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COLUMN SIX | A tale of two foxes

After dad disappears, mom carries on C hicken thief or spirit guide? A ghostly omen, or a sign of good luck? The fox has had a mixed reputation across the myths, legends and folktales of the world.
Vixey and one of her six kits. HELEN TRAN

After dad disappears, mom carries on

Chicken thief or spirit guide? A ghostly omen, or a sign of good luck? The fox has had a mixed reputation across the myths, legends and folktales of the world.

Growing up with my Asian parents, I heard tales of fox spirits that would lurk just outside one’s window. In these stories, foxes were supernatural creatures, their wisdom and magical power denoted by the number of tales they sported—the most powerful being the nine-tailed fox. These foxes would slowly steal your life force, or alter the mood and fortune of the family they chose to haunt.

As a child I would watch Disney’s animated Robin Hood, in which the anthropomorphic titular heroic character was drawn as a fox. I still cheer as an adult when I see Robin Hood outsmart the evil King John, and swing his way to safety, sprinkling gold coins among the poor.

To my eight-year-old self, magic was still to be respected and believed in. Both images of the fox — the mysterious soul eater, and the banjo-strumming archer singing “Oo-de-lally!”—existed in my mind with equal importance.

Fast forward to many years later, and my 32-year-old self (who, admittedly, had become cynical where magic is concerned) was standing at the window of my mother’s home in Pelham, watching the snow fall. The house was my childhood haunt, surrounded by old trees. The backyard was bordered by a small creek and a nature trail, as well as a small park.

“Did you know that there has been a fox around here?” said my mother, as she poured a third cup of tea.

Last year’s winter was hard—yet another Covid-19 lockdown, and rising infection numbers. Thanks to vaccines, I had expanded my social bubble ever so slightly, and battled loneliness and the stress of single-parenthood by having semi-regular afternoon teas with my mother. She would regale me with stories of her childhood in Vietnam, and I would show her my latest shots (I had picked up photography as a hobby during the pandemic).

“Oh?” My ears immediately perked up at this news. “When did you see it?”

I peered through the window with renewed interest, my eyes now keen to catch a glimpse of such a creature. With increasing urbanization, it had become more difficult to find certain animals. I had been trying to photograph foxes for two years with no success.

“A few weeks ago.”

My mother came to the window and showed me a photo on her phone. The picture was blurry, but there was no mistaking the reddish orange creature, framed by the softly falling snow.

“You should come by more often,” she said. “You will get your fox photo for sure.”

“Sure,” I replied, taking a sip of tea.

My childhood self would have jumped at this opportunity. My grownup self, unfortunately, had grownup problems that took up most of my attention. The pandemic had both speeded up and slowed down aspects of my life. More than ever, I felt the weight of parenting, of keeping up with the bills and daily expenses, all while managing lockdowns, Covid exposures, a divorce. Like I said — grownup problems. Grownup Helen didn’t have time to sit in the snow and patiently wait for foxes.

My five-pound telephoto lens gathered dust that winter. The only time it moved was when I literally moved from one house to the other. My landlord at the time put up a For Sale sign on my birthday, and then the house that I had hoped to call my home for the next few years sold shortly after Christmas. I had not even finished unpacking my boxes from moving in.

The additional move was stressful — my work hours had been cut because of the pandemic, and my divorce was on the brink of settling. The move was delayed by not one, but two massive snowstorms. I contracted Covid in the middle of it all.

My sanity was held together by many small but mighty threads: my mother’s stories, my five-year-old daughter’s frequent hugs, and my two-year-old son’s peals of laughter as he ran up and down the hallways of our new house.

Fast forward to spring 2022. My divorce had settled, the move was finally complete, work was plentiful, and for the first time in years I found myself at leisure to sit down and watch a movie with my children. They requested The Fox and the Hound.

“Ah,” I thought, reminded of my dormant photography goal. I texted my mother and asked her if the fox still visited. A flurry of excited texts pinged in response.

Turns out that what my mother thought had been one fox was actually two. A mated pair had settled underneath her backyard shed over the winter. They had emerged in springtime with six kits.

Come over and photograph them, she texted.

Sure, I texted back, this time with much more enthusiasm.

Recovery from Covid has been long and meandering. Long-Covid symptoms have included intense brain fog, ADHD, temporary hearing loss, and a heart murmur. I was itching for an excuse to sit amongst the trees with my camera and distract myself from grownup problems.

With its sharp-eyed gaze, bushy tale and striking fur (the species’ colours range from black/brown, to red, to white), the fox is certainly an attractive creature. Foxes have been increasingly forced to adapt to urban spaces. The only way to survive with humans is to live alongside them in abandoned cars and sheds, feeding from gardens, eradicating backyard squirrels, and raising their kits in the shadows of two-storey houses to avoid predators such as coyotes.

Men have forgotten this truth…But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

My mother’s house, as always, was awash in greenery — I arrived with my telephoto lens and tripod, and sat down by the window. My mother, as always, made tea.

“You’ll see them soon,” she said.

Sure enough, the mother fox cautiously emerged from underneath the shed, with her six babies in tow. They gambolled about the lawn, nipping at each other and yapping while the vixen kept watch. After an hour, they went back underneath the shed. The afternoon sunlight dappled the grass and the backyard was now silent. Of the foxes, there was no trace. And yet my camera was filled with hundreds of photos as irrefutable proof of their presence.

I had been wandering forests around Niagara for years in search of foxes, and had never caught a single glimpse. I would never have guessed that I would find a family of foxes in my mother’s backyard.

My sisters had named the fox couple Todd and Vixey, after the characters from The Fox and the Hound.

“Where’s Todd?” I asked.

“We haven’t seen him for a weeks,” my mom replied. “I’m worried something happened to him. Vixey has been taking care of the kits by herself.”

In the book The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupery, a fox befriends the Prince and says this: “Men have forgotten this truth…But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

Foxes are tough survivors. Their main diet is composed of small rodents such as mice, rabbits, squirrels, and rats. They will eat vegetables, found wild or in human gardens. However, close proximity to humans carries its own set of dangers. Foxes are frequently killed by traffic, or by farmers who view them as pests. Foxes are also vulnerable to sicknesses such as mange, and can be killed or starved out by other predators, such as coyotes.

According to my mother, the fox couple had been very affectionate in the spring. They would nap together, play, and touch noses. If Todd was gone for too long, Vixey would come out and sit in the grass, waiting for him.

Apparently, foxes will mate for life. If a partner is lost, the remaining fox will either find another mate quickly or never again.

For the next few weeks, my family was on Todd-watch. My sisters compared past photos of Todd and Vixey, identifying them through various marks and mannerisms. They wanted to recognize Todd as soon as he returned. No one mentioned the possibility that he might not.

Vixey became thinner and thinner as the weeks dragged on. One night, she emerged from her den, barking and crying. My mother had come downstairs, alerted by the noise. Vixey walked right up to the back porch. They were separated only by a thin sliding glass door, which my mother kept closed.

“She looked right at me,” my mother told me the next day. “And she howled all night.”

When Vixey emerged the next day with her kits, there were only five instead of six. We suspected that the smallest of the kits had died during the night. Todd was still nowhere to be seen.

Do animals feel love and grief, joy and worry, like humans do? Watching Vixey search for Todd, and care for her kits, it was easy to lend human emotions to her comings and goings.

In The Little Prince, the fox character wants nothing more than to be tamed, because it will make him special. In his plea to the main character, he says: “To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”

To my family, Todd and Vixey and their kits were unique in all the world. And yet, access to the human world invites very human emotions, such as grief. In The Little Prince, the fox eventually cries tears when it is time for the Prince to leave. In being tamed, the fox is now attached to the one who tamed him. Being the subject of human attention comes with a heavy price.

Animals live alongside us, in our houses as beloved pets, or in the wild as creatures of various symbols and subjects of tales. We watch them on TV in documentaries. They make their presence known in small and large ways, every day, punctuating our grownup lives and existing despite our grownup problems.

Todd eventually came back, his arrival as sudden and unexplained as his disappearance. He brought a loaf of bread, and the largest of the kits grabbed it and took it inside the den for its siblings. Vixey took her time smelling Todd when he returned. There was no outward expression of joy or reproach. Together they lay in the grass as their kits chased each other across the yard, napping together as if nothing had happened, as if the past few weeks had never occurred.

My children tend to view time in the same way. A tearful afternoon can be expunged with a plucked flower, a tiresome day forgotten with the wave of a lollipop. Weeks of stress and transition banished from memory with one visit to the park, or a particularly rollicking bedtime story. A lost grandparent, relegated to the realm of beautiful memory. A mother and father living together, once upon a time, just beyond the boundaries of the twin kingdoms of Yesterday and The Past.

Animals don’t communicate with words the way we do. If they feel grief, they can never tell us.

They show affection to those they trust, but they can never write poems or sing laments about the complexity of love. They act on instinct, and show us patterns, patterns that they occasionally break without rhyme or reason. We must watch, observe, and accept that certain animal behaviours are inexplicable, or never fully understandable to our human eyes and minds. No matter what happens, they continue on, with or without us.

Perhaps that is Nature’s way of taming us.