This month’s column is dedicated to the memory of Mommi Fox,
born spring 1999, died 6 February 2007.
Coming from South Africa and growing up in the 1970s when there was still an appreciable amount of wild bush and not as much as development, I have always been drawn to wild places. I have spent many happy hours in the local nature reserve and more wilder areas, enjoying the stillness and the wildness. When I came to the UK I was surprised by the volume of open space but saddened by the amount that was managed and controlled, not truly wild.
I was delighted when a few years later, when I moved to my house, my then-partner Richard came rushing in to tell me that he had not only seen foxes but hedgehogs too. We spent many happy hours watching the birds and foxes and occasionally the hedgehogs and later, when we got the two boy cats, watched them (with heart in mouth) interact with the foxes and actually play with them.
When Guinevere came along, the foxes adopted her and she spent nights out with them and the cubs, making chittering fox noises and coming in smelling of fox (not ideal when the same cat decides that your pillow is the best place to sleep).
We started feeding them scraps one cold winter and this evolved into a nightly feeding ritual. We’d feed them, then retire to the patio to watch them. We noted their family groups, the hierarchies, named the cubs and slowly, slowly, the bond between us grew. The second year, a group of three cubs was born.
The family that lived in my shed was part of a bigger family group spread out over the neighbourhood. This group had about 17 different individuals at the time and they used to get together about twice a year, normally in and around my garden. One night I was delighted to find nine of them around me as I fed them.
By now, I was interacting with them as if they were pets. It was so difficult to keep a distance from them when they played with squeaky balls and chased bits of long grass I dangled across the lawn behind me and romped around with the cats. They were bright, cute and funny. White Tip was the male and he mated with Goldie. Also with them was Littlie, who was a sweet, small fox who appeared to be partially stunted and they looked after her, often letting her eat before them and playing very gently with her. She had little fear of me and she would sit in the lavender bush out the front, with me stroking her head. When White Tip and Goldie had cubs, she helped raise them.
There were three and all grew to adulthood. When they did, just at the end of autumn, Goldie disappeared, leaving just White Tip and Littlie. Littlie had taken by this stage to sleeping on a mattress under the shrub that grows next to the conservatory. She and White Tip would come when called for dinner and after dinner they would still romp around the garden, accompanied by one of the cubs who had not strayed too far from her birthplace and when it was still light, by Guinevere. The cub was distinctive in that she had dappled brown and gold on her flanks, a dark tail and one slightly squinty eye.
One cold, rainy and windy winter’s day, my best friend called me to say that she had driven past my house and seen a dead fox on my road and she was so desperately sorry but she thought it was one of mine. I went out to find it was Littlie. Someone had hit her on the head and left her on the pavement in the rain to die. That the person who did this could get close enough to her to do this was my fault. White Tip sat in the garden and howled all night. He started at dusk and didn’t let up until the morning. I sat in the conservatory and grieved with him. It was a lesson I learned very hard.
In the morning, Goldie was back, along with the cub who had stayed nearby. Out went the squeaky balls, out went hours of playing, I let them revert back to being wild animals. I still fed them and watched them and took great delight in them, but never let them sleep in or near the house or let myself pet them.
I still hadn’t fully learned my lesson though. When the cub who stayed found a new mate, Big Red, she had three cubs and brought them out to show me. Out trotted these little cubs, round and furry and cute. She taught them to eat from the food bowl and hunt and play with the cats. They grew up and moved out to new territories. Big Red and the cub, who was nameless because I didn’t want to name any more foxes would sit together and watch their brood. Friends would sit in my garden in the evenings and marvel that they could watch the foxes without them running away and as it got dark, a fox would often slip past next to them, almost unseen.
Eventually though, I started referring to the cub as Mommi Fox, so named as she was such a good mum.
My Dad spent two months with me and spent a lot of that time sitting in the garden with her lying near him, both enjoying the sun. He was entranced with them.
The seasons passed and the cubs went off to new parts of the family territory, taking over from foxes that had passed on. The next year, 2004, Mommi Fox and Big Red again had three cubs. I watched Mommi get rounder and rounder and heard the cubs chittering one frozen February night. She again brought this brood out to show me – one cub light gold, with a partial white tip on his tail, one dark red like her father and one like her Mom, dappled brown and gold and a white tip on her tail.
A few nights later I heard, as I had heard for a couple of nights running, fireworks across the back of the gardens. It wasn’t the season for them but as these were firecrackers which kids play with regardless of the time of year, I didn’t think anything of it.
The next day my neighbour called to say there was a dead fox cub in the wild part of my garden. I picked her up, soft as down. It looked like she was asleep. She had no initial marks on her, except she was wet round the neck. It was the third cub, the one that looked like her Mom. I called Marion and whilst I was on the phone to her, found two marks, one small on one side of her, one larger on the other side. It looked like she had been shot. When I called my Mom she said thought so too. Perhaps the firecrackers had not been what I heard, but shots instead.
M suggested calling a guy she knew well, who was a pest controller but who rescued and rehomed foxes in safe areas. I called him and he came round. Oddly, he said that he thought she’d been run over. I pointed out the marks and explained that she didn’t seem to have any broken bones. He said, noting the wetness round her neck, what was very strange was that one of her parents must have brought her back to the garden. In his experience they didn’t look after their dead that way. He thought that her mom must have brought her back to me to see if I could help. He took the cub away for a post mortem and he later confirmed that she had been run over, that her one of her legs and spine was broken.
Big Red didn’t appear again after that night.
Mommi fox raised the other two cubs on her own. She was a brilliant mother and I used to watch her teaching the cubs to hunt. One day I discovered a rather decomposed wild rabbit in the garden, under the table where she kept the cubs sheltered to watch whilst she hunted. It smelt pretty vile so I yelled for Mommi to collect her bloody rabbit. She came out of the undergrowth and did just that. After this, I found it regularly hidden in the garden and she would fetch it if I called. She’d grab it between her teeth and get the cubs to chase her, only stopping when both of them had caught it.
She kept her distance more now though and wouldn’t let the cubs get too close to me. The cub I named Fierce Red was the oddest after that night. She wouldn’t come out to eat if I was in the garden and if her Mom or the other cub did she’d growl like mad and then dash out in front of them and knock them away, only stopping once I had gone inside. I should have guessed that something wasn’t right.
Time passed and Fierce Red, Cubbie and Mommi Fox continued to stay in the garden as family group. Cubbie got a mate and I saw less and less of Mommi. She seemed to have withdrawn to let the youngsters get on with it.
To my absolute horror, I picked up a paper a year or so later and discovered that the man who promoted himself as fox friendly, who had taken the cub away for a post-mortem and who had told me she had been run over, was splashed all over the centre pages, proclaiming himself the “Fox Hunter of London”. Accompanying the article was a photo of him, surrounded by dead foxes. To make matters worse, he confirmed all the worst urban myths about foxes and was quoted as saying how they were sneaky and vicious.
I will never know what happened that night, but, the “firecrackers”, the duplicity of this man and the foxes’ behaviour afterwards, left me little doubt that Big Red and the cub were not run over, but shot. And I let the man who was most likely responsible into my home, talked about the family of foxes I had and put the remaining family at risk.
The big question I am left with is probably the one that many people who come into close contact with wild animals ask themselves – did I do right by my interaction with them? Whilst I fed them, gave them medicine when they were ill, sorted out their mange, made sure the garden was safe for them and that they had plenty of wild to live in, I also put them in grave danger. I made them pets of a sort when I shouldn’t have done and one certainly, two others probably, died as a result.
However … in March last year I opened the front door to find all four cats sitting in protest on the stairs, their noses all wrinkled up and the most awful smell in the house. I went through to the kitchen, opened the door and there was Mommi Fox, in a very, very bad way. I hadn’t seen her for about six months. She not only had mange but had it so badly, her skin had broken open in cracks on her back and tail and bits of skin were hanging off, rotten. She could see out of only one eye, the squinty one was almost completely closed. She had taken sanctuary in the conservatory, huddled shivering in the stray cat’s basket.
Not only was she obviously very badly affected by the mange, but she had a runny tummy. She hobbled outside and I tried to feed her a bit and then set to work cleaning up. I got some newspaper from my neighbours, put it down and then left her to call every animal charity I could get hold of to try and obtain a cage trap. As it was cub season, none were available so I put my name down on two waiting lists.
The next morning she was back in the basket and I had managed to get hold of some medicine that would rid her of just about every known parasite but might also, in her weakened state, kill her. With heart in mouth I gave it to her. The following night there was proof of the medicine (she had some interesting worm infestations, that’s for sure). She also ate well and I again retired to the back of the house so she would feel comfortable. By day four she was limping less, the awful smell had gone and her eye looked better. She was eating whole meals again. The stray cat and the fox had worked out a routine of sharing the basket – when the fox wasn’t in it, the cat was.
A day later she took off and I saw her again only in July. She was lithe and strong and her fur, although short, had grown back completely.
She had nearly a year more of life before we found her on the side of the road dead, where it looked like she had had a brain haemorrage. She was eight years old. I buried her with thanks for a long, mostly happy life but with great sadness too. She taught me so much about foxes and about myself. She was there through countless upheavals, through my Dad’s death and losing her meant losing a part of him too. I’ll always be grateful for knowing her but will always wonder if I did the right thing by her and the other foxes that graced and hopefully will continue to grace, my garden.