At some point last weekend, an urban fox allegedly bit two young children in the upstairs bedroom of a London house. Both had to go to hospital; one is still there. Whatever happened to the children (and there is still no evidence that it actually was a fox, for all the coverage) I appreciate the distress of the family, and hope for a speedy recovery. But it has been a spark in the reason-free kinder of the media, with no thought given to how other countries are trying to live with much larger wild neighbours. There is a desperate need for cool heads, empathy for both people and animals, and quality science at a time like this, but most journalists seem to be intent on maintaining the worst stereotypes of their profession, and the London papers have been bordering on hysterical.
On Monday night, I was asked up to London by one of our largest television news organisations (the sister channel of US network Fox News) for my views on the urban fox "issue" in general. It was a somewhat surreal experience, especially as I had been up for 30 hours straight by that stage due to my post-Canada jetlag
For the record, I've spent long enough around bears, cougars, tigers and venomous snakes to know that some animals can be dangerous. I have no problems whatsoever in telling people that such-and-such a species is a potential risk and advising them of the correct course to mitigate that risk - and promote humane co-existence, which is really the only route forward on this crowded planet of ours. But foxes do not come into the danger category. Their weight is approximately that of a pet cat. Try swapping the headline of "twins mauled by fox" for "twins injured in freak cat incident" and even if the cat was being aggressive, the headline mileage instantly shrinks. It is the primeval thought of a wild animal carrying off a baby which has stirred up the press, but that does not do either their readers or our wildlife much justice.
Sanity doesn't tarry when faced with this kind of media uproar. We are now, daily, being bombarded with nonsense. Fox numbers quadruple was a story in a London paper tonight, positioned (with some irony) above an advert for some movie or other on conmen. There is not a shred of scientific evidence to support such a statement. We have been treated to photo after photo of a fox with open mouth as it eats a biscuit or expresses fear, which the press hopes looks frightening to their readers. We have had the mayor of London say that foxes might look "cuddly" but people should remember that they are "pests", though scientists don't share that view. The Fox Project say that they been deluged with abusive messages, and I had the bizarre experience of being told to change the small fox photo on the wallpaper of my work computer because a senior manager apparently thought that it was suddenly unacceptable!
This is the fallout, and I think it reflects the fact that Britain doesn't really have any truly dangerous land mammals, so the media is milking this unfortunate event for all it's worth. It will pass. I just hope that it doesn't bring a needless fox cull in its wake.
If this was a fox, it was simply a freak incident, such as eventually occurs with almost everything. It does not reflect the usual interactions between human and fox. Anyway, foxes hunt voles, mice, birds and an occasional rabbit or deer fawn. A bite on a child would more likely be defensive; possibly the fox was trying to get the clothes and "missed" (this has happened with wolves in Canada). But speculation is pretty pointless; I wasn't there, and neither were any of the other commentators who are discussing this over and over and over again in the media and on Facebook and in offices and on trains. We may never know exactly what happened.
Encouraging foxes to come into houses, which some Londoners seem to do, is highly unlikely to put any human safety at risk, but it is definitely giving foxes bad press. I've had plenty of people come up to me unhappy about foxes that their neighbours have apparently habituated. Enjoying garden foxes is fine; feeding them is okay, as long as the amounts are kept low, but taming them to the point of hand-feeding and entering human dwellings is not. Ever.
All wildlife should be respected and enjoyed from afar. If the good people of Waterton Lakes can make that approach work with grizzly bears, I would hope that Londoners can achieve it with foxes, and let us all learn how to live and let live.