Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Urban foxes and tabloid fear-mongering

According to Boris Johnson, councils should "focus on their duties for pest control," after twin baby girls were apparently mauled by an urban fox.

He accompanied this with the bizarre declaration that foxes are "a pest and a menace and could in rare circumstances pose a threat to humans." If nothing else, with revoking the ban on fox-hunting being on of David Cameron's election pledges, this could provide an opportunity to bring the toff sport to the big city.

With the tabloid media engaging in its traditional role of hysterical fearmongering with aplomb, it may even be a popular move.

Alternatively, we could look at this matter rationally, as Terry Nutkins has in the Guardian;
Foxes are now treating urban areas as their territory. They don't necessarily differentiate between concrete and a tree, as both are now part of their habitat. They are carnivores and opportunist feeders, but they don't attack humans. I can't remember a single verified case of a fox attacking a human unprovoked.

This fox, if it was a fox, was probably young (as they are usually born around May). It reportedly entered the house through an open door, without knowing where it was going, and probably panicked when it found itself in a room with these two infants. When a fox is stressed, it runs about a lot and it could easily have injured the children accidentally. What I am definite about is that this fox did not go "on purpose" to attack the two children; that's simply not what foxes want to do. Any injury it caused those children would have been, in that sense, accidental.

This has been reported as an attack by a fox, but I am doubtful. Domestic animals are far more likely to attack humans as they do not attempt to avoid us as foxes do. Whether it was a fox or not, we need to be more responsible about how we treat wild animals when they come into areas of human habitation. People are scared of wild animals, and when they hear or read stories like this, they tend to lose sight of how to deal with the underlying issues they raise. We need to make sure that foxes do not become persecuted. The same is beginning to happen to badgers again because of concerns about bovine TB.

When a very rare incident like this involving a fox does occur, it is never the animal's fault. Foxes are not like wolves. They will never hunt humans, but only defend themselves if they feel that their own lives or their young are being threatened.
Obviously, this must have been a terrifying ordeal for the mother of the injured children. But it does not, in any way, justify some kind of mass fox cull. It certainly doesn't justify the tabloids pandering to the instinctive fears of parents and trying to whip up a frenzy. Foxes are not going around killing babies or eating human flesh. They're caught up in an environment they don't understand and they're scared.

Nutkins recommends the methods employed by the RSPCA to remove foxes from inner cities, and I'll second that. If you see a fox, then call them, not pest control.