Nature PEI

Kindness to Red Foxes Misplaced

From The Park Bench Newsletter – Summer 2021 – City of Charlottetown

Photo Credit – Jordi Segers

It seems normal that people were intrigued and excited by a high urban red fox population in Charlottetown a mere five years ago. Each sighting was a highlight, and fox kits at a den were like little puppies, playing with each other and, oh, so cute! Rare silver foxes were reported. People were also kind and believed they should provide food for foxes that might otherwise go hungry. Perhaps they did not believe that the fox could find natural foods for itself and its pups; foods such as fruit and berries, worms, grasshoppers, moths attracted to street lamps, mice, voles, and even rats, all found within the city. Indeed, people put out food for the red fox, treats as grand as raw steak and cooked meats, and as unnatural as sugary donuts, bread and hotdogs. With this extra feeding, foxes were living in unnaturally high densities in the downtown, and throughout the wider urban area. Biologists predicted that disease would spread quickly through this closely packed fox population. The word “pandemic” comes to mind.

Unfortunately, disease did strike as predicted. In December 2017, the first fox infected with mange was confirmed in Charlottetown. Mange is a cruel disease and anyone who has seen a sick, mangy fox with a bare tail, scabby skin and eyes crusted shut, does not want to see another one. The mite Sarcoptes scabiei, burrows into the skin of the fox and causes it to scratch incessantly, to the point where it stops hunting. In winter, loss of fur speeds death. In summer, a female can spread mange to all its pups with fatal results. Sarcoptic mange reduced the fox population in Charlottetown to the point that they were rarely sighted by urban residents.

Mange is still present, but as the red fox population recovers, should we hope that they will return to the previous situation, jam-packed in a few city blocks? There are many reasons to hope not. Consider a low density fox population that is not fed by people. These foxes will be healthier when left to consume natural foods, and a low density population will be less susceptible to disease. They may have a better immune system. Fox pups that were previously fed from cars will learn to hunt natural foods and will be more likely to survive. They will be less likely to suffer a collision with a car, a common cause of pup mortality.

For humans and their pets, living in close proximity to the red fox is not always a positive experience. The fox carries several parasites that transmit to domestic dogs, especially dogs that may consume fox feces. Besides mange, the worst of these may be two species of lungworms that often occur together and can cause breathing problems in dogs, described as equivalent to severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in humans.

People encouraging a high density fox population through feeding is risky business. Risky for a fox as it may contract diseases (Many biologists believe “A fed fox is a dead fox”). Risky for dogs that are highly likely to catch a parasite from a fox. Feeding a fox may seem like an act of kindness but it can backfire if it supports several fox families in a small area, allowing disease to transmit more readily. Let’s allow wild foxes to find their own food, and appreciate them for their ecological services in rodent control. We must stop treating them like pets. To be kind to foxes, please don’t feed them!

Article by: Rosemary Curley, Nature PEI.

Photo Credit – Jordi Segers

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