Pets not Pests: Foxes Deserve Better.
When I took on a single, three-week-old, orphaned fox kit for family friends I had no idea what I was signing up for. This is my first fox Robin [pictured below]. Like any puppy he chewed my shoelaces; peed on my bed and tried to eat my breakfast cereal. Ultimately however, he did something no puppy could have, he catapulted me into a daily battle to save one of Australia’s most hated animals.
Imagine for a moment waking up before work one day to be greeted by the following email:
You people are sick. Fucking clueless idiots. Hunting is humane. Kill ‘em all.
This is just one of the many hundreds of emails I read each year in my role as Sydney Fox Rescue president. I have been called many things over the past two years ranging from: “a short sighted greenie” to the less kind: “absolute nutter”. Photographs of dead, mutilated animals accompany many of the emails. The same animals I have taken into my heart and home, posthumously posed, bleeding and broken, beside guns and spotlights.
Let’s start at the beginning. Sydney Fox Rescue was foundered in 2012 on the principle of neutrality. That is to say we do not run political campaigns. We take foxes from veterinary clinics and we take foxes from hunters (more than you’d think). No questions asked. We respect that we are not the only solution to foxes in Australia or even necessarily the best solution. But what we can do is provide an option for foxes, as individuals, on a case-by-case basis. We desex, socialize and rehome these foxes and no fox is ever released. With this in mind I don’t think any of us quite anticipated the sheer volume of opposition our program would be met with from hunters, farmers and environmentalists alike across Australia.
The first time I encountered opposition to foxes from a friend was in 2012. At the time, my first fox Robin was racing around my home, a five-week-old bundle of teeth and claws busy stealing the hearts of everyone he met. When I informed friends that I had been unable to place him with a wildlife park and was going to try and keep him myself one particular friend went out of their way to rebuke me and shame me for my decision.
We meet two primary forms of opposition at our rescue. I call them “pro-fox” and “anti-fox”. This friend’s argument was distinctly “pro-fox”. Pro-fox-ers believe that foxes cannot possibly adapt to life in captivity. Indeed, this is a concern we have to consider on a day-to-day basis, and not one we take lightly. However I firmly believe that most foxes, socialized with humans from a young age can live long; contented lives in captivity. I imagine most fox owners will tell you the same. In no way am I suggesting that foxes will ever become your house-hold moggy, however with no possibility of release [Illegal in New South Wales], socializing these animals to live with humans is their best option. We often wish everyone could spend just 5 minutes in our shoes and see the side to these animals we see as their carers and their friends. There’s nothing that compares with a fox wagging its tail and squealing in sheer joy just at the site of you.
But it is rarely the pro-fox-ers who present the most vicious opposition. They are not the type of people to call at 2am and tell you about the fox they have just killed. There’s nothing like gun nuts that know your phone number to keep you awake at night. With this in mind let’s talk about the anti-fox-ers. Anti-fox-ers lay claim to a whole host of justifications for the resentment they bare for our program. Some of these reasons include:
- Foxes will escape
- Foxes kill: natives; chickens; sheep; pocket pets… etc.
- Foxes are inherently: cruel; ruthless; vicious… etc.
In terms of escaping foxes, this is an easy one. We have very stringent procedures to reduce the potential of this happening and to manage such a situation should it arise. Potential owners are screened and install secure custom enclosures, all foxes are desexed, fitted with ID tags and many owners have double gates, GPS or radio trackers and even cameras. Newsflash: home means food, family and comfort for rescue foxes, many of them have lived their whole lives in captivity and have neither the desire nor the skills to return to the wild.
The initial point seems irrelevant, our foxes live in captivity… they are not killing anything right? However there is a bigger picture here, which relates to the second point. Foxes have been so demonized by the media and popular culture in Australia that to the anti-fox-ers the possibility of allowing them into our homes seems impossible, deviant and abhorrent. Furthermore they cannot both see these animals as pets in domestic homes and continue to kill their wild counterparts. It is this type of cognitive dissonance that I believe under-pins many anti-fox-ers actions and beliefs.
By bringing foxes into our homes and showing people photographs like these [see below] we are visibly changing the culture around foxes in Australia. The foxes we show, cuddled up on the couch or playing at local dog parks are creating a stark contrast to the skulking animals in popular culture that sneak into chicken coops in the night or maim new born lambs. Does this mean these things don’t happen? Of course not, foxes are first and foremost wild animals. They are an introduced species that has adapted (remarkably well) to the Australian landscape. Foxes are undoubtedly a threat to both natives and livestock but so to some extent are cats, dogs, dingoes and heavy industry. Eating and hunting to survive, to feed your family, does not make you into the soulless, coldblooded killer popular culture would have us believe.
The type of killing reserved for foxes in Australia is unique. I grew up rural Victoria, where there has been a bounty on foxes for as long as I can remember. The effectiveness of hunting as a form of pest management is debatable. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. What I am here to talk about is the cruelty, torture and prolonged suffering I’ve seen inflicted on foxes. I’m here to talk about the first ever animal to die in my arms. I’m here to speak out.
Whether there is anyway to humanely kill an animal is debatable, but certainly a bullet at blank point range could be considered a more humane method than most. This is not however the only method, legal or in wide spread use, for the control and eradication of foxes.
The first foxes I ever remember seeing as a child were on the route to my primary school. Tailless (for the bounty), they hung lifeless from fences and trees, nailed up and riddled with flies. To this day I struggle to grasp the human need to display something we have killed. I have been told it is to deter other foxes, however as intelligent as foxes might be, my time with them tells me this this is simply not true. These bodies are trophies. Because there is nothing that says “I’m a man” like killing a 5kg animal, caught in a spot light, with a firearm, from 100 feet away… Except perhaps doing so with a crossbow. Unlike a firearm, when an animal is shot with a bow (legal in all but a handful of states), it may take several minutes to die, suffering severe pain from shock, tissue and organ damage. Non-fatal wounds are common and may result in a prolonged death over days and weeks from blood poisoning and infection. This is hardly the worst of it… It was not uncommon for people to swerve to hit foxes on the road where I grew up; before cutting the tails from the stunned (and sometimes still breathing) animals, again for the bounty. Tell me is this humane pest control?
Perhaps one of the worst ways to die as a fox is by dog hunting. Torn apart, piece-by-piece by crushing jaws and tearing teeth. This is how Swiper died.
We received a call early one morning about a fox that had been attacked by a litter of pig-dog puppies. The fox was alive but had severe injuries. When we arrived we found Swiper. Barely 2kg in weight, Swiper lay motionless in a small cage in the back of a Holden Utility. He had a cluster of flies around him and at first his breathing was too shallow to be noticeable. I thought he must be dead. Unfortunately he was not. As I lifted him from the cage the first thing I noticed was the smell. His wound was at least a day old and had begun to fester. There is no eloquent way to describe it: he had been ring barked. There was no skin from his shoulder to his hindquarters; instead dark red, raw muscle was exposed. His gums were white. His tongue was blue. I bundled him in fleece and dribbled water down his throat, but try as I might on the journey to the vet, Swiper died in my arms. I remember pounding my fists on the dashboard, pressing my lips to his and trying to breath air into his tiny, lifeless lungs. But he was gone.
What I haven’t told you is that Swiper was not a wild fox when he sustained his injuries. Swiper was trapped on a property and kept for weeks in a laundry. Eventually his captor’s own dogs broke into the small cage he lived in and tore him apart. They left him, cold and alone till morning before phoning us. However, because Swiper was a fox no amount of phone calls to the RSPCA will ever see anyone prosecuted for his death. He died because of his species and his death has gone unpunished for the same reason.
Every day foxes like Swiper are killed and forgotten because some 200 years ago our ancestors brought them here to hunt and they adapted. Swiper has a name and that makes him standout. Just like our rescue foxes stand out. But really he is just one fox, one story, among a 1000… Among a 100,000. He is just another casualty in a senseless war. But by telling you his story I hope I’ve made you think about the injustice of it all. The injustice that one species should be stood apart and demonized in the way that foxes are in this country. If my work at Sydney Fox Rescue has taught me anything in the past two years it is this: foxes are not soulless, ruthless, killers. People are. Foxes are just animals like any other animals. They are the under-dogs in this country and I will fight for them till the day I die.
Foxes deserve better.