by Merry Palmer
Many years ago, I was sitting under a juniper in Westwater, contemplating life with my eyes closed. Suddenly, they popped open on their own accord, and a fox, perhaps three feet away, was beelining toward me.
It had gigantic ears, a black snout, and gray coloring with reddish hair on its ears, chest, and legs. It seemed intent on investigating the strange creature encroaching on its territory.
As my own fear kicked in, the fox froze, turned, and, much to my astonishment, climbed a nearby tree.
I watched it melt into its surroundings and then walked home, amazed by the encounter, wondering if my state of relaxation had somehow neutralized the dangerous human smell. I later learned that gray foxes not only climb trees, but also sometimes den in them.
I didn’t have another close fox encounter until a few years ago when a red fox vixen created a den near a small pond and birthed four kits.
The pond, which fills only after a good winter or a series of rains, isn’t far from the Bradford-Lee Building on the USU Blanding Campus, and after the kits grew old enough to romp outside, they drew a lot of attention from passersby.
I watched their father and perhaps older siblings do the hard work of foraging for grasshoppers, beetles, and rodents while the mother stood guard and the young ones frolicked like puppies, wrestling, tumbling, and chasing each other for the sheer joy of it.
One day they were gone. I suspected the parents had moved them to a less frequented area for safety sake, but I missed their exuberance for life.
Then, last fall Oggie and I were walking the trail past the White Rocks area when a red fox appeared. It looked young and thin. I snapped the leash on Oggie just as she lunged at it, barking ferociously, determined to demolish this new threat, but, undeterred, the fox merely looped around us.
As I tried to walk with Oggie jerking my arm, the fox continued circling. When we climbed to the upper trail, it peered down from the top of the boulders and then trotted down to our level even as Oggie threatened in dog language to tear it from stem to stern.
Unnerved, I checked to see if it might be rabid, but besides its bizarre behavior, it appeared normal, just gaunt.
I always carry a few snacks to lure Og back on the trail if she goes bone hunting, so despite sound advice never to feed wild animals, I crouched, took out a Pupperoni, broke it into pieces, and tossed one to the fox.
It grabbed it, gulped it down, and came closer. I threw another piece which it devoured, coming closer still.
I could hardly hold Oggie back, but the fox remained just outside her leash radius as it snagged her goodies. When I finally rose and convinced Og it was time to leave, the fox followed us a short distance and disappeared.
Sometimes foxes employ a hunting technique called charming where they leap in the air, lie down, roll over, and perform other antics while moving closer to their befuddled prey, but that scenario didn’t fit the Westwater fox’s behavior which occurred again the next day.
Although I wasn’t quite as surprised, Oggie behaved just as belligerently as I lobbed her treats to the stranger. At one point, the fox grabbed one, dug a hole, and dropped it in. After I pitched a few more pieces and turned to finish our walk, it trailed us briefly before vanishing.
It appeared the next day, exhibiting the same peculiar behavior. I worried about it getting shot because it seemed so tame and figured it must be one of the kits raised by the pond, but that was the last day we ever saw it.
Fall turned to winter, and snow piled up in Westwater until nothing looked familiar. I felt certain some of the foxes survived because I spotted their tracks, but I remained baffled by the panhandler’s behavior.
Red foxes are nocturnal, doing most of their hunting at twilight or at night, and despite their short lifespans, they’re geniuses at camouflage, adaptability, and avoiding danger.
Even with the increasing urbanization of wild animals, including foxes, why would one approach a human with an aggressive dog in full daylight?
And why would it stop begging once it found an easy mark? The complete answer remains a mystery, but long after the encounter, I pondered the experience.
I pondered it again this morning as I sat in a clearing near the stream. Willows lined the water, and two cottonwood trees blocked the sun with fluttering leaves. Russian olive trees, squaw bushes with reddening berries, oak brush, pinyons, and junipers flourished around the clearing.
A squawking pinyon jay shredded the silence as a red-tailed hawk landed in one of the cottonwoods, bending its branches. Despite the commotion, I felt my jaw unclench and my shoulders relax. I had a little time and space before the demands of everyday life took over.
In the canyon, there is space – space for rabbits, deer, and squirrels; for trail runners, bikers, and children who love to climb rocks and explore caves; and for me, my face and hair au naturel, dressed in my Twin Rocks Café T-shirt, grubby black sweats, and Keen hiking boots with mismatched laces.
There’s room for the nervous dog at my feet and a crazy fox which somehow communicated to me in a language that transcended our separate universes, a lesson, a skill, a magic I continue to contemplate.