Sunday, 22 April 2012

Shared Natures: getting out, and meeting Ellis the fox cub

Like so many people who suffer from chronic pain or illness, isolation is a constant difficulty. I spend a lot of time at home, only able to move around for short periods because too much activity can trigger pain flare-ups. I go for a short walk each day. I’ve never learned to drive, and to do so now would be too expensive as well as painful, due to problems with sitting. For three days a week I’m completely alone because my partner Angie lives and works in London on those days. In these circumstances it can be very difficult to stay positive and cheerful, and I know that this isn’t unusual amongst the many other people who live in similar circumstances.

As I rest, on and off, in my very comfortable reclining chair in the living room, I am sometimes prey to a kind of existential loneliness, where I feel cut off from the rest of the world. Because I have periods of anxiety, noise can be stressful, and silence can be spooky. Four years ago I had a nervous breakdown in this house, suffering severe anxiety for several months, and with a lot of hard work and support I recovered, but I still occasionally have setbacks. I work hard at various relaxation and self-help techniques, and they do help a great deal. But despite the frequent presence of our beloved cat Tally, nothing helps to combat isolation like contact with other people does. For several years now, my main contact with the outside world on those three days has been television, the internet and the occasional phone call. Facebook, that social network with a bad press, which is often accused of encouraging isolation and ‘virtual’ relationships, has made a huge positive difference to me, all the more now since I’ve joined a closed group for other sufferers. The support and friendship we people in different corners of the world give each other is an absolute joy, and my only regret is that because much of my computer time is taken up with writing, I don’t spend as much time with my friends there as I’d like.

This rather lengthy preamble is meant to contrast the life I experience most of the time with an episode of sheer joy when I was actually able to get out and do something different. The episode itself gives me an opportunity to write about a recent passion of mine which is all the more intense because of the current British government’s obsession with legalising the persecution of wild animals – and the surely-not-coincidental proliferation of anti-fox stories in Conservative tabloid newspapers. All my life I’ve related to those who are persecuted, bullied, legislated against or bombed to smithereens – so no wonder I became a peace activist! Maybe it has something to do with years of bullying in my childhood, or maybe it doesn’t. But like I said once to my therapist, in a moment of realisation, one of the reasons I’m so against fox hunting is that “I always felt like the fox”!

The British Wildlife Centre is an hour’s drive away from Eastbourne, and very close to the beautiful Ashdown Forest (where a certain Winnie-the-Pooh once lived). Last autumn I visited it with Angie, and for about half an hour or so I spent time in their fox enclosure, photographing these beautiful animals as they were fed by the keepers. I got some lovely photos, but it was also a very moving experience for me. As I sat so near the foxes, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could want to chase, terrify and kill them. Their resemblance to certain household pets (and I always think of them as curiously cat-like dogs, even though they’re far more closely related to the latter) was incredibly striking. The same look of intelligence was present in their eyes and behaviour. Would any of those ‘hunters’ traumatise and kill their beloved dogs or cats? No!

My passion for foxes really began in those moments of closeness. I tend to agree with the Buddha that most acts of evil or cruelty are done in ignorance of our shared natures. We don’t have to anthropomorphise animals to make this true. It’s a scientific fact that we’re all related; humans and all other animals have common ancestors.

Earlier this month, in the midst of the Ashdown Forest spring, Angie and I got a chance to go again. This time it was to meet Ellis, a rescued orphaned fox cub who was being reared at home by one of the keepers (where he apparently enjoys playing with her adult black Labrador). Once he’s old enough, Ellis will be released into an enclosure with Biscuit, one of the adult foxes.

As Katie the keeper held him, we got so close to Ellis that we could have cuddled him ourselves. The cat-like quality was even more evident; although a canid, Ellis still reminded me of Tally in his movement, eagerness, and nervousness battling with curiosity. The little thing couldn’t keep still! – constantly moving from one side of Katie’s body to the other, and consequently not easy to photograph. But both Angie and I felt the same strong impulse to smuggle him home. And although he was born a wild animal, Ellis seemed already at least half-domesticated.

I spent a while on my feet, not only with Ellis but also photographing polecats, adders and a sleepy adult fox who rested under a yellow-flowering gorse bush and looked a little warily at the small children crowding by the fence (“Hello, Foxy Loxy!”, said one). So I was in a little worse pain than before, and the car journey home seemed longer than the one earlier. But I can do these things sometimes, just not on an everyday basis or in a flare-up. The pain settled down again – and I got some lovely photos of Ellis!

As I sat telling my therapist about this a few days later, I realised that when I have these special times – getting out somewhere new, meeting other people, doing something I love – “I feel indistinguishable from my old self”. I meant the self that I felt I was before I became ill. And this is one of the dilemmas for all of us living with chronic pain or illness. We long to be able to do the things we used to do, live the lives we used to lead. We all feel a great sense of loss, as if we’ve lost our identities as well as the ability to do things. But we’re held back by pain, or by severe fatigue, or (in my case) anxiety and loss of confidence as well. This isn’t always obvious to non-sufferers, because our illnesses are often invisible – indeed, we are often invisible, when forced to spend most of our lives at home or even in bed. This is partly why I feel such a sense of kinship with my friends in that Facebook group. We all understand these dilemmas – our frustrated needs, our isolation, our physical and emotional suffering, and our frequent misunderstanding by other people. It can be very healing, comforting and cheering to get in touch with people I share so much with.

Even so, I am trying to get out a bit more now. I felt like hibernating in the winter – spending more and more time curled up in bed. Now I’m starting to come out again. We could have gone back to see Ellis yesterday, as he was running about in his new photographic enclosure; but that lack of confidence I mentioned returned, and I didn’t quite feel up to it. It’s a difficult balance – doing too much could precipitate a flare-up. But I want that feeling again, of experiencing the ‘old me’, of being Michael again. I’m still Michael at home, of course, the same as I ever was. But thanks to pain, anxiety and isolation, it doesn’t always feel that way.

Now a new opportunity has come up. The Fox Project (in fairly nearby Kent) has days when the public can meet the foxes in their hospital, and other days when we can meet and hold the cubs. This is too good an opportunity to miss! The next day is 6th May, and if we can’t make that one then I’ll make sure we get there sometime soon. To hold a cub!!! What a privilege! Such noble animals, yet sometimes so easy to get close to!

I know I’m a bit fluffy. But one thing I learned four years ago when I’d recovered from my breakdown, was that it doesn’t matter how embarrassing or childlike I behave any more – and my love of furry animals dates way back to my childhood. As long as it doesn’t hurt or harm anything, if it’s fun and brings pleasure to life then it’s okay. I’m learning to be kind to those aspects of my personality, instead of feeling ashamed of them. So I’ll carry on being fluffy! But it doesn’t mean that I lack respect for these wonderful creatures. Wild animals they may be at heart, but I recognise and rejoice in our shared natures.


  1. Such a beautiful article. Also, I'm glad there are still men who dare to be fluffy.

    May you be safe from inner and outer harm.
    May you be happy and peaceful.

  2. Thank you, Angela, that's very kind. I'm so glad you enjoyed reading it. Yes, I'm about as fluffy as they come these days! :)

    Wishing you all the same.