By Robert Haydon Jones
Jimmy stood behind a bush with his boys just outside the cage and waved and made monkey sounds at the big tiger lying there about thirty feet away. The big cat looked at him. Jimmy edged a little closer and stuck his hand further through the bush closer to the cage.
“Here, Kitty, Kitty,” he yelled. The tiger blinked his eyes once and continued to gaze at Jimmy.
“Stupid, sleepy, lazy, tiger,” Jimmy yelled.
He was hoping for a big reaction from the tiger so his eight and nine-year-old sons would have a special show. They didn’t have zoos like this in Connecticut. This new zoo in South Dakota featured open, “approachable” cages — landscaped so big bushes grew all around the bars of the cages.
Jimmy was frustrated. He felt a little foolish.
He shouted, “Hey Felix, wake up!” and pushed his hand even further through the bush into the cage.
The tiger blinked again and Jimmy’s hand touched something. A millisecond later, his brain realized he was touching the fur of another tiger hidden by the bush – he yanked his hand back and a big paw smashed into the bars where his hand had been and the people around the cage, yelled, “Whoa!”
Until the red foxes came into his life, that encounter all those years back had been Jimmy’s only contact with a wild animal.
He had lived most of his life in a Connecticut coastal town. As a boy, he heard the sound of the sea every day. At bedtime, it was a splendid sound to slip away into. Later, he lived a few miles inland in the same town in a renovated 18th century ferry landing building that overlooked the terminus of the big estuary that coursed through the center of town on its way to the sea.
The estuary isn’t famous but it could be. It puts on a spectacular daily variety show featuring different animals, birds and fish depending on the season, the time of day and the state of the tide.
After he married, he moved two miles inland to a stately, white, “Gatsby” house on acres of rolling meadow running down to a river that feeds the estuary. The river teems with fish and turtles. The meadows are home to a flock of wild turkeys, a big red tail hawk, four crows, an owl and a herd of deer.
It is the last parcel of river bottom meadow left in his town. It is beautiful. Similar meadows along the river had been “improved” with tennis courts and basketball courts as newcomers from New York moved in and put up big houses. Jimmy had a friend with a lock mower cut his fields twice a year and left it at that.
When a coyote den in a nearby town was discovered with a pile of bones and 14 dog collars and 8 cat collars, Jimmy considered surrounding his land with special tall fiberglass fences to protect his pets. But he decided against it.
Jimmy and his wife, Anne, loved the meadows and the house and the old copper beach and the water from their artesian well. They knew they would have to sell and leave some day but when they really had to sell after forty-one years, it was a shock. They were still alive and they were leaving.
Their downsize was in a town up the line and back from the water, although there were still a lot of water grasses and reeds that reminded Jimmy of places where you could hear the sea. They had quite a few near neighbors here – which was sort of a fun prospect. There was a Jesuit university nearby, and just half a mile away, the housing projects of a big city rank with poverty, homelessness, and gang violence.
The good news was their downsize house was in an enclave of well kept eighty-year-old houses on a beautiful, well-maintained street with lovely old trees. There was work to do on the house but they had nice a big backyard spilling past a bountiful apple tree to a tangle of brush that separated their yard from the next property.
The children had gone long ago – and now all the grandchildren were grown and far away. So now, even on holidays, Jimmy and Anne were alone with Duncan, their 3-year old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
Duncan was the last of a long line of Cavaliers Jimmy and Anne kept. As a puppy, he had been shown the ropes by Percy, an extraordinarily beautiful and sweet Cavalier who had suddenly been afflicted by cancer when he was just six. The vet euthanized him. The family still mourned him.
Before they made the move, Anne had the Invisible Fence people do a careful survey of the new property and install their latest equipment in the front and the back. The Invisible Fence trainer introduced Duncan to the new boundaries of his outdoor life in just about forty minutes. The next day, Jimmy and Anne let him out and watched him. Duncan was safe. He respected the boundaries front and back.
A week later Jimmy and Anne were breakfasting on pancakes on their screened porch, which was pleasantly illuminated by the morning sun. It was spring. The apple tree was blooming.
Anne suddenly screeched, “My God, look at that!”
Jimmy looked out. At the far end of the yard, four animals were lying down in a semicircle. They appeared to be basking in the sun. There were two big ones and two little ones. Jimmy looked again. The biggest one got up and turned and looked Jimmy’s way. It had a wild face. There was a red tinge to its fur. It was a fox! Jimmy had never seen a fox in person. Now he was looking at a fox family that evidently lived on his property.
Just then, Duncan, banged up against the plate glass door of the porch barking furiously. Now all the foxes were on their feet looking toward the house. Then, they turned as one and trotted off into the foliage. Duncan kept barking. They had to bring him in off the porch to get him to stop.
That was the start of Fox Time for Jimmy and Anne. They immediately consulted the Internet for information on foxes. Foxes mated in the first quarter of the year. They had a gestation period of just 51 to 53 days. They were widespread in the state. Foxes had to live in the open spaces between neighboring coyote’s territory.
Foxes are omnivorous. They prey on mice, squirrel, rabbits, cats and small dogs like Duncan. Some foxes have rabies. Some can spread a fatal form of mange.
Jimmy thought about taking his old, sniper-scoped, Springfield 03 out of the Cosmoline and shooting the foxes. It would be an easy shot. Just 75 or 80 yards. If he killed the Father fox, maybe the others would run away. But then again, maybe another male would step up.
Jimmy and Anne hoped that maybe the fox family was just passing through. But early next morning, as Jimmy was brewing the coffee, Duncan started barking and yowling – pushing against the porch door.
Sure enough, the fox family was back. The two babies were play fighting with each other. The mother was stretched out on her back in the sun. The father sat on his haunches looking straight out toward Jimmy.
Jimmy was fed up. He pushed Duncan back off the porch, opened the back door and stepped out. He was going to yell – but all four foxes had already plunged off into the brush.
Jimmy and Anne went back on the Internet. Foxes are never a threat to humans. They always seek to avoid confrontations. They do prey on small dogs and cats – but not with humans in the near vicinity.
This information was of great consolation. They began to allow Duncan to cruise the backyard so long as one of them was out there with him.
They relaxed. Then one morning, just as Jimmy emerged with Duncan out the porch door, he started to growl and run toward the back. The male fox was standing there. Duncan was acting like he wanted to make friends! Jimmy shouted, “No!” and the fox bounded away into the bush.
They decided on a new routine. The foxes usually came out for the sun in the early morning. They restricted Duncan to the front yard until noon. It worked. The foxes took the sun on a regular basis in the morning. Duncan never encountered them.
Anne and Jimmy were now very interested in the foxes. They used field glasses to see them up close. Jimmy was struck by how wild their faces looked. The male fox especially had a fearsome jaw line. He definitely was a biter. The foxes rolled around in the dirt like dogs. They scratched themselves like dogs. The baby foxes were very cute – they were constantly play fighting — just like dogs.
They decided to take Duncan to the Vet to make sure he had all the shots he needed. The Vet’s assistant said Duncan was fine with his shots. She told Anne that the red fox is notorious for having the babies play around to distract a victim – and then the mother jumps out from hiding and kills.
That information really scared them. The fact is they had already fallen for the trick. The babies were very cute. Jimmy and Anne looked forward to seeing them almost every morning. They had become distracted. They had almost completely forgotten that the mother or father would pounce on Duncan if given the chance.
They went back on the Internet and clicked on to Amazon. The very next day they had a shiny, battery-operated, electronic, wildlife-deterrent canister. The brochure said the canister would emit high-pitched sounds that foxes, squirrels and all sort of varmints could not abide.
They set the canister up right where the foxes like to take the morning sun.
The foxes did not appear for two days and Jimmy started to feel a little guilty. All the foxes had been looking for was some morning sun. Duncan’s life would be perfectly fine if he kept to the front yard. Hell, Jimmy walked Duncan for a mile at the park almost every day.
The next morning Jimmy came down for breakfast a little late. He looked out. The Father fox was standing by the canister. He lifted his leg and urinated on the canister. Then he walked to the other side of the canister and urinated on it again.
He trotted back into the bush. Then he trotted out again with the wife and kids. They took the sun as usual.
Anne was out for her spin class. When she returned, Jimmy told her about how the fox had christened their fancy wildlife-deterrent canister – and they had a good laugh.
They decided they might as well live and let live as far as the foxes were concerned. They realized that as long as they kept an eye on Duncan, all would be well.
As the summer wore on, the fox family visited almost every day. Jimmy looked at them with the field glasses quite a lot. The babies were getting bigger. The father’s fur was quite beautiful – Jimmy had never realized how red, red foxes were.
Jimmy took a lot of photos of the foxes with his iPhone. He had enough to fill an album.
Jimmy discussed the fox family with a next-door neighbor at a cocktail party. The neighbor said he often saw the foxes passing through his property but had not realized they took the sun in Jimmy’s back yard. They wondered where their den was.
The next day the neighbor came to Jimmy’s door and told him the Father fox was dead. He was lying in the street about a half mile away just before the entrance to the projects. Jimmy was shocked. He didn’t know what to say.
He told Anne. She was surprised. Unsettled. Jimmy found the whole thing hard to believe. It seemed very unlikely that a fox would be on a busy urban street. Maybe it was a dog. He drove the half-mile up and over to check it out for himself.
There was no disputing it was the Father fox. Jimmy recognized him. He was one dead fox. He had been hit hard – probably several times. He lay on his side with his guts spilling out. His eyes were open. His jaw, was relaxed – his big, red, tongue lolling – his killer bite exposed for all to see. Jimmy took some photos. Then he drove to the other side of the road and took some shots from that perspective.
The fox family has not returned. Three days after Jimmy saw the dead fox, a large male red fox walked out of the brush, lay down in the early morning sunny spot and after about twenty minutes, rose and walked away. Since then there have been no visitors.
It has been months now. Even so, Anne and Jimmy are vigilant when Duncan is out in the back. But as the days go by, the Fox Time is becoming time they look back on like all those years in their old “Gatsby” home.
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