By Ken Fisher
Editor's Note: Following is the story of our first orphan of the 2007 baby season. Herndon resident Ken Fisher and his family were responsible for the rescue of the little fox as well as its subsequent reunion with its family. Because the Fishers went to extraordinary lengths to save and do what was best for the lucky little kit, we asked Ken to write up the story so that we could share it with others. Little Ken and the Fisher family got our baby season off to a wonderful, heartwarming start.
Our house in Herndon sits on a relatively large unfenced lot and is situated between Herndon Parkway, Dranesville Road, and Elden Street. Except for the woods behind us, we are cut off from any extensive undeveloped areas. The rear of our house faces a few acres of old growth forest and thickets. I'm always surprised that we regularly see wildlife in our backyard but because of the woods, we do see a quite a large variety of birds and other wildlife. We see groundhogs, occasionally deer, and we have had a family of raccoons visit on a regular basis. We first saw foxes on our property about three or four years ago. Then, last year, we saw first one, then a pair of foxes. Later in the year, they showed up frequently with two kits. It was fun to watch them romp around and play near the back of our property. We saw them regularly for awhile, and then, for months, nothing. We now see them occasionally crossing the back part of our yard. They are skittish and shy, and fleeting glances are about all we usually see, but it's still a special treat.
At dusk, one Tuesday evening in April, my son, Daniel, and I were barbequing chicken in the backyard when he saw something small, grey, and furry in the back reaches of our lawn. It was moving -- more like squirming along the ground -- and it looked like a round, grey fur ball. We approached it carefully, and at first thought it was a kitten, or perhaps a small puppy. When we finally had the courage to pick it up, we were still unsure what we had found. It had downy-like grey fur, a terrier-like snout, ruddy nose, and a white tipped tail. It had a very sharp set of baby milk teeth, and appeared to be only a few days old. Coming from a previous farming family, I was a bit embarrassed not to be able to identify its species.
We decided that whatever it was, it would soon be in serious trouble due to the cold, or it would become dinner for the pair of hawks that regularly patrol our neighborhood. With that, we bundled it up in a towel and brought it into our house. We fixed it up with a box containing several towels to help warm it up. It immediately stopped its faint yelping and went to sleep.
Our next task was to identify what we had rescued and learn how to help it. The internet was our first thought, and we found a number of promising websites. In the end, we got in touch with Erika Yery, a Virginia wildlife rehabilitator with the Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation group. We pulled our new found friend out of its warm bed, took a couple of digital photos of it, and sent them off to Erika. Meanwhile, we found photos of other baby critters on the internet. The closest photo to our little guy was one of a coyote. As our conversation with Erika continued, and she had a chance to look at our photos, she was also conflicted as to whether we had taken in a baby coyote or a fox.
From the beginning of our conversation, Erika insisted, and I now also firmly believe, that the best course of action was to try to return the baby to its family -- whatever the species. We asked Erika for her advice for that evening. We followed the instructions to wrap the baby in blankets in a box that was not easy for it to escape from but would allow the mother to get in, and to put something in the box to keep it warm. We threw a couple of baking potatoes into the microwave for a few minutes, and then wrapped them in blankets so that they wouldn't overheat the baby. Our first night watching from the backdoor was to be the first of a few with the same unsuccessful outcome. We waited until midnight for the mother to return, but to no avail. We finally took the box back inside and were able to give the baby a few drops of kitten replacement milk before it went to sleep. It slept through the night, and in the morning, I took it to Erika's.
When I arrived at Erika's home, I was met by Erika and later, by Bonnie Brown, Erika's friend and associate in the animal rescue business. Erika immediately took the animal, flipped it over and pointed out the obvious -- it's a boy. I thought to myself -- wow! Erika IS an expert! At this point, I embarrassingly admitted that I hadn't even thought to look. Bonnie was called in from her outdoor cage cleaning duties to see what we thought might be a baby coyote. Bonnie took one whiff of the little guy, saw the white tipped tail, and deduced that it was probably a red fox. I immediately pointed out that I'd have known that if he had only told an off-color joke or two (this for the over 50 crowd!). After a few points of information were exchanged, I was off to work, and my little fox friend was finally in competent hands.
That evening, though, at about 7:30, just at dusk, we spotted an adult red fox in our backyard. This fox, apparently the parent of our little friend, traversed the yard, seemingly looking for a lost parcel. Finally, he (she?) simply sat down for awhile on the upper part of our yard. Later, Erika told me that the fox was using her keen sense of hearing to try to find her lost kit. We felt terrible, and called Erika to let her know what had just happened, and told her about our infrequent red fox sightings over the past couple of years. Erika instructed us to repeat the watch the next night at the same time and see if the red fox didn't have the same modus operandi.
Sure enough, on Friday night, like clockwork, the fox appeared again. We called Erika, jumped in our car, and raced to her house to bring the little fox home to have another try at reuniting Little Ken with his family. By this time, I learned that Erika and Bonnie had taken the liberty of naming him after me. When my wife, Bella, and I arrived at Erika's, she had prepared a laundry basket with a snap-off lid that would serve as Little Ken's bassinet, and added something to keep him relatively warm and safe when we placed him outside again later that night. We arrived home about 10 pm, and put Little Ken outside with his potato warmers and Erika's microwaved-warmer.
We waited until midnight again, but to no good end. Finally, we took our little fox back into the house and fed him. Our son, Sam, volunteered have Little Ken's box in his room for the night. It was very disappointing and disheartening that the parents hadn't returned that night. We were beginning to lose hope that the parents of our little guy would continue to search for their missing son. Bella and I have four children, and I really was feeling as stressed about this little guy as almost anytime with our own kids.
Saturday was uneventful, other than the fun of feeding Little Ken (AKA piglet). We continually checked the backyard for any signs of the parents, but none were seen. Bella noted that each time we had seen the foxes it was around 7:15, just before dark. We decided to put Little Ken out around 6:30. We prepared the basket for another try to attract Little Ken's parents. We loaded it with warmed potatoes. (Yes, the same potatoes were used all week -- in the end, they were probably more like rocks after all the microwaving, but still held their heat very well.) We included blankets, toys for company, and a well-anointed paper towel. On Saturday, Little Ken had taken the liberty during one of his trips around our kitchen to wet the floor. When I mopped it up with a paper towel, I reserved it for use later -- I knew that the pungent odor of his urine would be a show stopper for the parents. I thought that if we placed him outside an hour or two earlier, we had a better chance of the parents not being spooked.
The next hours were the longest I can remember. Bella and I kept guard at the back windows, scouring the woods for any movement -- nothing. Finally, the magical hour of 7:15 came and went. We were quickly losing hope that the parents would continue to look for or even accept their lost kit. At 7:30, still no sign of foxes. I began to feel desperate -- should we have placed the bassinet further out? Would they be attracted or repelled by the soaked towel? Our hopes waned as minutes dragged on and it grew dark.
Finally, just as dark was settling in, Bella excitedly said There she is. (I thought to myself -- why does she think that it has to be the mother fox? The father could also be the hero -- but I digress.) The mother (for sake of argument) then tortured Bella and me for the next 20 minutes. She began by crisscrossing the yard. She seemed to be looking for food, but at the same time, I couldn't help thinking that she was also looking for her lost kit. She finally honed in on the yellow napkin, almost taking on a bird dog pointer position at the napkin. Then she spotted the bassinet, paced back and forth, and approached it from all sides, but would not come close to it.
The final blow -- she ran off into the woods. My heart sank, and I thought to myself, well, Erika has her next project. Bella and I were beside ourselves to think that after being so close to having Little Ken returned, it was all for nothing. Then it occurred to me that if Little Ken was outside his warm, comfortable little nest, he'd be more vocal and help his cause. I'm not sure why, but perhaps I was thinking that this WAS a mother-to-mother affair. Bella suggested that she go out and take Little Ken from his basket. Despite the wind and cold that evening, I agreed.
By now, it was nearly dark and I was thinking that this last desperate move would either succeed or that we would never get our little fox back to his family. Bella slipped out the patio door, down the deck into the backyard where she took Little Ken out of the basket and placed him in the yard. She jogged quickly back into the house, where we both peered hopefully at the darkening woods, searching for some glimpse of the fox. Seconds ticked by, with Little Ken getting colder by the minute, and crying out in the back yard. Still nothing materialized from the woods. The next two minutes seemed like an hour, but finally the mother fox was back! She slinked to the edge of the thicket and just hung there. She was as cagey as ever, but once she heard her baby's little cry, she circled, darted in, grabbed him up, and was back in the woods.
Bella and I exchanged high fives and whooped as though we'd just won the Super Bowl! It was one of the most rewarding feelings I've ever experienced to see that one little fox back with his family where he belonged.
Editor's Post Script -- When letting Erika know about the successful reunion, Ken Fisher mentioned that the mother had a hairless tail. Erika told Ken that this is an early indicator that the fox has sarcoptic mange, potentially, a very debilitating condition. Erika advised Ken of her mangy fox treatment protocol and Ken and Bella immediately drove to her house to pick up the necessary medication and instructions. The Fishers continue to keep a close eye on their back yard to monitor the mother's condition and to watch for her to bring out her family -- including lucky Little Ken -- when the kits are a bit older. (Big) Ken has promised to keep us updated.