Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Last Waltz by the Side of the Road

This fellow was dead beside the road on the way out to the farms yesterday, and I stopped to take a picture and get a chest measurement. 

Chest in rigor:  12.5 inches, and this was not a small fox.

Most fox do not live past their first year, and very few live past age three or four.  What kills them?  Flood, pneumonia, starvation, exposure, distemper, intestinal parasites, disease, rabies, poison (in the form of rat bait and leaked antifreeze), traps, mishap (fallen into manholes, trapped in vines and fencing), coyotes, dogs, and the occasional gun. 

If an adult dog fox and vixen have three litters with a total of 12 to 15 kits over their lifetime, then in a system that is already at biological capacity (as it is here in the mid-Atlantic U.S., and all over the U.K.), the mortality rate has to be phenomenal, and it is. 

So the question is not whether fox will die -- they will -- but what is the "best" way for them to go. 
Is starvation better that distemper?  Is rabies better than vehicle impact?  Is a bullet better than a trap?  Is a coyote better than a dog?

I raise the question because a very kind soul from the U.K. asks what is best for a litter of fox found in a sack beside the road?

The RSPCA way of doing business is to spend a lot of money and time "rehabilitating" these three-week old fox and then "returning them to the wild" while all the time raising money and publicity around the job.

But can you raise baby fox to adulthood and have them not get acclimated to humans? 

Setting aside that question, and even without mounted hunts or terrier work, most of these fox kits will be dead from "natural" events like road impact, starvation, and distemper within a year of being released. 

If not them, then others -- Mother Nature always levels off the glass, one way or another.  Fox are at biological carrying capacity in the U.K.  So too are badger.  That's not me saying that -- that's the Mammal Society!

The problem with the RSPCA's way of thinking is that they are focused on the wrong thing because they know almost nothing about wildlife, ecology, or what really matters in the larger scheme of things when it comes to wild animals.

A few question that need to be asked before anyone rushes in to play "rescue ranger"for distressed wildlife:
  1. Is the animal's population endangered?  If yes, then rescue. If not, see next question.
  2. Does this animal have a high reproduction rate?  Does it have babies every year?  If no, then consider rescue.  If yes, then go to question 3.
  3. Is this animal's population at carrying capacity in the area?  Is there a hunting or trapping season for it? 
If you have gotten to question 3, and the answer is yes, then rescue may feel good, but it is meaningless in the larger scheme of things and, in truth, things are likely to end badly for the rescued animal. 

I can say this last bit with some certainty because things always end badly for all wildlife. 

In forest and field, nothing dies in a warm bed with clean sheets, a morphine drip in the arm, and waltz music on the tape deck.  If that's how you want your found baby wild animal to die, then veterinary euthanasia is what you are after, and it's best to get on with it right at the beginning.  Otherwise the choice is distemper or fender, intestinal parasite or starvation, poison or trap, flood or mishap, bullet or predator.  And if not for this baby, then for the other one that its life will force off of the biological cliff because the population is at carrying capacity. 

Mother Nature always levels off the glass, one way or another.


geonni banner said...

I wonder if the reproduction rate of foxes in the US has increased because of the increased human presence. Before the Europeans arrived there was less garbage for them to scavenge and no bullets, fenders or poison. I'm sure the Native American population took some by various hunting and snares. (Was there distemper before "we" arrived?)
Were there fewer foxes, and did those have a longer lifespan?

PBurns said...

Fox numbers have increased all over the world in the last 350 years. For starters, all the fox in North America south of about 100 miles from the Canadian border, are imports from the U.K. and mainland Europe -- they are not native. Red fox were first imported into Maryland, and the second fox hound pack in the U.S. was brought over by Dr. Thomas Walker, a reported ancestor (though there are doubts here, as the geneology is far from perfect). See posts on this on the web site or blog. Also see this old book review of David MacDonald's very excellent book. >>

Why import red fox? Simple: grey fox (no relation to red fox) climb trees when chased, and prefer rocky areas, which was not much fun for houndsmen.

The red fox prefers cultivated areas and human-dominated habitat, as it primarily eats mice and grass-nesting birds, both of which florish in corn and soy fields ringed by hedges and where small trash set outs and dumps are frequent.

I have never researched the history of distemper in the new world, but have written about the vaccine -- it was created by fox hunters, who attenuated the virus for a vaccine by running it from hounds to ferret to fox and back around again.


lance said...

When I was in vet school the raptor rehab unit rehabbed a small owl the released it at dusk, it flew 200 yards through the woods and then a red tail hawk stooped on it and killed it. I often suspect that the lucky orphaned critters released into the wild die this way while the less fortunate starve. People get REALLY angry if you try to explain that to them.