SEEING THE WORLD WITH WILD EYES:
Foxy – My Pet Fox
Foxy – My Pet Fox
When I was a kid our house was a zoo. Even though we lived in a big city, near downtown, we had dozens of pets including several wild animals!
We had five to ten dogs at any given time. My dad raised blue ribbon hunting dogs. He trained them to hunt and sold them as a way to make a few extra dollars. We had up to a hundred tropical fish in seven tanks. My dad had a friend who owned a pet store and we sold fish to the pet store. I tell you, my house was a zoo.
We raised bobwhite quail that we let loose in the wild to help repopulate this native bird. For a long time my dad raised Gouldian finches from Australia. These birds are day-glow colors in the wild. But my dad started cross breeding them with simple Mendellian genetics and was able to get colors that never existed before! These birds had purple chests, red faces with a black circle around them, greenish-yellow backs and orange bellies. For a while he had 100 mated pairs of finches!
At different times we had a pet raccoon and a pet squirrel. We raised chickens for eggs and my brothers and I brought home the usual assortment of frogs and toads, snakes and salamanders. But my favorite pet was a red fox.
My dad had been out coon hunting with his brothers and cousins, my uncles. One of the dogs had found a dead fox by the side of the road. A car had hit the fox. The fox was so freshly killed that she was still warm. But that wasn’t the saddest part. The saddest part was that it was a lactating vixen, it was a mother fox with milk, which meant that somewhere out there in the woods were baby foxes without a mother.
The men put all of the dogs on leashes, except John Boy. He was an award winning hunting dog with the best nose in the business. John Boy picked up the scent of the fox and followed it back to the den. The kits, or baby foxes, were in an old hollow log. My dad crawled into the log and came out with three of the tiniest baby foxes you could imagine. Two went to my uncles and one came home with my dad.
By the time they got home from hunting it was four o’clock in the morning. My dad woke up my three brothers and I. He said, “Boys, come here. I have a surprise for you in the kitchen.”
When I walked into the glaring light of the kitchen, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I was amazed to see this little bundle of red fur. It had the cutest face, round eyes, round nose, and small rounded ears.
My mother had four babies of her own so she had lots of baby bottles. Mom warmed up some milk and put it in a bottle. Then she handed it to me. I had seen her feed my baby brother, so I knew to put a small drop on my wrist first to make sure it wasn’t too hot. It was warm but I didn’t flinch, so I knew it was just right. I loved the smell of warm milk. My dad handed me the tiny bundle of fur. I cupped it against my belly and put the nipple in her mouth. She was obviously very hungry. She suckled, gulping down the warm milk. The fox kit opened her eyes and looked into my eyes. We stared at each other, lost in that moment.
When a baby feeds, whoever is feeding the baby is seen as its mother. I felt like the baby fox’s mother. She looked at me as if she were my pup. In that moment we bonded and I began to see the world through a fox’s eyes.
My brothers and I argued at length about what to name our pet fox. We made a long list of possibilities. We finally decided on the most creative, original name we could imagine… NOT! We named our pet fox Foxy.
Foxy grew up fast. We had lots of adventures together. I could tell dozens of stories about her. Let me tell you about three:
One morning I came down to breakfast in my pajamas with bare feet. My mom had made some hot oatmeal for breakfast. As I was standing in line with my brothers waiting for my oatmeal, Foxy was walking around my feet. I wiggled my toes and Foxy pounced on them! Ouch! I got an idea. I wiggled my toes on the other foot. She pounced on those toes. Ouch! She would pounce on my toes and I would jump. Ouch! But as I lifted one foot she would pounce on the other. Ouch! Faster than I could jump from one foot to the other Foxy would pounce back and fourth. This was a really fun game while she was little, but as she grew so did her claws and her teeth. Ouch! Ou! Ow!
In that moment she showed me that even though we thought of her as our pet, she wasn’t. She was a wild animal with instincts that would help her survive on her own. Playing at pouncing was how a wild animal practices what she needs to know to survive. From the beginning my dad told us, “A wild animal does not make a good pet. She will be much happier running free.” So we knew that eventually we would have to let her go. Our hope was that she could fend for herself. She was showing us that she was quick, quicker than we were. As we hopped from foot to foot she would pounce on the other foot before we could lift it! Ouch! Ou! Oh!
THE PET SHOW
That summer, my brothers and I went to a day camp at the local city park. One day they announced a pet show and told us we should all bring our favorite pet and they would give out prizes. Lots of kids brought their dogs and cats. A few kids brought gerbils, hamsters, and birds in cages. One girl even brought her goldfish in a glass jar. It was one of those speckled goldfish with big, bulbous eyes. But we were the only kids in town who had a pet fox.
We put a little green collar on her and walked her like a dog on a leash. Of course she won best of show. We received the biggest red, white and blue ribbon. Everyone loved that she was smart, social and playful like a dog, but a little aloof and independent like a cat.
My older brother, a teenager, was holding the leash after the pet show. He was talking to this foxy girl, showing off, and he was not paying attention to the four-legged Foxy-girl. Near-by there was a great big German Shepherd who was growling at Foxy. Foxy was not afraid. She was pulling on her leash, inching over closer to this big mean dog. My brother was not paying attention. All of the sudden the dog lunged at Foxy, growling, barking and foaming at the mouth. But Foxy was so suave, so cool. She dropped back on her hind legs, just out of reach of the German Shepherd and as quick as any boxer she reached out and slapped the dog on the nose with her sharp little claws. That great big dog yelped and slunk away, a coward, afraid of our little Foxy and her lightning quick jab!
In that moment, Foxy showed us she was no pushover. She was brave and quick. She showed me that indeed the old saying was true, dynamite comes in small packages! And maybe, maybe she could take care of herself; maybe she could make it on her own in the forests and fields of her natural home. As summer was winding down we knew that she would soon be turned loose to roam wild on her own.
To help her with the transition, and because my mom was tired of Foxy chewing up the legs on her furniture, tearing up the pillows on the couch, and leaving little smelly presents under the bed, we put Foxy outside in one of the dog pens. She climbed out the top, so we put a fence over it. She dug a tunnel under the fence, so we filled the holes with big rocks. She dug around them, so we put her on a leash inside the dog pen.
She still dug out under the fence and quickly learned how long the leash was, how far she could go. Luckily for her it was a long leash because she would hunt in the tall grass behind her pen. There were little birds that visited the tall grass and took dust baths in the alley behind our house. The sparrows would rub their chest in the dust to rid their feathers of mites and lice. The finches would eat the seeds of the tall grasses and weeds. I know because I would watch Foxy hunt. I would watch her watch the birds.
A FLYING FOX!
I loved to watch her hunt. She would quietly crawl under the fence and sit perfectly still in the tall grass. Of course the birds would fly away when they saw her coming. But she would settle down to wait and her mottled red fur blended in beautifully with the brown and reddish-yellow of the dried grasses. She would sit still as long as it took for the birds to forget she was there. I, too, would sit perfectly still and watch. As I watched I began to imagine what it would be like to be a fox, to have red fur, sharp claws and teeth, a bushy tail. I began to see the world through her eyes.
Eventually, the birds would come back, tentatively at first. But it wouldn’t be long before they would begin to take dust baths, fluffing their feathers and stretching their wings without a care in the world. At this moment, when the birds least expected it, Foxy would pounce. But she did not leap straight at the birds; she was smarter than that. She knew that birds could fly. She would leap into the air above the birds. She would turn herself around mid-air so the birds flew up into her. When she landed, she landed on a bird.
She would have more than feathers for lunch!
She knew just how long the leash was, how high she could jump. She could not only predict the flight path of the birds; she could direct them with her pounce and maneuver herself mid-air to intercept them. She caught so many birds that she stopped eating her dog food and began to cache or hide some of the extra birds so she could eat them later.
Of course we helped a little by putting bird food on the ground behind her pen and raking the alley for the perfect dust bath. We may have lured them in, but it was Foxy who caught them.
We now knew that Foxy could feed herself. She was quick. She was brave. And she was a great hunter. At dinner our family discussed how and when to turn her loose. We all agreed that she would be happier in the wild and we were sad to see her go.
ON HER OWN
I would like to tell you that this story has a happy ending, but to be honest, I’m not sure how the story ends, there are parts I can only imagine.
One of the last weekends before school started our family typically went camping one last time. We often went to my uncle’s lake house in western rural Ohio and camped on the shore of Lake Diane. We got our neighbor to feed and take care of our pets while we were gone. When we got home Foxy was gone. She had chewed or torn the fastener where the chain linked to the fence.
We looked high and low but could not find her. There was a huge swamp in my neighborhood, “undeveloped wetlands” between two rivers, surrounded by junk yards, a toxic waste dump, project housing, factories, a prison and my neighborhood. We thought, we hoped, that she had found her way into the marsh and could make a go of it there. We knew there were other foxes there and plenty of mice, rats, snakes, berries, and little birds for her to eat. I did see Foxy in an alley on my way to school that fall. She had knocked over a garbage can and was gnawing on a bone. I knew it was her, because she still had on the green collar. When I called her, she looked at me like she was tempted to come. She thought about it, but decided to take her bone and run.
We caught glimpses of her several times that fall, but she never came when we called. As fall turned to winter we saw less and less of her. I must admit that we were most worried about her making it through the winter. Toledo winters can be harsh. There were frequent blizzards and sometimes a whole week would pass and the temperature was not above zero.
The next spring I was playing in the marsh with some friends. We climbed a great big oak tree overlooking a large meadow. From the top of the tree you could see the skyscrapers of downtown Toledo, the Maumee River, and the smokestacks across the river. My best friend Chip saw the foxes first. He tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. I don’t know if it was Foxy for sure, but there were two foxes frolicking together. I yelled, “Foxy!” and they both looked up at us before they ran away.
I would like to think one of them was Foxy. I would like to imagine that Foxy and her mate raised a litter of kits that spring so long ago. I like to imagine that the children and grand children of those foxes still hunt in my neighborhood, but I don’t know for sure.
I will tell you what I do know. I still carry a picture of Foxy in my wallet. I love to pull out the picture and look into her eyes. I remember all of the adventures we had, all the things I learned from her: to be quick and brave, to take care of yourself and put a little extra away for leaner times and most importantly, through her, I learned to see the world with wild eyes.