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On Thursday, August 21, 2003, at 2:45pm, my wife of 34 years, Rebecca, died in my arms in an emergency room.
The last words we spoke were in perfect synchronization: "I love you with all my heart."
How To Tame A Wild Fox
Everybody said "no", we said "yes".
But this may not be as easy as it sounds,
and it's certainly not for everyone.
Update 9/2009: As I view my visitor logs, I notice hits by the dozen from various search engines - many of them ask "can you tame a fox", or other search phrases to that effect.
Personally, I'm convinced you could tame almost any living creature - but this depends upon multiple factors, plus a lot of psychology. In my limited experience, (one fox, a few hawks, several doves, rabbits, fish, and exotic wild birds), there's one thing that is an absolute requirement - food. Food is the link which creates dependency - it "re-establishes the umbilical cord".
However, "tame" might mean different things to many people. Consider your own definition of "tame".
Another requirement is patience. Our sense of "time" is not the same as a wild animal. Therefore, we must be willing to spend hours, days - even weeks - proving to the wild animal that we not only provide food, but we are a part of their group, pack, or flock. This is where the psychology comes in: I've found it's necessary to PROVE that I'm not a danger or a threat in any way. Somehow - each situation is slightly different - I must behave in a way that creates trust, while avoiding anything which would put trust in question.
Yet another critical requirement is space. Confinement of any type creates mental stress. Stress (of any nature) does not contribute to a wild animal developing trust in a human - and nearly ALL wild animals instinctively avoid humans. When confined, there is nowhere to go - the animal can't avoid or escape. This survival instinct (flight) has been part of almost every wild animal for millions of years - the reason is simple: humans KILL these animals. Through centuries, animals have learned, instincts have been formed - stay away from the vertical animal known as "human".
After approximately 6 months with Scamp, I feel relatively certain I could tame nearly any wild animal. I'm not blowing my own horn here, but the psychological process of creating trust and dependency should work on nearly any wild animal - especially if the process can begin at a young age.
There are many species of wild animals that I wouldn't even dare try to tame. I'm referring to truly dangerous or poisonous animals. I just don't have the courage for that.
I can bore you with these two stories.
Many years back, I had a 200 gallon aquarium, with nothing in it but water, rocks, and a filter. I went fishing, and brought home a largemouth bass, which weighed approximately 3 pounds. He went into the fish tank. At first, I'd offer food, and he'd hide behind a rock - about 6' away, at the other end of the tank - as far from me as possible. Within a few days, the bass was taking food from my hand. In less than a month, he'd come to the surface so I could pet him - with no food involved. A fish being petted by a human? It makes no sense - it's completely against his instincts - and he was confined! (I think it's understandable that I couldn't dig out a lake for him.) He lived here for about 4 months, then I brought him to the lake down the street (the same lake I had caught him) and set him free. Amazingly, he'd grown and gained weight during those 4 months. And - he actually allowed me to pick him up - out of the water - some of the time, anyway.
A dove flew into the phone lines and nearly severed one wing. There was no way to fix the damage. My wife and I amputated what was irreparable, and sutured the wing, so it would heal. The dove lived here for about 2 years, and spent more time on our shoulders and heads than you'd believe. We developed a very basic level of "communication" - the dove learned to lift his good wing to "tell" us various things, and his demeanor - for example, fright (and his desire to escape) - was easily recognized. We provided the dove with a "safe place" - an airline crate with branches, and a good hiding place (just a small cardboard box) inside - so he could completely avoid other people and dogs. Exactly like the other animals mentioned, the dove wanted no part of any other humans. If he was in the office and someone arrived, his behaviors clearly indicated he wanted to get away. Off to his "safe place".
Essentially, what I'm trying to convey, is that a wild animal never wants to be near humans. To overcome this powerful instinct, it's necessary to prove - without any doubt - that the animal has nothing to fear from you. Often, this requires a LOT of time and patience - and an understanding that wild animals are "wild" for a very good reason.
Another consideration is your own personality. Would you be angry if a fox urinated all over your sofa? Exhibiting anger won't build trust, as I've explained. Wild animals haven't got a clue how to live in a human's environment, so you can logically expect damage, mess, and broken belongings. You should ask yourself if you really have the tolerance for these inevitable occurrences, because they WILL happen.
So, in conclusion, the answer is both "yes" and "no".
You might like to read the rest of this page and Scamp's Journal for more information.
I've been fortunate enough to be able to make some interesting observations during the last few months. There are several dozen people who have followed the progress of Scamp, the wild-and-tame grey fox. Because they expressed interest, I thought I'd write a small "how to" article for anyone who might care to try this one themselves. Maybe some of my experiences will help the next person.
First step in this article is to mention that I'm not a professional wild animal person, in fact, I wouldn't even qualify as an amateur. Scamp is my only experience with a wild fox, and that has only been since May 11, 2001. So this article certainly isn't being written from years of fox experience with dozens of foxes.
I have over 20 years experience in dog training, so I'm able to see many parallels between a young fox and a puppy of similar age. In some ways, a fox is identical to a puppy, and in other ways, there's no similarity.
While I certainly wouldn't TELL anyone what to do, it may seem as if that's what I'm doing. It isn't - it's just my style of writing, so kindly excuse it.
Taming a fox requires an infinite amount of patience and tolerance. Unlike raising a puppy, the fox would probably do much better in a larger area. You can expect a wild fox to try and avoid you, and he'll do this by running away and hiding. While it may be possible to do this in a 3 room apartment, I don't suggest it.
I was particularly fortunate, because Scamp was old enough to eat solid food when he arrived, making feeding him a simple enough task. No need for bottles, eyedroppers, or syringes, and all the mess and slop associated with them.
He was also young enough that he didn't have weeks or months of independence, and still needed support. To me, this seems an ideal age to raise and tame a fox. I'd estimate Scamp's age between 6 and 8 weeks when he arrived.
Unlike a puppy, Scamp was genuinely afraid of us initially. This is a very important issue, and I've tried to keep it in my mind at all times. Instincts, formed over the last 6 million years or so, told Scamp to keep as far away from us humans - vertical animals - as possible. "Away" means flight or escape, and that means something will probably get knocked over or broken.
One of the key issues in trying to tame a fox might be where the taming takes place. The ideal place might be in a large enough area that's almost indestructible. Again, we're fortunate, since we have a 25' x 20' workshop with wooden walls and floor, making it essentially "fox proof". There are very few items in the shop that can hurt Scamp, and if he knocks things on the floor, well, that's OK, too. You can expect that Scamp gets into, under, and on top of everything, often toppling what he jumps on. He explores constantly, and experiments with anything that he finds. Although his curiosity causes him to pick things up and move them around, he's not as destructive as we anticipated - definitely less destructive than a teething puppy.
The easiest way to understand what he's probably going to be fascinated with is to realize there's no way to understand. A box full of packing material (popcorn) amuses Scamp for an hour, as he removes one piece of packing at a time, runs all around with it, then finally jumps in the box and digs out hundreds of the little pieces of packing foam all over the room. A wood screw fascinates him. A paint brush is worth carrying around for 20 minutes, tossing it through the air and chasing it. One of his favorite toys is a piece of 1/2" clear plastic tubing. Clear plastic tubing? I'll never understand. He seems to be too busy to take enough time to chew things and wreck them, with one exception. He likes to chew on wires of almost any kind. This can be pretty dangerous if he gets his mouth on anything more powerful than a little 9 volt wall wart.
When Scamp got here, we had no interest in caging him. So a lot of our decisions kind of revolved around the idea that Scamp was going to be "loose", much as any young puppy would. The problem of housebreaking solved itself when we put a pan of kitty litter down, and Scamp used it instantly. Because he's been almost 100% reliable with the kitty litter, this enabled us to allow him free run indoors, both in the house and the office/workshop.
I believe the fact that Scamp can escape human confrontation by running to the nearest hiding place has shown him quickly not to fear us. If he were caged or confined, I think the process would have taken a lot longer, and produced considerably more mental stress for him. Other than the first 2 days Scamp was here, he was never caged in any way.
Consider what I just wrote. A cage psychologically "imprisons" the fox. Compare that to free access in our office (340 square feet) plus the workshop (500 square feet). This allowed our attitudes to be, "if you want to go hide, go right ahead. We're not going to interfere."
I'd like to make something clear at this point. I would never go out and try to catch a wild fox. Scamp came into our lives quite accidentally, as a very young pup, and we believed he would be killed quickly if we didn't provide food and safety for him. There may be people who agree and others who disagree, but we felt we could raise him as a tame fox, yet still release him and have him learn to hunt and survive on his own. So far, our predictions are true - he's doing very well both outdoors as a wild fox, and he still chooses to socialize, play, and especially, EAT, nearby his human "pack". We live just outside the city limits in a sort of "semi country" area where each home is on at least one acre of property. About 100 yards away is a nature preserve of several thousand acres. Typical home construction of this age, in this area, is known as "pier and beam", meaning the houses are built up off the ground slightly, not on a concrete slab. This provides an open area below the house - a natural fox den. And no digging required!
Don't move fast. Actually, don't even bother, since the fox is infinitely faster than we are, anyway. Fast movements on our part will serve only to frighten the fox - that's counterproductive. Example: Scamp grabs my cigarette package or sunglasses, and he's within my reach. I won't grab for him, or try and chase him as he dashes away. I just follow him at my own pace, at some point I'll be able to recover the object. If it gets chewed a little, well, that's what little foxes do.
I may choose to make a negative association - this is quite simple to do, and the fox is CERTAINLY intelligent enough to learn. Just like a puppy, I bring his attention (meaning his nose) to focus on the object at issue while holding him firmly. Once we're focused, he gets a couple of light thumps on his nose with one finger and some guttural "AH!AH!" sounds to link to the uncomfortable feeling. It's not powerful punishment, yet it's enough to make him think about that object.
Scamp has learned to respect my iced tea cup - most of the time. In the past, he's invited himself to drink out of the cup, and frequently knocked it over, dumping tea and ice all over the carpet. After a couple of corrections, he waits until I hold the cup and tell him "OK" before drinking. As I learned, even a wild fox is infinitely more trainable than I would have ever imagined.
We've spent quite a bit of time on the floor, playing with Scamp. When we're down there, we appear a lot smaller, thus less intimidating. By now, our play has escalated far beyond this point, but he obviously felt safer several weeks ago when we were "smaller".
His indoor and outdoor play are very different. Outside, he's much more tuned into the environment, and plays in shorter "episodes", interspersed with mad dashes under the shop to "safety". He practices a sort of "dodge and weave" style of running, evading his imaginary pursuers quite effectively. Indoors, the play is quite a bit more intense and concentrated.
Scamp had the misfortune to contract a case of giardia, a severe intestinal virus. Fortunately, we had prior experience with giardia, and a supply of medication to treat this. Three Flagyl (metronidazole) pills a day for three days solved the problem, while also creating some chewed fingers. It is not easy to force pills down a wiggling fox's throat, you can believe this. Because Scamp is a wild fox, taking him to a veterinarian is not an option.
We tend to let Scamp get into things and do what he's going to do, rather than interfere. And we try to let him do things himself. For example, he wanted to climb a tree. We stood back and let him fail and fall down a number of times until he got serious enough to get up to a limb. Once up there, he looked pretty unsure of himself, but we let him find his own way back down, too. I think we've developed a kind of "it's up to you" attitude with Scamp. We may want him to do something, for example, come inside the shop, but that may not happen.
We can never forget that, unlike a puppy, Scamp is a wild animal. And, because we never wanted to totally domesticate him, our plans were for him to be free to do what foxes do.
Scamp is very positive about being touched, outdoors and indoors, too. This lends itself to being able to pick him up (mostly) whenever I want to. I think this may have been learned because we'd feed and touch him dozens of times without picking him up or forcing him in any way. Example: he comes to me for a treat, and I pet him as he's eating it. Then I walk away from him. Or he'll hop in my lap, and I'll scratch his neck, then take my hand away. I believe by keeping very low pressure, Scamp has learned not to worry about our hands coming towards him.
Rather than snatching and grabbing at Scamp, I pick him up in a way that he finds less threatening. Typically, I can either get one hand under his chest and belly, or I can pick him up by the nape of his neck, then readjust to holding him under his belly. Either way, he's well supported, and quite comfortable with being carried around. He shows no problem with being held, until he's ready to go. I generally respect this, and immediately put him down when he wiggles. An exception to this is when he's showing fear. Then he climbs all over you like a ladder. My objective here was to calm the fear in a relaxed, reasonable way. As we started to learn about lightning and thunderstorms, I decided to take him outside (on the covered porch) and deal with the weather. He typically would go and hide from the sound of thunder, and lightning just terrified him. He struggled for a little while, but soon accepted being held, as we sat outside watching thunderstorms. We've worked very hard to get Scamp to the point where he doesn't avoid our hands, and this may be a very important point in the relationship. However, he won't let a stranger anywhere near him.
Different types of food cause Scamp to behave in different ways. We've noticed that when he's eating anything wild - "aggressive food" - or food which he kills, he gets very, very possessive. Chicks, mice, lizards, grasshoppers, etc. seem to bring out the "wild animal" in him. At these times, he growls, gapes, flattens his ears, and defends his food, occasionally even taking it further away from us. In contrast, "passive food" - dog food, table scraps, etc. - don't seem to elicit this kind of defensiveness from him. He's typically very calm about food, and regularly eats from our hand without any problem. I might add, we have never tried to take any food away from him at all, so we can conclude that some instincts are at work here.
Nothing at all is "sacred" to Scamp. He'll happily chew the arm of an $1100 leather chair, toss sneakers around the room, or chase one of his toys - it's all the same to him. Anything he damages or destroys is just par for the course, since he has no values, he doesn't understand, know, or care.
While he's playing, he'll bite any part of your anatomy, if you can stand it. He plays pretty rough, too. But, since I'm used to playing a little rough with the dogs, it really doesn't matter. There's not much a 10 pound fox can do to you that you'd need medical attention, I assure you. We've been covered with scratches and punctures for the last two months, and he shows no sign of letting up or getting any gentler. Gloves are quite a help, but you have to wear them for them to be effective. Usually, the gloves are over there someplace when Scamp is over here, ready to play. Also, we've noticed that when you are wearing gloves, that's the time Scamp wants to bite forearms and shoulders.
He'll charge across the office at top speed, and leap into your lap. Whatever you were holding may, or may not, still be in your hands after the leap. If it hits the floor, he'll invariably dash away with it. Scamp also snatches objects, sometimes making you think, "what is this adorable little maniac doing?" For example, he's taken the spoon right out of my hand while I'm eating ice cream. And he loves stealing a paper napkin and running away with it. After the dash, he just drops it and loses interest. I'm not sure why he takes things, but they must fascinate him in some way. Whatever the reason, it's just a young fox's behavior, and it's not that hard to accept.
Scamp can be gentle, but that's a comparatively rare occurrence. In his quieter moments, when he isn't playing, he really likes being petted, and, amazingly, he's learned to like being brushed, too! This is an example of his tolerance - at first, when he saw the brush coming, he took off for Mars. Gradually, when he was asleep, I brushed just the back of his neck, by his ears. He loved this, and soon tolerated it even when he was wide awake and up on his feet. The neck brushing expanded to his back, sides, chest, and face. He likes having his front legs brushed, but not his back legs. We're still working on his tail, but considering his initial reaction to a brush, we've come a long, long ways.
He also kisses us constantly, generally on our noses, faces, and hands. I don't know for sure if this is affection, but it's nice to imagine it is. He's completely gentle around our faces, thankfully, and has never tried to bite. He likes to play with ears, too, and when he nibbles, it's gentle enough not to complain about. However, he will steal earrings, given any chance. Bec has learned not to give Scamp the opportunity.
He's quite a "collector". We let him sleep inside the house recently, and in the morning when we awoke, discovered nearly every object that's not nailed down in the bathroom on our bed. This includes washcloths, bathtub stopper, drain strainer, razors, soap, towel, plus slippers, socks, sneakers, and an empty ashtray. As we laughed about it, we also realized - he must have made 45 separate trips to collect all this stuff! He's a very determined little fox. And he loves sleeping on my pillow. He'll nuzzle at me until I pet him, usually in the middle of the night. Well, a full night's sleep isn't mandatory every night.
In the last few days, he's followed me out into the front yard several times. His drive to explore has taken him both into the street and way back into the neighbor's yard. Of course, I worry about this, in case something tries to catch him. He hasn't yet discovered any good hiding places out front, and his attempts to climb the trees out front haven't been worthwhile. The front yard is a lot more dangerous to his health than the back yard is, and quality escape isn't nearly as available to him. And, cars drive on the street, which causes more worry. He has been practicing mad dashes all over the front yard, under our cars on the driveway, etc., and he at least knows a couple of quality escapes, assuming he can get to them if he really needs them. For what it's worth, I'm going to try not to encourage him into the front yard.
Scamp mixed it up with a German Shepherd about a week ago - thank God he wasn't seriously injured. Two permanent teeth in the front were knocked out, and he suffered what we assume was very serious internal bruising, but no blood or puncture wounds could be found anywhere on him. Immediately after this altercation, we couldn't go near Scamp - he'd get more aggressive than we'd ever seen him before - flattening his ears, gaping, showing all his teeth, and making some serious growling noises. He would - and did - try and bite, and these weren't normal rough playing bites - he literally tore my fingers open. He laid down a lot, and didn't want to move around as he normally does. He chose to show aggression instead of going away to hide. This lasted for about 3 days. We were able to get some antibiotics and aspirin into him with his food. This behavior has now stopped, thankfully, which leads us to believe he was probably hurting very badly, and in distress. He seemed to have "reverted to wild", if that makes any sense. It seemed all his trust in us disappeared for a few days.
Scamp has been wild for 12 weeks now, and his relationship with us hasn't changed noticeably. We've drastically reduced the time he spends in the office, because living outside, he manages to get pretty dusty. However, anytime Bec or I are outside, Scamp can usually be found very close by. We've stopped feeding him several times a day, now we typically just give him some dry dog food or table scraps once or twice a day. Some days, we don't give him food. He's doing a good job of finding his own food, and he's expanding his hunting zones to include all of our property and the neighbor's yard as well. He comes to us immediately for brushing and petting, and he's started a new behavior - he lays down for brushing. You can see the delight in his eyes and face - this fox adores being brushed! Then he rolls around so we can get to the good places. But still no tail brushing - for Scamp that's a no-no.
We added a German Shepherd puppy (9 weeks old) to our family, and Scamp is just bursting with curiosity about this new face. Every time we let the puppy outside, Scamp shows up in seconds. He follows the puppy all around our yard, getting closer each time. Occasionally, the puppy will chase Scamp, and being a puppy, he gets about 5 steps before he loses his coordination and goes rolling. Naturally, Scamp can just walk, he doesn't even need to run to escape the puppy. But the interesting thing is that it's obvious Scamp wants to meet the pup, and he's taking all the initiative to make actual contact. He puts on his "body English" to the puppy, and it's the same kind of moves he uses with us in play. I suspect that they're going to go nose-to-nose very, very soon. I also think Scamp is learning to discriminate - the big Shepherds will hurt him, and he doesn't seek them out in quite the same way as he behaves with this puppy.