The fox is sick. No question the fox is sick. At 2:30 in the afternoon on an eye-squinting winter day with no leaves left on the trees to break the glare, the fox is digging next to a neighbor’s mailbox, right beside the road. The fox is squinting, too, though not because of the glare. Its eyes are swollen into slits. It can hardly see and appears not to hear the approach of my car, not even when I pull up right beside it and roll down the window to take a picture with my phone. I watch for a while. I take many pictures. Also a video.
The fox is hungry enough to hunt in the middle of a sunny afternoon on a tightly mowed suburban lawn, but when it leaps into the air in that wonderful arcing dive that foxes have perfected for plunging headfirst into deep snow or tall grass, it comes up with no wiggling mouse or vole. The fox stops trying to catch whatever it hears. It sits down to scratch. The fox has mange.
More and more these days, the neighborhood foxes are turning up with mange. A healthy creature with a strong immune system can fight off the mites that cause mange, but suburban foxes are struggling. The modest little homes once tucked into wild, scruffy lots here are mostly gone, replaced by giant houses in sterile yards ruthlessly landscaped to the very edge. Where are the gentle rabbits now? Where are the field mice and the voles? The prosperous new people have not learned to live peacefully with wildlife. They poison the dandelions so favored by rabbits. They poison the moles trundling under their soil and the mice skittering in their crawl spaces. A hungry fox who eats a poisoned mouse or a poisoned mole is vulnerable to the mites that cause mange.
I try to decide what to do. I keep elbow-length leather gloves and a pet carrier in the back of my car, but those are for injured turtles and orphaned opossums, needy creatures an old woman can catch. There is no chance I can catch this fox. There is also no chance the fox will survive without medical care. Mange will bring the fox a slow, terrible death.
I call the nearest wildlife rescue center to ask for help. When no one answers, I leave a message and wait with the fox, who does not know I am waiting.
The fox lies down under the trees and scratches some more. On the underside of one leg, there is an open wound that requires some licking, but mainly it is scratching. These ablutions are taking time. I wait, hoping for a call. Maybe help will come in time.
Help does not come in time. There are many sick foxes nowadays, many injured animals of every kind, and nowhere near enough wildlife rescue experts to care for all the creatures hurt by living in a world where people crowd closer and closer.
By the time the wildlife expert arrives the next morning, the fox has been gone all night, but the expert has brought a trap and teaches me how to set it. The bait is nasty — raw bacon and oily sardines and chicken parts pierced with a string. Holding my breath, I tie the raw chicken to the back of the trap. A fox with severe mange will be starving, too light to trigger the trap door, but even a starving fox will trip the trap when it tugs on the chicken.
The wildlife expert drives away. Now my job is to monitor the trap and release any creatures who are not a fox. I may or may not catch a raccoon, but I am almost certain to catch an opossum.
I will need to find a good-size stick and a large sheet. The sheet is for when I catch the fox. A fox in a covered trap is calmer than a fox in a trap with open sides. The stick is for when I catch the opossum. A raccoon will dash away as soon as I open the trap door, but an opossum will ponder a while: What’s the rush? There’s bacon here. I need the stick to prop open the door and let the opossum leave in its own good time.
I check again and again and again, always alone to keep from frightening the sick fox should it ever reappear. At first I check every hour. Then every other hour. Finally every three hours. I am not proud of this, but I start taking the dog with me because checking this trap is taking more time than I can spare, and I might as well walk Rascal at the same time. Rascal is happy with his new walking route. Perhaps he smells the fox nearby. Probably he is just happy.
I check the trap just after sundown on the second day. I know I should check again before bedtime, but it’s cold and dark, and Rascal gives me the side-eye when I pick up his leash. I decide to make the trek anyway. How sad a sick fox would be to spend the long, cold night in a trap!
I gasp when my flashlight glances across a pair of pointed ears.
I drop the flashlight.
I pick up the flashlight again and shine it at the cage. The fox blinks at me but does not flinch in the light. The fox is still, impassive, a vulpine sphinx. Except for the blinking, the fox is motionless.
I consider how often a fox may have sat just this still beneath the shrubbery, watching me trudge along. I think of its balletic moves, of the way its slender legs and swift, small feet are tucked beneath its body now, its bushy tail a perfect parenthesis curving around the perfect closing word.
I need to walk the half mile back to the house and fetch a sheet to cover the trap, but now Rascal has planted his own small feet in the dirt. I try to hustle him back home. Who knows what he’s especially interested in — the stinky chicken? the blinking fox? — but he has decided that he is going nowhere.
I pick up the dog and drop the flashlight again. I abandon the flashlight and head home with the wiggling dog.
While Rascal struggles in my arms, I think, “That fox blinked at me.”
I think, “That fox’s tail is fully furred.”
I think, “That fox is not sick.”
Now I recall how the dirt in front of the trap had been thoroughly scraped away. The fox in the trap has an accomplice who has worked mightily to break it free.
I think, “This is a different fox.”
The wildlife expert has considered the possibility that I will catch a healthy fox. He left behind a medication that prevents mange for several months, enough time to keep the healthy fox healthy until we can catch its sick companion and take it to the wildlife rescue center for treatment.
“Wrap the pill in bacon and toss it into the trap,” the wildlife expert tells me on the phone. “Go home. After an hour or two, check the trap again. If the bacon is gone, open the trap and send the fox on its way.”
This is what I do, though I do not see the fox heading on its way. I am standing beside it, close enough to smell its musk, close enough to see the tips of its hair rustle just slightly with every breath of wind. I open the trap, checking my feet to be sure I am standing far enough to the side, not blocking the door, and while I am preoccupied with my feet and the machinery of trap doors, the fox vanishes. It is not a fox. It is a blur of falling leaves, red and gold. A phantom rush of wildness. A mirage of a miracle, pungent and swift.
I saw it. I did not see it. I will never see it again.
One good thing about catching the wrong fox is that you will never catch that fox again. That fox has learned about traps. Time to bait and set the trap once more. The vile sardines really aren’t that bad when placed on a scale opposite a dying fox. I set the trap and walk away.
But only for a little while. I will catch the fox, or I won’t, but never again will I be free to walk away forever.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” This essay has been adapted from her new book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year.”
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