Foxes among Badgers: A family of foxes makes its home on campus

April 22, 2014

by Kelly April Tyrrell

There are foxes on campus. Big ones and little ones, a new family that started this spring.

At sunset you might see as many as eight of the little ones, kits as they’re called, romping and rolling in pine needles or fresh green grass.

In the early morning hours, you might see their bright orange mother, the vixen, with her white-tipped tail and black-stocking feet. She might be out on a hunt or perhaps she’s delivering a lesson to her youngsters; on navigating the urban campus the family has decided to call home. Badger territory.

It’s reminiscent of the Roald Dahl children’s story, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” that includes this passage:

“Said Mr. Fox: ‘We down here are decent peace-loving people.’"

Badger laid his head on one side and smiled at Mr. Fox. ‘Foxy,’ he said. ‘I love you.’”

While the campus’ mother fox is at it, she’s also providing lessons for us all, from wildlife ecologists to students, staff and others captivated by this trail-blazing leash (or group) of fox.

Perhaps the most important? Live and let live.

David Drake

David Drake

“If they are given the chance to coexist with us, they can live here,” says David Drake, associate professor in forest and wildlife ecology. “But let them be.”

Though it might sound like tall tale woven into urban legend, the adult foxes have been documented lounging on the Capitol, roaming the MG&E lot on East Main Street and even strolling down State Street over the last several months.

By another account, a UW-Madison police officer recently noticed a fox crossing University Avenue, a chicken in its mouth.

The School of Human Ecology is seeking names for the fox family via Facebook and Twitter.

Lisa Jansen, associate director of Letters and Science Learning Support Services, describes how she and coworkers looked out their ground floor windows one day, surprised to see they were eye-to-eye with an adult fox.

Soon, the foxes become fodder for their intraoffice e-chat. The foxes have become the subject of a Tumblr page – to which each member contributed, adding photos, videos and stories. That page has become a citizen science record of sorts that has helped Drake in his study of the foxes.

“We are interested in seeing how they’re adapting to an urban campus and their interactions with each other, with coyotes and with humans,” says Drake. “We want to know their activity and range. They have become really good at living among people.”

As part of that study, Drake and a senior undergraduate student using the experience as part of her capstone project, Holly Hovanec, set up traps to catch the fox and install a radio collar. They were successful at collaring the male and are hoping to get more collars soon, to be able to track the comings and goings of more campus foxes.

Last fall, when the vixen and her dog, the kits’ father, appeared on campus, wildlife ecology Professor Jonathan Pauli predicted the monogamous pair may ultimately have a litter. That litter, he said, would wander out of the den come March or April.

It was March 31, right on schedule, when Facilities Planning and Management’s Richard Ness first noticed five young kits. Ness set up a game camera and has monitored the leash ever since. At last count, there were eight roly-poly kits.

That the family made its home in the center of campus, amidst busy class changes, chugging buses and zooming bicycles is particularly interesting to researchers. But it has also presented some challenges. Hovanec, who will attend UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine in the fall, says ropes were put up near the fox den to keep people away and help protect the animals.

“We were concerned about their safety,” she says. “It’s important because of the coexistence aspect … just as long as people know not to push the limits.”

“We want to respect them. People don’t see wildlife like this that often.”

David Drake

Drake says the vixen could move the kits if she feels unsafe and the more they move, the more likely it is they could be killed. They are still wild animals, he reminds people, and they will bite if they are threatened.

But, he is excited to see how many people have taken an interest in the foxes.

Right now, the vixen is perfectly content letting the kits play out in the open and as long as people maintain a respectful distance – don’t try to touch or feed or otherwise harass them – they are likely to stay.

The kits will stay close to the den through the summer and will ultimately be kicked out to go it on their own.

In a sad turn of events, the dog was struck and killed by a car on Friday night, about four miles west of campus. It’s a hard reality in the life of an urban animal. As for the kits, Hovanec thinks they will fare OK, at least for now.

“It makes me nervous, the urban landscape and the big roads,” says Hovanec. “But they will learn. They follow the vixen around and will learn her route.”

More than ever, Drake – who is also UW-Extension wildlife specialist – is receiving reports of foxes and coyotes in places people inhabit. Coyotes and foxes are natural competitors for habitat, though coyotes will eat fox so their ranges tend not to overlap.

“The populations are healthy and growing,” he says. “They are living and expanding … they can raise their young and survive and breed.”

For researchers like him, this is an opportunity to understand how the foxes are adapting to human-dominated landscapes. For others, it’s a powerful reminder that we are not the only ones here. It’s a lesson in peaceful coexistence.

“We want to respect them,” says Drake. “People don’t see wildlife like this that often.”