Monday, 18 March 2013

Forgetting They're Real

Photographer unknown

Tony Blair’s government, bless their little whiter-than-white cotton socks, did about two good things during their decade in power, and one of them was criminalising hunting with dogs. Typically, however, they did it badly, leaving whopping great loopholes that have led to countless foxes being accidentally on purpose torn to shreds. It would have made more sense to have gone the whole way, and ban the activity completely. But maybe they didn’t want to upset the Bloodsports Alliance further – strange really, as they never seemed too scared of upsetting the rest of us!

It was too much, however, for the bunch of high class hooligans and Boy Mulcasters currently at the reins of our country. Not content with destroying the economy and starting the smash-up of Britain’s treasured welfare services, they announced soon after taking office that they wanted to repeal the hunting act. But to simply do so would make them too unpopular with townies. Just like asylum seekers, Muslims, benefits claimants and now even the disabled, wildlife had to be demonised. And so, ever so coincidentally, the right-wing tabloids started publishing a spate of scare stories about foxes (urban ones, mostly, but then it’s the town dwellers they mostly needed to convince). It didn’t matter that we live in one of the safest countries in the world where wildlife is concerned (due to having several friends with Lyme disease, I’m far more frightened of ticks than I am of any mammal), or that you’re far more likely to be bitten (if not mauled) by the beloved pooch down the road than you are by a fox. As Hitler famously said, and Tony Blair disastrously continued to prove, (some) people will believe any lie if you make it big enough and tell it often enough.

Artist unknown
These scare stories have not let up since. Reports of people having been mugged by foxes for their bag of chips, terrified by them as they sat cool as cucumbers on their bed, or bitten because they were silly enough to offer them a hand instead of a sandwich, still proliferate. Then, a month ago an unattended baby had its finger bitten by a fox that wandered in through an open door, and suddenly the Mayor of a panic-stricken London was calling for a cull.

Frodo or Flo at the British Wildlife Centre
An interesting thing often happens if you spend any time actually watching animals. Whenever I’m lucky enough to see an urban fox, it either runs away or sits still and looks at me, probably hoping I have a sausage roll in my hand. But two years ago I had the opportunity to get really close to two foxes, Frodo and Flo (and on another occasion Ellis the cub), at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey. This is what I wrote back then.

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!

Waiting for chick dinner!
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. – (Shared Natures, 22 April 2012)

Sentimental? Anthropomorphic? Maybe, but then I don’t really care – either of those traits is harmless in this instance. But I fell in love with foxes that day. They’re extraordinary animals, now threatened with the ultimate punishment for simply doing their best to make a living in the world  (just like us) – and doing it pretty well, I might add! And far from being ‘vermin’, as they’re so often described in the bog roll papers, they have far more in common with our beloved and ever popular pet dogs and cats. Imagine if a council called for the confiscation of all dog-owners’ pets, on the grounds that they ‘might’ attack someone (which happens about every day). People would be outraged, wouldn’t they? Some people love their dogs so much, they’d probably put their lives on the line to protect them.

Ellis with the keeper who hand-reared him
Yet in the end, the prejudice against foxes results only from ignorance – that and a credulity about what people read in the papers. People who spend time with our fellow mammals (and foxes are very close relatives of ours, as organisms go), know them and recognise their kinship with us. Children, especially, are capable of relating even to ‘primitive’ animals that most of us would find difficult to like. Here’s the psychotherapist, meditation teacher and writer Tara Brach, writing about her son:

On my son Narayan's sixth birthday I gave him an ant farm. He spent hours watching with fascination as the little creatures magically created their network of tunnels. He named several and followed their struggles and progress closely. After a few weeks he pointed out the ants' graveyard and watched with wonder as several of them dragged the bodies of their dead comrades and deposited them there. The following day when I picked Narayan up after school he was visibly distressed. He told me that on the playground the kids had made a game out of stepping on ants. He was horrified that they were hurting these friends he so admired.
I tried to comfort him by explaining that when we really spend time with any living beings -- as he had with the ants -- we find out that they are real. They are changing, animated, hungry, social. Like us, their life is fragile and they want to stay alive. His playmates hadn't had the chance to get to know ants in the way he did, I told him. If they had, they wouldn't want to injure them either. – (Radical Acceptance, 2003)
"Am I in focus?"
Increasingly in this world where war and persecution seem to have become the norm, many people seem drawn to the Buddhist philosophy of non-harming – from the rise in vegetarianism, to all those who work or volunteer for animal rescue or conservation projects. And people love wildlife; see how popular TV programmes like ‘Springwatch’, ‘Countryfile’ and David Attenborough’s series are! Except that, when hate, fear and prejudice are stirred up by the gutter press, people don’t want their wildlife on their doorstep – or disabled people or ‘scroungers’, either. So many of us are so easily stirred up into prejudice and fear. Fear, of foxes! It’s nonsensical to me, because when we get really close to them we usually love them. But so much is nonsensical in this deteriorating country, which shows every day just how easily (some) people’s prejudices can be switched on – with just a headline or two!

Frodo and Flo love to sleep in the sun.
There are many reasons why culling foxes is impractical and ineffective, from the ridiculous expense (in a time of 'austerity'!) to the fact that new fox families tend to move into the vacant territory afterwards. But surely the worst thing about a cull would be the totally unnecessary cruelty involved. Urban foxes aren’t the ones the toffs in power want to hunt, of course. The calls for a cull are mainly to help influence public opinion, through appealing to the worst in our natures. Demonising wildlife means that we then start to see them as ‘other’, as pieces of vermin that can be hunted without qualms. To allude to Tara’s words, we forget that they are real – that like us, they only do what they know how to do, to be happy, to survive. Most of us love wildlife, but unfortunately it’s the psychopaths (of whatever party) who ‘run’ the country, and control the media who support them. And if they apparently have no qualms about exterminating human beings for political reasons, they’re not likely to feel guilty about some of their core voters terrorising and killing our fellow creatures, whose skins some people still wear to keep their dainty little necks warm.


  1. What an amazing insightful blog from someone who is so passionate about these beautiful creatures.If only I could have a big enough back garden for foxes to roam in an seek solace.

    1. Thank you dear Anon, for those kind words. Yes, wouldn't a foxy haven of a garden be lovely? :)

  2. Great story. We face a similar situation in the USA with wild horses..

    1. That's very sad to hear! There seems to be an insensitivity to wildlife around the world. It's tragic - they are part of our and the world's richest heritage. Thanks for the comment.

  3. If you had ever seen what devastation and cruelty foxes can cause to lambs and chickens you might change your mind. Now they are randomly attacking babies. Town foxes need culling drastically now.