Last spring, three kits were born in a fox den visible across a ravine from my driveway. I watched the early progress through binoculars: the kits nursing, sunning themselves, playing, and frantically diving for cover if a large bird sailed overhead.
Fancying myself a latter-day Saint Francis, I decided to befriend them. I took daily walks in the vicinity of the den, whistling softly and leaving small gifts—a bone, a raw egg, a handful of cat food. Purists frown on such interference with nature, I know, but I figure houses like mine, built in the foxes' territory, have already disrupted the natural order.
The first few weeks the kits scrambled into the den whenever they saw me. As they grew accustomed to my presence, though, they retreated to rocks nearby. They peered at me inquisitively, golden eyes alert, ears twitching to every sound, their unscarred red coats glistening in the sun.
Eventually the three began following me. I felt like the Pied Piper. If I stopped, they stopped and hid behind a rock or bush. If I ran, they ran too. If I sat for a picnic lunch, they surrounded me. Once I tossed an apple core into some bushes and in a flash all three pounced. Quivering, frozen in a hunting posture, they waited, and I realized that they were waiting for it to move, like all their food.
As the Colorado summer progressed, I would stand in my driveway and whistle; on command, the three handsome young foxes came bounding across the ravine. They stalked butterflies in a patch of wildflowers. They gave futile chase to wily squirrels. They stood on their hind legs and lapped water from our birdbath—once jumping back in alarm when a skim of ice reflected their own images.
In order to keep the deer, elk, and rabbits out of flower gardens, we have connected water hoses to sprinklers activated by motion sensors. Walk in front of the sensor, and water sprays out with a loud, startling noise. (Neighborhood kids love to introduce their unsuspecting friends to this technology.) The first time the foxes wandered in front of the motion sensor, setting off the water, they high-tailed it, literally, all the way back to their den. Soon, though, they were playing games with the sensor, dashing in front of it to see if they could set it off without getting wet.
If I threw a tennis ball, one would chase it down and run, with the other two in hot pursuit. Like some dogs, though, they never learned to relinquish the retrieved object.
The three had very different personalities. We named the bravest Mr. Bold, the most fearful Shy Guy, and the third Black Socks because of his distinctive leg markings. If I put out food, I started with one pile, which Mr. Bold immediately gobbled up, then moved a few feet away and put down another pile, which Mr. Bold dashed over to investigate.
By the time I set out a third pile, Shy Guy would cautiously approach the dregs left in the first pile—until Mr. Bold charged over to chase him away. Poor Shy Guy—his personality kept him in a state of perpetual hunger.
In animals as in humans, cleverness can help one surmount personality obstacles. Shy Guy prevailed after I started putting food in a metal dog dish. Foxes track food with their noses, not their eyes, and the three could not seem to distinguish the food from the dish. They would smell the food and bite the dish, which didn't taste at all like cat food or lamb bones. Plus, the sound of a metal dish scraping across gravel startled them. They would stare at the dish and circle it for half an hour, smelling the food but not knowing how to get it.
Shy Guy, however, mastered the dish, assuring that from then on he got a fair portion. I would put down two piles of food and leave some in the dish. The other two might chase him away, but, unable to solve the mystery of the dish, they ultimately left its contents to a grinning Shy Guy.
All summer I had three constant companions. As I weeded the garden, cut the grass, or read the mail in a hammock, they followed my every move. If I ate lunch on our wooden balcony, they would climb the steps to join me.
Mr. Bold, especially, seemed without fear. On fine summer days I tote my laptop computer outdoors and sit on a lounge chair in the shade. Mr. Bold would observe me for a while, then curl up, his white-tipped tail folded across his eyes, and go to sleep.
At such moments I felt a thrilling flashback to Eden, when the barrier of fear had not yet arisen between the species, and a flash-forward to heaven, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the fox shall curl up with the writer.
Naturalist John Muir once sighed, "It is a great comfort … that vast multitudes of creatures, great and small and infinite in number, lived and had a good time in God's love before man was created."
It can still happen, John.
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