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‘Vermin’

Cats have poise, elegance and mystery. Dogs have warmth, charm and exuberance. Foxes are a marvellous combination of the two. An urban setting wouldn’t be complete without their lithe silhouettes skulking through the concrete, nor would the vastly green pallet of the countryside be as interesting without fiery flashes of rust. When one comes face to face with these animals, an eerie sense of calm and intrigue washes upon the individual. Maybe it’s the lamp like eyes reflected in the car headlights. Bat-like ears and brush tail. Forms that are neither spirit nor material. The appearances of these elusive animals stir haunting, almost primeval feelings within the human observer. They are a connection to the long abandoned natural world and possibly a world beyond that. Their cunning fascinates the open-minded and intimidates the dreary.

When the subject of spring is mentioned, the images that one conjures are that of youth, freshness and birth. The world is stirring from a cold hibernation and colour returns to the landscapes. The surge of hope one feels when the first buds dot the gardens is enough to make the slump of winter all worth it. The feeling of warmth on one’s face when the sun actually rises is sustenance to the famished soul. But best of all is the pitter patter of little feet, hooves and paws. For the majority of people, it would   n’t be spring without the arrival of four-legged offspring and among the most feisty and charismatic are the fox cubs.

If we remind ourselves that fox cubs naturally will have the mischief of kittens and the energy of puppies it’s safe to say that a vixen will have her hands full. Six pairs of yellow eyes, six pairs of bat-like ears and six bushy tails. Reminiscent of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy-tale, their fur is an earthy brown before the fire of scarlet is ignited with maturity. They bicker and squabble, little whirlwinds of energy and enthusiasm. Born as oblivious as any human baby into a world where the odds are stacked against them. Before long they will learn the shock of harsh weather conditions, the uncertainty of mealtimes and the dangers of other animals, in particular, the two-legged variety.

Humanity has had a turbulent love-hate affair with the foxes. Loathed as demons of the occult, adored as cuddly country residents in children’s books, hated as crafty street-bound vermin and worshipped as artful woodland sprites and everything in between. It’s almost impressive that an animal as demure as the fox has managed to ruffle the feathers of their human counterparts as much as they have. It appears the dominant species is easily agitated by cute fluffy animals. We get angsty when a fox catches a chicken, not out of sympathy for the poor bird but because we didn’t get the chance to brutally slaughter the poor creature first. Copious amounts of food get wasted but when Mother Nature’s hoovers move in and take advantage we get angsty at that too. For all our supermarkets and excess in the first world, are we really that bad at sharing? A vixen with six hungry mouths to feed has no such luxury.

Somebody I once knew told me an anecdote involving an urban fox. It took place in secret smoking location. A fox would occasionally frequent the place and visit them. Coy and elusive at first but as the weeks went by it grew warmer and began to trust them. One day, the fox decided it was time to become acquainted with the group and made tentative steps to approach my friend. He crouched and reached out his hand as the fox came closer. All of a sudden, a friend of his shouted, “Don’t let it touch you! It’s a wild animal, it’ll bite yah!”. The sudden thought startled my friend making him recoil and subsequently, he startled the fox. It was never to be seen again. In a split second, the potential for an enchanting interaction between human and animal that took time and trust to cultivate got snuffed out.

All too often it seems we allow our fears or our pre-conceived notions to cloud the reality of a situation, a thing, or in this case, an animal. When a rat for instance, chews through a sack of grain in order to feed itself, we decide to take it personally and wage war against a creature that is simply following a deeply ingrained instinct to keep itself alive. A ‘pest’ in merely a non-human animal that happened to be in our vicinity at the wrong place at the wrong time. To rage against an animal for being as it is, makes as much sense as raging at the sun for shining too brightly or at the rain for being too wet. We deprive ourselves of a connection to our four-legged neighbours and a connection to our simpler selves.

The horror stories that emerge of hunters feeding fox cubs to their dogs or terrified and exhausted animals getting torn to shreds by the bored upper-classes and their hounds should be enough to hurt the heart of anyone who has one. And yet, enough detachment and slander renders these animals worthy of the most horrific mistreatment and the degradation of being labelled, ‘Vermin’. Majestic animals such as these deserve to be treated with appropriate respect and dignity. Perhaps if more people took the time to develop a relationship with one of these animals, to lose and find oneself in the lamp like eyes, to simply be present in the company of a sentient non-human animal, they would realise this. Maybe then they would have to reconsider whether this woodland sprite, this cunning survivor, this spirit contained in scarlet fur, is worthy of the title, “Vermin”.