple I know are building an isolation studio on their farm in Kent, designed to allow an adult daughter, a paramedic, to safely return from time to time.
All of which points to a shift in our long love affair with the metropolis. Not quite a rupture, not quite a break-up. Or not yet. We live in hope of a grand reunion. Even so, this raises the question: if we drastically change the ways we use our cities, what does this mean for our vulpine neighbors?
Since spring, people have been sending me photos of foxes in the newly-quiet streets of London and other cities, as if by writing about foxes I’ve conjured them up. Tagged in tweets, I have been asked, ‘Is this your doing, Jo?’
In one photo, taken at my old college in Oxford, St Catherine’s, a fleet-footed creature darts across a well-tended lawn (‘Very bold,’ the master wrote in an email to me). In another is a fox with a wild stare on a university campus in Sydney; it is said to have bitten several people.
In London, sightings are up from Ealing to Blackheath. Professor Dawn Scott, head of life sciences at Keele University in Staffordshire, has begun a project investigating the phenomenon.
We shouldn’t be surprised that foxes are quick to take advantage. We know that humans influence fox behaviour and even their morphology. In proximity to us, they are more nocturnal. In Britain’s cities, as one recent study showed, they are evolving to become more dog-like, with shorter snouts for foraging in garbage.
Seeing animals run amok is not all bad. As one friend reflected: ‘For all the time I spend moaning about the foxes in our garden, the little poos on top of the shed, the smell of wee wafting into the kitchen, over the last six months we’ve watched them play and frolic from our window. It was nice to see something, anything having fun outside. No hesitation, no two meters, no masks!’
The foxes’ boldness through these months speaks to our withdrawal. If nature abhors a vacuum, foxes enjoy a car-free road; in normal times, they’re at risk from hit and runs.
As we (cautiously, haltingly) resume some aspects of city life, foxes are still about. Autumn is a time when they are on the move. Fox families split up as grown cubs disperse or are driven out. Late in the season, vixens investigate likely spots for breeding, and the life cycle begins again. Of all the traits we associate with foxes, their defining quality has to be their adaptability. If nothing else, they are survivors.
A case in point: my friend in Kilburn reported her foxes to the landlord, who sent a specialist around. He dug out the rotted trunk, doused the area with repellent, and after a few days (when they were sure the animals had decamped) paved the patch of ground.
And it worked — for a while. Then the foxes reappeared and, utterly unfazed, pilfered the solar lights from the neighbor’s place and strew them about my friend’s garden, as if to say yes, we are still here.
It strikes me that the arts of survival — of reinvention, shapeshifting, adaptation — all have something a bit feral about them. They’re scrappy skills, backed-into-a-corner skills. And as we try to adapt in these uncertain times, we could do worse than take the fox as our spirit animal.
Jo Lennan is the author of In The Time of Foxes*, a collection of short stories (Scribner 2020). Born in Australia, she studied in Sydney and Oxford. She has contributed to The Economist, 1843 Magazine and Time, and her short stories have appeared in literary journals The Junket and Meanjin. Find her on instagram @jolennan.
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