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Conversation with a Fox

The fox was standing on the side of the road as I drove down towards the Cooks River at Undercliffe. It was a clear bright day, about 3 pm, late winter. Homer Street had the usual steady flow of vehicles for that time. Soon it would get busy, when the after-school traffic hit.

Poised on the footpath, staring at the other side of the road, the fox could have been contemplating crossing. My instinct was to brake, get out of the car and approach it. It is amazing how the human imagination offers so many possibilities in microseconds. Right in the middle of the road, I would stop, throw myself out of the car, and run at the creature, fists and voice raised. Another microsecond: I would race home to retrieve a gun, then come back to shoot the animal. A preposterous idea. I didn’t own a gun, never had. I had never even handled one, not that I could recall.

As it was, there was the stream of traffic behind me, winding down Homer Street. The road follows the partly natural, partly quarried, escarpment towards the bridge before it crosses the river, the boundary between Earlwood and Marrickville. Slamming on the brakes was out of the question. Two roundabouts placed in close proximity at this part of Homer Street have still not controlled the recklessness of drivers who hurtle down this slope as if they are on the Big Dipper at Luna Park.

What was the implication of a fox out in suburban Sydney in mid-afternoon? Until then I had only seen them at night. Plenty of people have seen foxes nearby: they shelter in the Wolli Creek bushland and emerge at night to hunt or scavenge. Fox trails wind along the Cooks River, between the plantings of lomandra, paperbarks and casuarina that line the river path running from Illawarra Road all the way to Tempe railway station. On an icy evening one winter we were out in the park to photograph the full moon. A fox appeared seemingly from nowhere, as they do, fixed us with a mute gaze, then slid off into the darkness. In the moonlight it looked more grey than brownish-red. As did the fox I saw another night when walking home from the station after work. It was alone in the full glare of the playing field lights. Football training had ended by then and there was no one left on the field. I stopped and photographed this fox, which glanced my way, then continued trotting east towards the railway bridge that crosses between Wolli Creek and Tempe stations. The fox I saw in Homer Street during the daytime also struck me as being more grey than red. A neighbour once told me he sometimes saw moonlight-grey foxes as he walked from the railway station through the park at dawn, returning home from the night shift.

It is not only the down-at-heel inner west harbouring foxes. In October 2018 the Daily Telegraph reported news of the audacious presence of a fox caught scavenging in Point Piper. Other reports in the eastern suburbs include a fox in daylight on Tamarama Beach, and one that entered a fourth floor flat at Dover Heights via the cat flap, causing mayhem in the kitchen.

Whether in plain sight during an ordinary afternoon, or under cover of night, a fox is an affront, and that day I wanted to kill one. An animal lover whose household, just down the hill, once included dogs, lorikeets, chickens, ducks, rabbits, and goldfish. An animal lover, yet my primary instinct was to hurt, to kill, an innocent creature.

I need to hold this thought. Unpick it.

Vulpes vulpes, or the European red fox, was introduced to Australia for sporting purposes at various times between the 1830s and 1850s, initially in Van Diemen’s Land, later and permanently on the mainland. It is agreed that within thirty years the animal became a pest. Now the population is estimated at well over 7 million, across most of the mainland continent but less prevalent in the Northern Territory due to the higher presence of dingoes. Across the country as dingo numbers have declined, foxes have flourished, just as when dingoes arrived, five thousand years ago, thylacine declined then vanished, apart from in Van Diemen’s Land where they were extinguished by humans; and here foxes did not take over permanently, almost certainly due to competition from the Tasmanian devil.

Ironically, the sport of fox hunting by the gentry with packs of hounds has long fallen out of favour (in the United Kingdom it was finally banned in 2004) and yet in Australia an extensive range of sanctioned killing exists. In Victoria, landholders and residents can claim a $10 per head bounty for every fox kill. Killing these animals might seem justified: rat kangaroos, bettongs, bilbies, numbats, wallabies and quokkas are among the species that have been eradicated or savagely reduced across the country in part or wholly due to fox predation. But not only small ground-dwelling mammals are vulnerable: in 2017 the journal NewScientist reported that a koala researcher from the University of Sydney had captured film footage of foxes in the Liverpool Plains in NSW climbing trees at night. They were apparently reaching as high as four metres, meaning koalas, possums, and any other tree-dwelling animals are also at risk.

At risk too are suburban chickens, along with pets like rabbits and guinea pigs. Inner-west backyards have created an abundant food supply for urban predators such as cats, and of course foxes. Our cute poultry runs, our guinea pig and rabbit hutches, our mobile chicken cages, all offer laughable protection: foxes can chew through wire and are efficient diggers. They will also travel impressive kilometres in one night to hunt. Nearby my house they don’t need to do that. Nicking across the main road from the Wolli Creek Valley is a mere saunter for a local fox.

Before I had seen any foxes myself I had only experienced the evidence of their existence. One morning I awoke to a sight that upsets me to this day: the backyard strewn with the bodies of all my chickens, and three ducks. My favourite was Sparkle, a Muscovy duck of great beauty and genuine personality. Her black-green feathers would shimmer in the sunlight. I wept when I saw her lying dead in the enclosure, her elegant neck broken by one powerful bite. I wept seeing all the bloodied bodies. Nearby were my son’s beloved Chinese silkies, all dead except one that was missing. The fox, having killed all it could, had escaped over the back fence with just one piece of prey: a few silkie feathers were stuck on top of the timber palings as proof.

I could not keep this distressing sight from my son, who shortly after appeared at the back door dressed for school. Besides, I was already howling in grief and rage. Sleeping at the front of the house, we had heard nothing, though my next-door neighbour, who was awake in the early hours feeding her newborn baby, had heard a strange thumping and squawking at the back fence. She thought it must have been a cat annoying the chickens, but knowing they were in a caged run, did not feel alarmed. My son could not go to school that morning.

The Wolli Creek Valley includes a park of 50 hectares of mostly natural bushland squeezed in between the high-density suburb of Wolli Creek to the east, Turrella and Arncliffe to the south, Undercliffe to the north, and Earlwood and Bardwell Park to the west. It is a mix of wetlands, saltmarsh and rainforest. The creek itself starts somewhere south of Narwee and by the time it gets to Earlwood the coastal saltmarsh dominates, and the water is shallow and salty. The original inhabitants of this place as far back as we know were the Bidjigal, a clan of the Eora people. A plentiful supply of shellfish and other seafood, berries, grasses, and mammals, along with a constant supply of fresh water trickling down the escarpment, meant the Bidjigal survived here comfortably.

As the only area of bushland of any decent size left in the inner south-west of Sydney, it is prime fox territory. The steep escarpment on the northern side of the creek contains numerous caves and holes perfect for sheltering animals. Except that the small mammals that would be a fox’s ideal prey are no longer sheltering, being in low supply. I have always been aware of this, walking along the two trails that follow the creek, both high and low. One day I go for a walk there with the specific purpose of looking out for wildlife, and the possibility of evidence of fox habitation.

Needless to say, I see none of the latter, however I note the numerous excellent hiding places that the valley bushland provides for animals like foxes. Openings behind massive rocks that have shifted and settled hundreds or thousands of years ago. Hiding places in fallen tree trunks. Cracks in the sandstone escarpment leading to who knows where. Dry sandy hollows under low sandstone overhangs. Bending down, I peer into these and shine a light from my phone but still see no evidence of foxes. Or any other animals. I note again the ancient middens that are covered in broken glass and other rubbish, the cave walls above them spray painted or scratched with graffiti. S8R! says one tag in bright blue. Another simply and inexplicably says CUNT.

Entering the valley trail at the end of Tempe Street is easy, if you know where to look. My family and I have been doing this for years. Last time I came it was summer, and more open. Now, after some recent rain, the track is surrounded by lantana, convolvulus, asthma weed, and asparagus fern that clutches at your clothing on the way in. The fox I saw running across the adjacent park one night would have come out through this track, slipping through as easily as a shadow. Within seconds, the valley trail closes in on a walker. It would seem that the immediate suburban world has vanished, except for the curious sensation of the screeching and grinding of trucks and other machines from the construction site across the creek at Turrella. When this momentarily ceases, the stillness is profound. A bird call — I have no idea what species — the rustle nearby of a lizard. Then the mighty industrial din again from the south.

The temperature feels a good five degrees cooler, so when the trail heads upward towards the row of heritage sandstone cottages in Jackson Place, there is a palpable wave of warmer air. Here volunteers have placed star posts with striped tape to dissuade walkers from leaving the trail, and there is evidence of bush regeneration. Lantana, convolvulus, asparagus fern, are now and then beaten back from the angophoras and banksias, but it must be heartbreakingly slow work. The image of Sisyphus and his rock comes to mind. Nevertheless there is still plenty of sturdy hardenbergia violacea wrapped around bushes, or clumps of healthy dianella to prove all is not lost.

Opposite the end of Jackson Place is a cleared area bordered by some plant that has smothered the asparagus ferns, but is so abundant it surely is also a weed: a climber with ivy-shaped leaves, covered in yellow flowers. The flowers are humming with bees, hundreds of them. Weed or not, it’s a cheerful sight. And by the end of the track, approaching Girrawheen Park, there are entire stretches where no introduced plant species have invaded. Walking past the massive rocks where the roots of Port Jackson fig trees have spread in intricate Celtic patterns, brushed by head-high ferns, shadowed by angophoras, coachwood trees and lillypillies, you could almost be in a primeval world.

It is winter, the day of this walk, and winter is breeding season for foxes and also when they venture out for foraging during the day. I still see nothing that suggests they live here, but the Wolli Creek Preservation Society notes that its members regularly report seeing foxes in the area. It also mentions that a family of foxes was once living in the garden of an abandoned house in Undercliffe Road, and was considered responsible for chicken kills in the area. This is uncomfortably close to where I live, although my chickens were killed several years after this report. That property is still uninhabited, while another one now exists, across the road from mine.

Nor do I see any flying foxes. Earlier in the year, farther along the creek, the flying fox colony on the other side had been clearly visible. Right above us, on the walking track side, had been another. I had held my head down and darted through this stretch, across the slimy yellow shit on the track, holding my breath against the thick pungent smell. At the very end of the track a sign now explains that, for reasons unstated, the Turrella/Wolli Creek Grey-headed Flying Fox camp emptied in June 2019. That is why I have not seen them for the last month or so, on their nightly dusk flight across to the Botanical Gardens to feed.

All over the neighbourhood I have heard stories of foxes killing chickens. Almost everyone I know who has kept them has reported an attack. A friend who lived up on the hill in Earlwood returned home from work one afternoon to find a dead fox, seemingly impaled, on her side gate. This friend kept a great variety of animals — chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, two dogs — and while obviously comfortable around animals, panicked at the sight. She rang all the services she could think of to come and deal with it: police, local council, fire brigade, vet. Eventually the fire brigade took pity on her helplessness. They sent two officers who firstly explained that dead foxes were not normally within their brief, then prised the creature off the timber palings and tossed it in her bin. Fortunately it was garbage night that same day. They concluded the male fox was young and inexperienced, and in trying to scale the fence to its prey had got both front paws jammed in the gaps between the palings. Frantic, it had evidently flapped around only to have its paws wedged in even tighter. It could have been there from the night before, and had died from exhaustion. My friend was riddled with equal parts horror and pity.

Our fears and misconceptions about foxes are fed by numerous sources. I for one cannot shake Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, the story of that foolish and gullible duck who leaves Hill-Top Farm to lay her eggs in secret. She encounters a gentlemen with red whiskers, who graciously invites her to his shed where she may maintain her nest in peace. Children reading this story can tell it is not going to work out well. Don’t do it, don’t do it, can’t you see Mr Todd is a fox in disguise? What a relief when the sensible sheepdog Kep intervenes, despatches the cunning fox, and sends the abashed Jemima back to the safety of the farm.

Aesop’s Fables also provide a poor representation of the fox. In these pithy moral stories foxes are cunning, flattering a crow into dropping her beakful of food, luring a goat into a well to save themselves from drowning. They do not always win, for example the fox who fails to convince its mates to cut off their tails to match his, but they are always scheming, plotting, thinking outside the square. You’ve got to hand it to them, this cleverness. You could almost call it imagination.

Not that imagination was on my mind when I surveyed the dozen chickens and duck corpses in my back yard that morning. I was not aware until then that foxes are surplus killers, and even after I learned this I failed to understand why. My emotional response was to despise the fox for its uncontrolled bloodlust, its evil instinct, its spiteful nature, its obsession with killing for the sake of killing.

But what am I saying here? Terms like evil, bloodlust, spiteful, are morally weighted. The fox is an animal, and has no moral dimension. Surplus killing is a behavioural response, almost certainly to the predatory drive triggered by the chickens’ own innate behaviour, which is to flap around in panic, squawking and scattering. The fox’s predatory drive will continue to be triggered until the stimulus stops. Until all the chickens are dead. If my chickens had been out in the open, the fox would have hunted the flock until it caught and killed one. The others would have dispersed instead of panicking, switching off the stimulus and thus the predatory drive. Trapped as they all were in the chicken enclosure, there was no escape from their frantic terror, no switching off the fox’s drive to kill.

As the Wildlife Online site explains, surplus killing is accompanied by ‘caching’ where the fox, which naturally can only carry one body at a time, will return from its den to collect the remaining bodies one at a time, to store for eating later. I of course denied the fox this, since I buried my dear dead chickens and ducks, and buried them deeply.

The fact is, that fox deserves the same compassion as any other animal. I have had to confront and acknowledge this, beyond my own pain and prejudice. I have had to have a good long conversation with myself, talk through my impulse for revenge. The conclusion, were I capable of any revenge, would be an ugly one.

One argument in environmental science is to apply a model of compassion to unwanted species, even one as despised as the fox, and naturally, the theory is a contentious one. ‘Compassionate conservation’ argues against culling introduced species: brumbies, rabbits, cane toads, foxes. Culling means killing, and so for people like me — pacifists and animal lovers, albeit the feeble urban type who will almost never have to contemplate the reality of ‘putting down’ a sick or injured animal by their own actions — this demands at least consideration. Do we want our response to controlling any environmental disaster or problem to involve killing? When young children, for instance, are actively encouraged to kill cane toads, should we ask ourselves if that is truly desirable?

Thinking about this, I explore my anger at the fox that killed my chickens. I must honestly ask if, face to face with a fox, and the means and opportunity to kill it, with no good reason, I actually could. I doubt it. I doubt I could kill any animal in cold blood. Had I encountered that particular fox attacking my flock, I know I would have done all I could to attack it in return, but that is a different matter.

However, I also know that my chickens and ducks had as little or as much right to their existence as that fox. And so long as households like mine pretend they are mini farms — an indulgence, in every way, given the cheap availability of eggs, and the fact that layer chicken pellets are actually costly — why wouldn’t foxes attack back yards? Keeping chickens was perhaps just a middle-class suburban indulgence. About 10 years ago I felt that owning them had become almost fashionable. Part of the backyard props along with the water feature and the worm farm. It allowed people like me to live out fantasies of wholesome household provisioning. Fresh eggs! Genuinely organic! I used to boast to my friends and neighbours as I handed over boxes of newly laid eggs crusted with authentic dirt. I would even tell them which chicken laid which egg, sometimes writing in pencil on the shells their names along with the dates they were collected: Bessie, Queenie, Lovely, Prissy. Towards the end of their lives, these chickens cost far more to keep than they gave back, since as they aged they produced fewer eggs than the price of the chicken food justified. And as if I would ever have killed any of them to actually feed my family.

It was my fault the chickens and ducks were slaughtered. I had become complacent, neglecting to secure them properly into their shed at night. Even though I had heard those stories of foxes killing chickens in the area, I figured that no fox would come near a yard that contained the scent of dog, and stupidly assumed that my fences were strong enough and high enough to keep any predator out.

What, exactly, would killing vulpes vulpes mean? The approved methods for despatching foxes in Australia range from trapping and killing, to gassing dens, and baiting with poison. The PestSmart website spells this out and it is uncomfortable reading. The ‘Fox – humaneness matrix’ is a graph indicating methods of ‘control’ (read killing) from a scale of one to 10, or most humane to least. The most humane yet least effective involves direct shooting from the ground to the head or chest, while the least humane but most effective involves trapping or ejector device baiting, using cyanide or 1080 poison. Around the middle of the matrix, a combination of the most humane and most efficient, is number four: fumigation of dens with carbon monoxide.

Could I aim a gun at a fox’s head and pull the trigger? Could I set a trap then check the contents, to find an animal dead from exhaustion, or worse: bleeding and limping nearby, having chewed off its own foot to escape? Could I apply carbon monoxide gas to a den of foxes, then drag out the corpses, including the cubs?

I once killed a chicken. She was old, sick and dying, lying drooped and panting in the shocking heat one day. I knew she would not live for another hour, so I picked her up, whispered my apologies, and turned her neck to one side until it made a muffled crack. And I once killed a dying blue tongue lizard I found in the driveway which had been mauled by a cat or a dog. I fetched a spade from my shed and brought it down on the lizard’s neck, slicing off its head. I am aware that I would be incapable of killing a healthy fox, except if I was protecting a child, a baby, or an animal of my own.

Killing as way of conserving is not just a linguistic paradox. Compassionate conservationists argue that killing for conservation purposes is hypocritical. They also make the point that the most effective control of vulpes vulpes in Australia, 1080 poison baiting, also kills dingoes, and as dingoes are the major predictor of low fox density and high survival rate of native mammals, their populations need to be increased, not diminished — not that most farmers would agree with this. Compassionate conservation advocates for restoring biodiversity via natural means, for instance the program that has famously protected little penguins and gannets on Middle Island, off south-western Victoria, from fox predation. The presence of guardian dogs, the Maremma sheepdogs, has successfully deterred foxes where previously, killed by poisoning, they simply returned to the island at low tide. Killing any species, compassionate conservation believes, is never the answer to saving another species.

Then there is ‘rewilding’, the practice of returning apex predators to their original environments. As I drafted this essay I read about the rewilding project of Bristol Zoo in the UK, involving reintroducing brown bears and wolves to a woodland after some 1000 years. However, the area is enclosed, the animals will be fed, and the habitat tended. Well-intentioned as all this is, there are several problems here, holes in the logic. In my part of Australia, aside from the fox, no other apex predator besides human beings exists. In the Wolli Creek Valley dingoes have ‘only’ been gone some 200 years, almost certainly around the time their Bidjigal companions were also chased, hunted away or otherwise displaced through disease or starvation. Reintroducing dingoes to almost anywhere — especially an urban bushland reserve of a major capital city — to deal with a fox problem is unimaginable. Conceivably the entire Wolli Creek Valley reserve could be enclosed and protected, if at enormous cost. I imagine the residents either side of the creek, in Bardwell Park, or Earlwood, hearing the plaintive howling of dingoes at night.

Watkin Tench, the first white person to record information about the dingo — the Eora people’s name for the dog — noted the animals were shy, attached to their owners, and the only domesticated animal that the Eora had. Since then the dingo has had an extremely poor history and fate, subjected to mass slaughter, bounties, fences, and general demonisation following well publicised attacks such as those on K’gari (Fraser Island) and of course the Azaria Chamberlain case. Simply mentioning the word dingo to some people provokes an extreme negative emotional response.

Aside from these hurdles are quite practical ones. What would dingoes live on? The idea is not that they would attack and kill foxes, but reclaim the hunting territory and so gradually ease them out of the environment. It is seriously unlikely that there is enough food to sustain even a tiny dingo population in places like the Wolli Creek Valley. And being companion animals back before white invasion, they would likely have had their diet supplemented by the Bidjigal. Furthermore, in my imaginary fenced reserve, the dingo would probably replace the fox as a surplus killer: sheep farmers across the country attest to the dingo’s capacity for this. All mammals have the capacity — and sometimes propensity — for surplus killing, including humans. Especially humans.

On the day I return to the valley to walk the trail again in search of evidence of fox activity, I also pause at two places, huge rock shelters with middens — smashed bottles and graffiti now, but deep below of shells and bones — to ask the spirits of the Bidjigal ancestors to grant me permission to pass through their land. I say this aloud, speaking to no one besides myself and to the idea that these spirits are still around, and might hear me. I say that I honour their presence, and I apologise for the disrespect shown in the mess of broken glass and plastic bottles at my feet. I do not feel self-conscious saying this. It seems natural to me, the right thing. But perhaps I would not speak these words if I were not alone.

As I leave the valley I am aware that I have as much right to be here as the fox, which is to say pretty much none. My presence here is an accident of history and birth: this neither confers any privileges, nor absolves me of certain responsibilities to the land on which I walk. White people have by far caused the most damage to the environment, and no one is suggesting that we be culled. And yet who or what is going to come in and save this place?

Perhaps this is not even the right question. Perhaps the answer lies in allowing the foxes to evolve so that over the next several thousands of years they become a more natural part of the habitat, which is only what dingoes did when their introduction became responsible, in the main, for the extinction of the thylacine.

I need to go back to that daylight encounter in Homer Street and walk up to that fox, and look it in the eye. I need to have a better conversation with that fox, a more honest one. Back home I roll these thoughts around as I clean the mud from my boots, and peel off my wet jeans, because on my walk I have slipped on the bank trying to test the saltiness of the water. Perhaps the Bidjigal spirits were saying something to me after all.

Works cited
Arrival of the dingo’, National Museum of Australia.
Tracey Millen, ‘Call for more dingoes to restore native species’ ECOS magazine no 133 Oct-Nov 2006.
Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908).
Watkin Tench, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (1789).
A.D. Wallach, M. Bekoff, M.P. Nelson, D. Ramp. ‘Promoting predators and compassionate conservation’, Conservation Biology 29 (5): 2015.