Summer: It's the season of the fox.
Perhaps you've seen one from your window as it slinks across your back yard. Perhaps you've spotted one from your car as it pads rather incongruously through the shimmering heat of the road. Or perhaps you've encountered one on an evening walk, the creature poised with wary ears and bright eyes moments before it darts into the brush.
And in recent months, foxes have become more visible in the media, too. Last week, two people in Raleigh and one in Gaston were bitten by rabid foxes. The week before, a rabid fox attacked an elderly mother and her daughter in Aberdeen; the mother clubbed the fox to death with a shovel. Even as Shark Week plays on the Discovery Channel, it is, indeed, the season of the fox in North Carolina.
Those occasional fox sightings and fox attacks are a sign of a larger issue: The urbanization of wild habitats is driving animals, including foxes, into cities and suburbs. Here, foxes can survive in the tamed expanses of our subdivisions, where the food and shelter is, ironically, more abundant than in nature.
Most pets are vaccinated against rabies, constraining the virus to wild animals. This means, though, that the most mobile and common animals are prime vectors for the disease. Foxes are the second most common carrier of rabies after raccoons.
Fortunately, a victim's size can determine how rabies affects the body. An adult human can easily survive a rabies attack, given prompt medical attention; the virus proliferates in the human body for two to seven weeks before attacking the brain. A small child, on the other hand, could quickly succumb even to the physical fox attack itself.
Fox paranoia peaks after a series of attacks. The fox population of North Carolina is managed primarily by three entities: the state's Wildlife Resources Commission, local animal control and private trapping companies. Their duties range from fielding calls about fox activity to trapping troublesome animals. All three get an increased number of calls about foxes in the summer, when the adults forage to feed their kits, who were born in late spring. Though normally nocturnal animals, foxes can be seen on the fringes of dusk, or even during the day, when providing for their young. Fox sightings usually taper off at the end of summer when the matured kits strike out on their own.
Raleigh Animal Control supervisor Tracey Alford says that office averages a half dozen fox calls per week. Daniel Glover, founder and owner of Trapper Dan's, says that he receives approximately 30 foxes calls a month. Glover says that most are harmless fox sightings, to which he won't respond. "A lot of people get upset," he says. "They're like, 'Do I have to just wait until they bite me?'"
In reality, rabies attacks are not very frequent. According to the North Carolina state laboratory of public health, since 2008, Wake County has recorded 17 rabid fox attacks, the most in the state. But the majority of counties—64 of 89 that reported data—had three or fewer attacks since 2008, an average of about one a year per county. An additional 15 counties had merely four attacks since 2008.
In fact, most foxes don't like people. "Foxes try to avoid humans," says George Strader, WRC biologist for District 5, an 11-county region that includes Durham, Orange and Chatham counties. "They tend to be to shy and run off."
Alford adds that of the 10 or so fox traps Raleigh animal control sets a month, they're usually for nuisance foxes causing property damage, not for attacks.
Moreover, trappers, animal control and even the WRC itself must adhere to the state's guidelines about when a fox can be trapped. In order to obtain a Wildlife Depredation permit from the WRC, a fox must either have caused $50 of property damage or have proven to be an immediate threat to humans.
Glover asks callers a series of questions to determine whether or not the criteria have been fulfilled. He reminds people that a captured fox, under state regulations, cannot be released and must be euthanized instead. "Our whole job is not to go catch every wildlife that's out there," he says. "Our job is to assist people with wildlife damage control issues."
It's possible for foxes and humans to coexist. The WRC biologists, private trappers and local animal control agencies try to educate concerned callers about the actual risks of fox attack and for minimizing interaction with foxes.
Foremost to remember is that foxes, and other animals, are still wildlife, and merely see the paved tops of human society as nothing but a new habitat in which to survive.
That doesn't quite soothe those who, in the words of Strader, "are surprised a fox will just sit there and watch them," even though he adds that approaching the fox will almost always end in it running away.
Glover, Alford and Strader all report gradual increases in calls about fox sightings since a few years ago. But it's not the foxes' fault. "It's not necessarily a reflection of the fox population increasing," says Strader. "It's the other way: the human population expanding." Glover adds that "any way you slice it, we are invading their habitat. The wildlife have to become adaptive."
With the expansion of subdivisions, wild territories are being paved over by an entirely new habitat, one characterized by wide landscaped lawns and an abundance of food in the form of garbage. In addition, large predators tend to be driven away, letting small animals like foxes, rats, mice, squirrels, snakes and rabbits easily survive.
Humans pose the biggest threat to foxes. The boldness bred into these foxes by familiarity tends to unsettle people. "I'm trying to get people to tolerate foxes," Batts says. "And get them to understand when they need to be worried about them." He reiterates the inherently timid nature of foxes, and says it's the individual's responsibility to chase foxes away.
"They don't fear humans because there's no negative interaction," Batts says. He and Strader suggest making threatening gestures, making loud noises and throwing sticks or rocks at overbold foxes. A fox's adaptability, after all, can be a two-way street. "If a fox sees you, if they've had negative interaction with people, then they'll move on."
This doesn't mean that foxes need to be flushed completely from developments. After all, they were here first. And, we don't have much choice. "We will always have garbage. People will throw sandwiches on the side of the road, feed their dogs outside, keep bird feeders," Alford says.
Foxes are incredibly adaptable animals. According to Strader, they can live in one of the small wooded tracts so common in developments, or a concrete culvert, or places in between. They supplement their hunting with garbage or outdoor pet food. And most of the time, says Strader, the foxes live unobtrusively alongside humans. As negative effects of urbanization go, the fox populations seem to be able to merge quite seamlessly.
Strader's colleague, Greg Batts, is the WRC biologist for District 3, a zone of 11 counties including Wake. "For me," he says, "it's very important for people to know these are urban foxes. These are foxes that have grown up in town. The only thing they've known in their whole lives is the smell of humans and the sight of humans."