The Streetwise Cousin Of the Cautious Country Fox


FOXES have long been given what is known as ``bad press.'' Book after book has presented them as sly and cunning. They may look like gentlemen, but hidden behind the smooth talk and the charm lurks danger! When Walt Disney wanted a plausible but wicked character to lead Pinnochio astray, he chose a fox. When Beatrix Potter wanted to trick a rather silly white duck in a poke bonnet, she chose a fox. When the Greek writer of fables, over 2,000 years ago, wanted an animal to represent cleverness or craftiness, he, too, chose the fox. But Aesop sometimes wrote about foxes as sad victims of circumstance; he saw that even this wily creature has two sides to its nature.

Keeping ducks in our back garden, I must admit we have developed a suspicion of foxes. This may strike you as odd when I tell you that we live in a city. But the fact is that foxes live here too, and we have to watch out! City foxes, no less than their country cousins, have a taste for duck....

I happen to think that city foxes should know better. Beatrix Potter and Aesop both wrote versions of the story of ``The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,'' the point being that mice behave differently in these two quite different habitats. In the city they depend on the waste provided (usually unwittingly) by all the humans. In the country they live by different rules and feed on food provided directly by nature. The point is, of course, that everyone thinks of ``wild'' animals - even little ones - as naturally belonging in the country. If they set up in cities, it seems somehow unnatural. And yet vast numbers of people clearly think cities are the best place for people to live in ... and more and more wild animals are following suit. At least it seems like that; but maybe wild animals have always been city dwellers, or for centuries anyway, if Aesop's mousey ``Citizen of the Town'' is anything to go by. Either way, it isn't just that they stray into cities by mistake like Miss Potter's country mouse doe s. They show every sign of actually preferring cities.

I've lived in the country and in the city. In the country I saw wild animals and birds that I've never seen in the city: hares, badgers, curlews, owls. But the longer I live in the city the more amazed I am at how much wildlife there is also living here successfully and with obvious satisfaction.

Admittedly we live in a sort of suburb in the city. There are parks and golf courses all around, and the houses all have gardens, so there are plenty of trees and bushes. All the same this is definitely city. A major highway runs along by a railway only a few hundred yards from our house and traffic even on the side roads is frequent. Double- and single-decker buses pursue their route nearby. Helicopters throb overhead, aircraft streak across the sky, and the whole te aming city of Glasgow, with its crowded roofs and endless crisscrossing lines of street lights, is laid out across our view like a stage backdrop. Ibrox football stadium stands enormous down by the gas storage tanks, and on match nights crowds of supporters swarm in and take over the area (a different kind of wild animal!). As the match progresses great surges of mass cheering or collective shock-horror (as goals are scored or yet another goal is missed) waft relentlessly through our windows. City all right .

Yet one morning at breakfast time there was a heron balancing uncertainly on a small tree in a neighboring garden. One afternoon there was a hedgehog running - a bit startled, it's true - along a sidewalk. Three weeks ago three strange-looking birds, with crests on their heads, shared a spindly sapling on the bank by the highway, unaware, apparently, of the charging traffic; what kind of birds they were I have been quite unable to discover in bird books. I think some freak wind must have blown them off course.

Ten days ago my dog and I both almost stumbled over a weasel scudding swiftly along the bottom of a garden wall and twisting sinuously through a gateway of the local private girls' school to vanish in undergrowth. A student driver and her instructor saw it too, and looked duly astounded, unable to believe their eyes. Fortunately the car was stationary at that moment so it didn't drive into a lamppost.

Recently a particularly big garden just along our road has been colonized by a couple of gray squirrels. I often see them springing like trapeze artists from beech-tree top to lime-tree top, or leaping up trunks with arms and legs spread wide. I haven't seen a deer, but some neighbors have, on the road just outside their front door.

Only once have I encountered a rabbit around here. The reason may simply be the foxes. The foxes are our local raccoons (since raccoons don't live in Britain): They are the garbage-bin-rakers. If there is one animal (apart from our mice, of course, and a multitude of common birds from pigeons, starlings, and sparrows to tiny red-breasted European robins, blue-tits, chaffinches, wagtails, and wrens) that has really taken like a duck to water to city living, it's the fox. Sleek and nonchalant, they meande r silently along the streets at night. They don't have a care in the world. If they wore hats, I swear they'd doff them to you (and your dog) and wish you a pleasant evening. Clearly they are having a pleasant evening as they take their nightly stroll.

They stop dead, sometimes, and observe you, standing in the widespread orange glow of the lights. Don't they realize we can also see them? Probably. They consider for a moment whether or not their chosen path might come just a little too close to ours for politeness's sake, and then trot without any hurry into a garden or down a side turning.

We don't often see them in daylight, though I did a couple of months ago. Our ducks suddenly kicked up a silly racket. I looked out the bathroom window. They were circling on the pond, and the most gracefully slender red fox was poised on the bank ready to pounce. I banged on the window. It ignored the noise. I rushed down to the kitchen, opened the back door, shouted like a football supporter, and slammed the door ferociously three times. He vanished. It was magic. I never saw him go. He was there. And then he wasn't.

Why, I wondered, should such a glorious creature be my enemy? Why can't he be satisfied with all the rich food waste he finds in everyone's garbage? He surely doesn't need, urban as he is, to kill to eat.

Yet I had to assume that he was the very same animal who, a week earlier, had done in one of the ducks and had him for breakfast. I wasn't keen to share any more with him. I only eat their eggs.

Lately some contractors have been laying new sewers along a bank between us and the railway. Three or four times a day a siren sounds and earthshaking reverberations follow, which make the house shiver: underground blasting through sheer rock. Since I hadn't seen a fox for some weeks, I had decided that this blasting had been too much for them and that they had moved house. Some city noises are apparently too much even for them.

But last night, while I walked the dog, my wife was sitting in the dining room looking out the window and this fox came ambling through the garden. He left a narrow streak of prints like a ribbon to mark his passage - down to the lower pond, across to the hawthorn hedge, then back again to the corner of the wall over which he had made his entrance. When I came back from my uneventful walk, my wife told me what I'd missed. ``He had no idea I was here watching him,'' she said. ``Or else he just didn't car e!''

I think he didn't care. When I lived in the country I never once saw a fox. Yet everyone knew they lived up in the deserted quarry, and every so often they descended in the darkest times of night and wraught havoc among the poultry. The Country Fox is a hunted, cautious, invisible character. The City Fox ... he knows he's as safe as houses. I think he should declare an armistice with city ducks.

`Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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