Riverdave's Journal
October 4, 2009

      After covering bears in a previous essay, I believe that it is important to mention another predator group of our area, the wild canines.  In the North Carolina Piedmont, this includes three species - the native gray fox, the naturalized red fox and our newly forming population of coyotes that have recently moved into our region from western states.

      With the new influx of coyotes, the gray fox population is holding up well, whereas the red fox population is declining.  Perhaps this has to do with the gray fox being the native and the red fox an introduced species. The red fox was brought to the New World in the early 1700s by Europeans for hunting. Also, the gray fox has an interesting defense tactic that its red cousin lacks - it has hooked claws and can climb a tree like a cat!

      The ability to climb also provides an opportunity for fruit and insect foraging unattainable to its grounded red cousin.  This added New World ability successfully voids the conundrum of Aesop’s Fable, the Fox and the Grapes. In that story, the red fox walks under a clump of sumptuous hanging grapes. Unable to reach them, he trots away saying to himself that they are most likely sour.  But our New World gray fox might have simply scampered up a nearby tree and devoured them!

     Local fluctuations in gray fox populations have more to do with its susceptibility to canine distemper, a disease brought over from the Old World, against which the gray fox has no historical immunity. But even after distemper outbreaks, the gray fox population seems to recover quickly and is doing well.

      The gray fox is slightly smaller than the red and is quickly distinguished by a dark streak going down its back onto the tail, which ends with several inches of dark tail tip. Females are larger than males. The gray fox is a predator that has managed to thrive along with the economic growth and population expansion of the North Carolina Piedmont. Estimates are that today, there are probably more gray fox in our area than at any other time in history.

      But it baffles me how our modern American culture can celebrate domestic dog companionship and ownership, while at the same time disrespect and often hate the wild canines of our land. Perhaps it is actually the state of wildness that many of us are really uncomfortable with - that condition of life flourishing freely outside the boundaries and constraints of human control.

      For some reason, this freedom is intolerable for certain kinds of personalities whose world view only allows for a God ordained, totally human dominion of the natural world. The idea of any remaining pockets of wildness still left on the planet, and especially in our own neighborhoods, seems to strike directly at our sacredly held notion of the goodness and necessity of advancing human civilization.

      While scanning online articles about coyotes, I was amazed at the high number of You Tube clips I could choose from that depict coyote hunting just for the sport of it. Using digital callers to attract the animal, men with high powered rifles gun down innocent animals leaving their carcasses in the field to rot.  Grinning faces celebrate the conquest with high fives all around. 

      A conscious decision on our part to overcome negative wild canine stereotypes could be an important step of reconciliation.  I know for myself that as a child, I heard in Sunday School that Jesus of Nazareth spoke of Antipas, the evil ruler who beheaded John the Baptist, as “that fox.” This type of negative predator imaging can initiate subtle and ingrained prejudices. 

      Perhaps the real challenge is how to allow the domestic side in each of us to live in balance with our own inner wild side. Foxes are mostly nocturnal.  The idea of a prowling canine carnivore, crawling out of a hole at night, is most unsettling to the human psyche.  Are we ready to make a conscious shift away from our own predator and pastoral pasts, when the fox was our sworn enemy who was blamed for raiding the hen house?

      Can we now embrace an attitude of respect and coexistence with a prowling nocturnal predator like our new neighbor the coyote and even celebrate the diversity of non-human life? Can we adopt a more enlightened view of the planet that sees each animal as an integral and equal part that supports the whole that we ourselves as humans are a part of and dependent upon?  And taking an even bigger step, can we accept wild canines as teachers, learning how to live in a more efficient and sustainable way than we presently do?
***Photo by Martin Love: A friendly gray fox visitation on his property in Chapel Hill, NC