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For fox sake: Behind the scenes at The Fox Project

Posted at 10:15 am, October 26, 2014 in Fun London
the fox project

If you have an accident, you call 999. But what do you do if you find yourself in a fox emergency? And what exactly is a fox emergency? Alexi Duggins finds out by spending the day at a south London hospital with a difference. Photography Jack Latimer

Everybody knows that foxes are evil. The papers say so. In the last couple of years, their reign of vulpine terror has led to headlines like ‘Fox bit sleeping student after creeping in through cat flap’. Or ‘Sick kids flee killer fox’. And in one extreme case, ‘Woman’s buttocks impaled in texting-while-driving crash’. That last one’s really sinister, because it was actually written by foxes. Or, at least, we assume that’s why it’s called Fox News.

the fox project

So it’s a surprise to find that real foxes like to snuggle teddy bears. The first thing I notice in the small, sterile recuperation room of the Fox Project – a rescue service with a ‘fox ambulance’ operating in south-east London – is five little foxes, cosied up with little bears. ‘They can get quite frightened on their own, so we give them something to cuddle up to,’ says Sandra, one of the centre’s staff, as every now and again a fox opens a sleepy eye and nuzzles its soft-toy companion. The only sound is the occasional tiny squeak of snoozy contentment.

The Fox Project is all about changing people’s ideas about foxes. Set up in Plumstead in 1991 by musician-turned-wildlife enthusiast Trevor Williams, its original aim was to provide unbiased information about red foxes to a public bombarded by propaganda from the pro- and anti-hunting lobbies. Since then, the organisation has grown to include an ambulance service, and it has rescued over 18,000 foxes. It is now a 365-day-a-year operation requiring five permanent staff and 150 volunteers. Even the RSPCA calls on the Fox Project for help.

Sandra is today’s staff member in charge. Her daily duties as official foxy lady begin with the morning health check. The phone rings constantly. There are calls about diseasedlooking animals (‘Probably mange,’ says Sandra. ‘The most common reason we get called out’). Calls about injured foxes dragging mangled legs (‘Sounds like a dog bite – they make a real mess of the poor things’). And calls about how to humanely deter foxes (‘You just spray Scoot or Get Off My Garden – products that mimic the scent of a bigger, scarier fox’). In every case, the caller’s chosen to ring the Fox Project not to complain, but because they’re worried for the little guys’ health.

‘There are more lovers than haters,’ says Sandra. ‘The haters just have bigger mouths. If people didn’t phone us to report injured foxes, we’d never be able to help them.’

the fox project

There’s no denying that foxes enter people’s homes but, according to the Fox Project, it’s never with aggressive intentions. ‘When cubs leave their mothers they’re still learning where they can and can’t go,’ explains Sandra. So an uninvited foxy guest is actually a confused juvenile rather than a predatory invader? ‘Exactly. A fox will bite you in self-defence if you touch it, but if they went round attacking people, I’d hear about it every day. Look at it like this: even cats are more aggressive than foxes. You frequently get cats chasing foxes from gardens.’

This claim doesn’t seem so surprising when I join the morning rounds. Carla (all foxes are given a human name when they arrive) has been admitted for a dog bite and is very wobbly on her feet. Sandra chucks a towel over the fox’s head, grabs her by the scruff of the neck and hoists her into the air. Carla whines like a smacked puppy. ‘Hmm, that’s not good,’ sighs Sandra. ‘Normally they’re silent – oh god, there’s blood there.’ A vet’s appointment is booked, Carla is put in a travel cage and we’re about to head off when Sandra makes one last check on the remaining animals. ‘Anne’s covered in diarrhoea!’ It seems one of the other foxes has lost control of her own bumhole. Suddenly, the vet has two animals to treat. It’s ambulance time!

Or, more accurately: it’s grey Fiat van time! The Fox Hospital’s transport has no siren or flashing lights. Inside there’s just a towel, a butterfly net and a metal pole topped by a plastic hoop – used to catch the animals. A little plastic fox slides across the dashboard as we dash to Rusthall Veterinary Surgery. It might not be ‘Casualty’, but it still feels exciting. We’re lifesavers – on the frontline of animal welfare!

the fox project

The feeling doesn’t last. Ten minutes later, Sandra emerges from the vet’s with Carla’s empty cage. ‘She’s in a better place now.’ As we make the sombre journey back to base, Anne – who’s been diagnosed with the blood condition toxoplasmosis and given antibiotics, plus another seven days to improve by the vet before he’ll reconsider whether or not to put her down – poops herself again. It only adds to the stench that clings to the van: the fox’s natural aroma is a thick, acrid, almost chemical stink that sticks in your throat and gets into your clothes. It’s starting to feel like this is not the most enjoyable job.

‘Our reward is helping to ease their pain,’ explains Trevor Williams later on. ‘We don’t do this to make pets.’ But surely you must bond with the animals? ‘We don’t even talk to them,’ says Sandra. ‘We can’t risk conditioning them into waggy dogs who go up to humans begging for food. If they approach someone who has a shotgun in their hand, we’ve failed.’ As such, they occasionally rattle the bars of the cages of overfriendly animals and make loud noises to startle them. Because if the animals end up getting too close to humans, they won’t be able to survive once released, and might have to spend their lives in captivity.

‘There’s no risk of that with Luc, though,’ says Sandra, as we begin our final task of the day: caging a healed fox in order to release him back on to his home turf. She lifts the lid of one of the outdoor ‘fox recuperation boxes’. Luc shoots out like a vulpine jack in the box. ‘He’s feisty,’ Sandra says, blinding him with a towel and scooping him into the cage. He looks ready to make a run for it – impressive, given that he only has three legs after a dog attack.

‘Oh, he’ll be fine,’ says Sandra as we drive to the Orpington housing estate where Luc was first picked up. ‘Even missing a leg, they’re incredibly fast. I just hope we can find somewhere out of the way. Otherwise you get people saying: “You can’t do that! I’m going to call the council on you!” Actually, we can: if they called the council, the council would just call us!’

the fox project

We pull into a cul-de-sac surrounded by flats, behind which is a secluded, pretty garden that looks like a perfect release site. We have to ask a resident if we can set Luc free there. Sandra explains herself and waits for the fireworks.

‘You want to do what?’ the homeowner shoots back.

‘We want to release a fox.’

‘A what?’

‘A fox.’

‘Oh! A little fox! I didn’t hear you. Okay, let me open the gate!’

Five minutes later, a fiery red bolt streaks across the lawn and is gone. Sandra is smiling, our helpful resident is beaming and even our photographer has a big, daft grin pasted all over his face. Can something that’s evil be so damned lovable? Maybe foxes aren’t all bad. Just the ones that run Fox News.

To find out more go to foxproject.org.uk.

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