Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Drawing lines

Anyone in the UK listening to the news on the radio this week will probably be aware of the most recent story featuring an urban family’s close and unwelcome encounter with a wild animal, resulting in injury and anger and sparking a wide debate into a controversial subject; are urban foxes a danger and what should be done?

Before I write any more, I wish to point out that as I have not heard every detail of the situation mentioned, or any other similar situation, I will refrain from commenting on the specific case mentioned above, and any following opinions are solely mine, based on a general overview of human interactions with wildlife in my limited experience. These views are not set in stone and as and when new evidence is revealed I would happily accept and adapt to new points of view.
There have been several incidents reported in the news in the past few years, of close encounters between people and urban foxes. In some cases the evidence is tenuous, others undisputed  and the subjects potential for sparking debate and controversy means it is a story eagerly snapped up by the press.
In every story, people are quick to blame the fox, call for a cull, hold the humans affected up as victims of cruel and evil circumstances. I do not dispute the fact that the situation is far from welcome or not insignificant, and my thoughts and sympathies are with every family affected by such an encounter. However, it appears to me that there may be more to the story than simply foxes being ‘evil’ or ‘dangerous’.    

Foxes are wild animals. Wild animals are not human; they do not live their lives by the same set of rules and morals that we do. Therefore, when our worlds overlap, there will undoubtedly be occasional conflict. In cities, our worlds and that of the urban fox overlap almost entirely. The nature of the fox has allowed it to evolve and adapt to the landscape we have created, just as it would adapt to a change in the rural landscape.
Foxes are omnivorous, intelligent and opportunistic. That means they will eat a wide variety of food, (although prefer to be carnivorous); a useful trait in cities when a freshly caught rabbit is not always available. They are smart, they learn quickly and remember. And the fox, rural or urban is opportunistic; it will investigate and make the most out of any opportunity it finds; any new chance for food or increased territory, increased chance of survival of itself and its species.

We have tarmacked fields and ploughed down woodland, replacing trees with skyscrapers and ponds with playgrounds. Where once there was a species that preyed on rabbits and voles of grassy banks, there is now the urbanised fox that stalks scraps in bins, hunts rats behind warehouses and, alongside a number of urbanised badgers, savours hand-picked treats of kitchen leftovers, chicken carcases and dog food from half the gardens in the street. These foxes pass within feet of humans and cross busy roads, and find that they are not shot or chased by hounds or shooed from the garden by an angry two-legged broom-wielding home-owner. Urbanised foxes have nothing to fear save the odd feral cat that takes a dislike, the speeding lorry on the outskirts of town, or the trophy-dog straining on its chain and studded collar. A predator armed with teeth and claws, and an ability to run fast and squeeze through small spaces, it can take on the investigation of opportunities confident that it can rely on its instincts of fight or flight if things go wrong.

With the encouragement of TV programs featuring the cute and cuddly, we see the beauty and wonder of foxes and forget the wild side. We invite them into our world, feed them on our back doorsteps, and deny their true wild nature. When these wild creatures break the tamed image of them that we have created and follow their opportunistic instincts in a way that doesn't follow our human rules and morals that we have imposed upon the world and everything in it, we suddenly realise that we have a wild predator far too close for comfort.  And we blame the fox.

We have created in our cities, the perfect habitat, the prefect niche for the urban fox and they are here to stay. A fact we have to accept.
I can’t help but admire foxes, for their beauty, their intelligence, and their ability to thrive in our human world where so many other species struggle. As a conservationist I believe it is important that we protect conserve and enhance the natural environment and the species within it, including urban habitats. With any animal species you care to mention from deer to squirrel, goose or lion, from elephant to toad, to rabbit or even ant, localised problems can arise both in rural and urban areas, stemming from conflict with human needs, the needs of other co-existing species, or the actions of rogue individuals. Although as a general rule I dislike the killing of animals, in certain situations the very carefully monitored culling of individuals or controlling of populations can be the best answer for the benefit and improved health and future of the species as a whole.

We are part of the pattern of nature and human interaction with wildlife is vital to its’ future and our own well being  it sparks wonder, curiosity, even love. But where do we draw the line? Urban foxes and indeed badgers have adapted themselves and done very well without our help. Do these highly skilled opportunistic scavengers and hunters, who are probably better adapted to survive on the city streets than ourselves, really need us to feed them in our gardens, purposely invite them inside the boundaries of our homes? By interacting so closely, are we risking tipping the balance, inviting conflict which will then reflect badly on the fox and spark hatred and violence towards the species?
In the long run, are we just killing it with kindness?

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