Ever since he vanished into a tangle of russian olive and multiflora rose, the injured fox that I saw two weeks ago in the new moon dawn has haunted me. It's not often that one encounters a wild animal with such an obvious injury: the fox's tail was either missing or so badly maimed that it hung limp and lifeless behind him. That one glimpse -- for a handful of seconds the fox stood silhouetted against a sky still gray with the remains of night -- was so fleeting that the encounter left me with more questions than answers.
I've known this fox for a couple of years now: two winters I have followed his tracks in the new snow, as he has followed my paths through the big field, the heart of his territory. He hunts mice, or voles, or if he's really lucky a rabbit. In spring his diet expands to include songbirds -- especially ground-nesting juncos -- and turkey eggs. Last May I found a nest that he'd raided: twenty-seven shells neatly broken and licked clean, a few scattered tail feathers all that remained of the brooding mother's unsuccessful defense.
I've smelled him too, a scent as rank as a skunk at the urine posts that mark his territory. That's how I know he's a male. The few quick glimpses I've had of him -- a flash of auburn fur, the wink of a white-tipped tail -- have been tantalizing but always incomplete.
And now that white-tipped tail has been maimed. I try to imagine how the injury could have occurred. A brush with a predator is the most obvious answer. Not a bear -- they're only now waking up from winter's hibernation. A coyote? Coyotes hate foxes, but most coyotes are as quick and agile as any fox, and I can't imagine an attack that would not end with a kill. Of course there's always man -- a predator both whimsical and sadistic -- but after deer season human incursions in this fox's territory are pretty much limited to one individual -- me.
The injury might have been the result of an accident: something that trapped the tail so that the fox had to separate the rest of his body from it in order to survive, like the old timer's stories of a coyote chewing off a captured limb. But no one around here sets traps, and even if they did, tails aren't usually the body part that’s caught. I try to envision a natural occurrence -- a falling tree? -- but the circumstances seem too far-fetched to be realistic.
Perhaps the tail froze. This last winter wasn't exceptionally harsh, but after the coldest night I did find a button of white fur, a cottontail that had frozen off its rabbit.
Ultimately, all of the explanations that I create for the strange tail of the fox harbor embedded flaws or unnatural coincidences that make me vaguely uncomfortable -- even more uncomfortable than when I think of the obvious pain that the animal must have experienced, and may still be suffering.
There is, of course, one other explanation for the mystery of the tailless fox: he never really existed. What I saw that morning silhouetted against the sky was a four-legged creature about a foot tall with fairly long legs, pointed ears, and no visible tail. At the time, I concluded it to be a fox. It certainly wasn't a raccoon or a possum or a woodchuck or a skunk. But could it have been a large, feral cat? Cats often walk with their tails down. And a feral cat might also account for the scatter of bird feathers I'd found immediately before I spotted the supposed tailless fox.
This final scenario disturbs me even more than injury and suffering for the fox: it implies that my sensory impressions are not to be trusted. The more I think about it, though, the more plausible this explanation seems when compared to the others. After all, I only had visual contact with the animal for a few seconds, and the light was bad. The coincidences -- finding bird feathers immediately before the fox appeared, which just happened to be one year to the day since the last time I'd seen him in precisely the same situation -- seem too pat, like the script of a movie. In my mind, the evidence mounts, and it all points toward one conclusion: that my observational skills were flawed that morning. I did not see what I thought I saw.
Today, in a drizzle, I climb the farm lane toward the big field. To my left is a barbed-wire fence, and crowded tight on the other side is a tangled wilderness of russian olive bushes, the tallest well over head-high. Every morning a song sparrow broadcasts his mating call from the highest perch on this bush. I read an essay once called "On the Advantages of Being High" which suggested that each bird species has adapted its song to the environment where it lives: the low, flute-like notes of a hermit thrush resonate in deep woods, while the lilting trills of sparrows carry better across open spaces, especially if the singer finds the highest perch possible. But this morning -- maybe because of the rain -- the song sparrow is silent.
And maybe because of the sparrow's silence, I notice that my dog is nosing around the barbed wire beneath this big russian olive. The olive's silvery-green leaves are almost fully out -- the flower buds are apparent now -- so I have to get down on my knees to see what has aroused my dog's interest. There's something under there: a slump of anonymous fur. The shape, the size, the color: they're all completely cryptic to me.
I locate a handy stick, poke at the fur: no reaction. I hook the furry thing with the stick and finagle it through the cluster of wet black stems. Whatever it is, it is almost weightless. About ten inches long, it seems composed entirely of hair, much of it auburn colored. When I finally extract the bedraggled piece of fur from the bushes, my breath catches in my throat. On the ground before me, twenty yards from the crest of the field where I thought I saw the tailless fox not two weeks ago, lies the lifeless, severed tail of a red fox.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources