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It is a late afternoon and low tide when we make our way across the mud flats towards the river. Through the binoculars we see that there are a lot of bears on the flats around the river. As we approach the activity we are delighted to see two foxes in the mix! This is the first time we have seen them out on the flats and I wonder if it is the same pair we met at our campsite. Both foxes are wet and with matted down hair they look even more scraggly and skinny than usually. About an inch or two of the base of their tails – where it meets their bodies – appears almost bald so that their tails look more disproportionate than usual. Sticking out from a bald stump are their fluffy, huge tails bobbing in the air as they walk the flats. They are walking and digging, noses to the ground, in search of clams. Unlike the bears, who dig up a clam in just a few swipes with one paw, the foxes have to do a little more work. Butts in the air, they furiously dig with both front paws, their little legs flying in fast motion to get deep enough before the clam can scurry away through the moist sand. They seem to be having success and before long take a break for some fun.
One fox leaps in the air and lands on top of the other one, tackling him and bearing her teeth. They tumble into a heap of sand and fur, gnashing their teeth and kicking each other. One breaks free and takes off sprinting towards the beach. The other one jumps in pursuit, and they both are now flying across the sand. I’ve never seen a fox run at full speed before, and my jaw literally drops at their speed! They look like gazelles as they gain momentum, and their stride becomes a series of arched leaps. They arc through the air, all four feet spending more time off the ground than on, their paws touching down only long enough to propel themselves once again into the air. I had no idea they could run so fast, and so gracefully.
The fox in the lead changes direction with the top speed agility of a cheetah, then pounces on top of her friend. The wrestling resumes, and they rear up tall on their hind legs and crash their chests into one another. One fox leaps above the other one, twisting in mid air, and then landing onto the sand and flatting her body completely onto the ground. The other one dives into her fur, kicking furiously and they roll, a twisting ball of orange, across the sand. One fox leaps out of the fray and stops a few paces away to catch her breath. Panting they both look at each other. One fox dives into the sand, sprawling into a flat line. She turns her head upside down to gaze at her playmate, but they both seem ready for a break. After a few minutes respite they take off running towards the beach, where they ascend the tangled logs of driftwood and disappear over the berm. What a treat to see these two little foxes having so much fun and to catch a glimpse of their astounding physical abilities. John and I both comment on how cat like they both looked while playing, their agility resembling much more the flexibility and physical fluidity of cats than of the dog family.
It would be a few months later, while researching foxes, that I would come to learn that foxes actually stand in an evolutionary branch of their own – that is separate from the canine family. They seem, in some ways, perched between the felines and canines on their evolutionary path – sharing characteristics of both lineages. I was captivated to learn that their pupils function like many feline species, and in bright lighting conditions they have the vertical slit like appearance that most people are familiar with seeing in domestic cats. Unlike canines who have round pupils, their pupils are oval shaped. In bright light conditions, the pupil collapses inward into a line. In the dark, the pupil expands outward from this central line. This is in contrast to a round pupil, like our own, that shrinks into a smaller and smaller circle. This type of pupil isn’t ever able to enlarge as greatly as say a fox or cat pupil, which is why cats can see so well in the dark.
John and I eventually make our way off the flats and decide to rest and eat a snack against the driftwood bordering the berm. Crunching on corn nuts I’m startled by a fox that appears from behind a log just a few feet behind us. It’s one of the foxes that was just playing on the flats, and I’m also pretty sure it is the dark fox who visited us at camp! He’s staring at us, and makes his way right up to the log that I’m leaning on! I shift slightly to turn around so I can see him better. The fox flinches and jumps back at my movement. But he instantly recovers and starts inching back up to me. In a calm voice, I tell him, “its ok, hi little guy!” Unable to keep myself from using the human voice to talk to him, I try to reassure him we mean him no harm. With any movement, he skitters back a few steps, his reflexes so sensitive to any change in our positioning. But curiosity wins out over his flight reflex, and he eventually places his front paws up onto the log I’m leaning against, just a few inches away from me!
“Look!” John points behind us, and another fox is approaching more reluctantly. It is the brilliant orange fox from the other day, and we are 100% sure this is the pair we met the day before at camp. The orange fox is more timid and wary, and slinks around behind her buddy staring at us. Up this close, this fox is a royal beauty! Her hair is a long shaggy mixture of pure, bright orange and white fur. Although matted and molting, she is truly regal. I notice a huge, clumpy dreadlock hanging off of her left side as she tip toes across the logs. She makes her way about ten feet away from us, and sits down on her haunches facing us and her friend. The darker fox stares right into my eyes less than a foot away. It is a very special moment. He has the sweetest little face, and is extremely inquisitive, or perhaps just wants a corn nut. I get out the camera, now assured that they won’t run away at every little movement, and snap a few pictures. The shutter noise makes them uneasy, so I don’t take many pictures. The darker fox makes his way around the logs behind us, and sits down with his back to us, gazing towards the river and the mountains. Thin wiry white hairs stick out from his dark coat, and ripple in the breeze. The orange fox makes her way towards her buddy, and a minute or so later, they stride off towards the river. What a gorgeous pair!
© 2008 Jessica Teel