This Seductive ‘Brit’ is One Foxy Lady
Story of an African Bat Eared Fox
By Iris Hunt
I’ve had a female of the species for years and, like any other, she has – perforce – no anthropomorphic characteristics. Except she certainly has…
Of All the Animals that have passed through my life, my little fox with the big ears – still very much around – is one of the most intriguing.
I had always wanted a chance to raise one of these more curious of small African mammals, to watch it closely – also in the context of the various mysteries around the charismatic character of the fabled, foxy “Reynard.” A breed of medieval tricksters, who were always in trouble but always able to charm their way out of any retribution…. And don’t they just!
I remember, in my early childhood, reading tales of the cunning, sly, pestiferous little “thief in the night,” who also always managed to outsmart most other creatures. (Maybe with the exception of predatory humans in pink coats, tootling hunting horns) It was all anyway intriguing enough to get my child’s attention, sparking the imagination and leading to dreams so vividly real that I’ve never quite forgotten them.
My first encounter with a fox was probably the preserved skin of one species or another draped around my mothers’ shoulders. I shudder to think of it, even now – why it should have been so fashionable to hang a dead animal around your neck. But there it was, in mothballs, in a drawer we cleared out after her funeral.
Nostalgic old photographs also recall the memory. Faded, sepia (fur-coloured) pictures of the self-styled “elegant Ladies” of thankfully long gone years, usually puffing out large, matronly chests and proudly displaying their (dead) foxes.
I had to remind myself that preservation of the world’s flora & fauna, rare or otherwise, was not a common priority in those days and that little thought, in particular, was given to the plight of animals considered most useful to man when deceased.
Fox-fur feels wonderful, of course, and you can’t help but stroke its silky sheen. But believe me, it’s as true with the fox as with anything else in life: there is nothing like the real thing.
In books I read later on stirring expeditions across the Arctic, there were always descriptive passages about lone foxes following the explorers and befriending them in strange and mysterious ways. It was almost as though the humans and animals had need of one another on their harsh, lonely safaris across the vast tracts of white wilderness.
The fox’s spoor, incidentally, is easy to read, one of the hunters in the family informed me. There is always a straight line through the middle of the paw marks in the snow – etched out by the trailing “brush,” of course. All foxes have thick tails that sweep along the ground, unlike any other canine out there, I also learned.
Four Years Ago, almost to the day as I write, one of our keepers at the Orphanage called me on the radio for help. It was Muraya, struggling to find the English to describe some very small creature that someone had just dropped off. Something furry he couldn’t identify.
When I got there, Muraya’s large caring hands opened to reveal a truly tiny creature with big ears. Together we examined the hairy little pup. After a while, Don joined us, clearly with an idea of what it might be. But not offering an immediate clue, Muraya took a guess: “A baby hyena?”
I had raised both striped and spotted hyenas and remembered fondly their intelligence, even at a very young age. Could be, I thought – there was definitely a similarity here. But wait, the ears were all wrong. The little mite had the small flat nose of most canine pups… But those ears? Stuck way out and far too large for the little pinched up face of whatever it was.
Somewhat oddly, there were white markings on the rounded backs of the twitching lugs that I imagined could have been taken for predator’s eyes from anything hungry that might be sneaking up on it. A device of nature, therefore, protecting the rear of this vulnerable, mini-mouse-like creature.
And then it dawned on me. A bat-eared fox!
Don nodded; he had guessed as much, although not a hundred percent sure. But I willed it to be – finally – a fox!!
On further examination we determined it was female, a fact we were more sure of at that point than of the species. Another thing immediately evident was that one of her paws was encrusted with dirt and dried blood. A bad injury.
Only then did we get around to asking how the little creature had got here. Muraya said a Mzungu (“white man”), further qualified as an Askari (“soldier”) had dropped it off. We gathered he’d found it on a night exercise around Archer’s Post, an arid,, scrubby region 80 miles or so to the north, where the British Army camped every year for routine desert manoeuvres.
He’d had it for three days in his pack, we also learned. But evidently not knowing what to feed it, he’d shared his survival ration of chocolate, which he’d pre-chewed and the pup greedily licked. (As she would, in dire need of more or less any kind of liquid and soft pap.)
The young soldier had heard about the Animal Orphanage (close to the Army base at Nanyuki) and had hiked up to us to give the animal a chance of staying alive. Maybe he was relieved to off-load it, or had no further real interest. He had left in a hurry before his sergeant could detect his absence.
Muraya wasn’t quite able to communicate the man’s name. Only a kind of phonetic reproduction which sounded like nothing English to us , so we just referred to the much-appreciated donor as “The Brit”.
That, of course, was the least of my concerns at the time. Obviously the little fox couldn’t survive on chocolate. But then again, she obviously had!.
And what of the injured foot? There was no sign of infection, just the hard crust of dried blood and dirt, which I thought best left alone until it peeled away naturally and revealed the damage underneath.
The ‘Foxling,’ I decided, was definitely way too small to live at the Orphanage. She would need a lot of nursing and general care if she was to survive and fend for herself. A perfectly good reason, I told myself, to take her home, placing her in my lap as I drove. She didn’t move, no doubt transfixed with fear of her new, alien (at that point “chocolate-less”) handler.
Once at the house, I gently placed her on the rug to see if she could walk. But she still didn’t move. Just sat there, mournfully watching me with dark, luminous, mysterious eyes.
Some time later, I went off to the kitchen to look through my supply of dolls’ bottles & nipples, hoping she would take some milk. But the moment I returned, I glimpsed a small blob of fur on three legs, hobbling frantically across the floor, only to freeze and collapse the instant she saw me. I reached down to pick her up and with lightening speed she bit my hand, drawing blood.
Not so defenceless after all, I thought painfully. Clearly I had to learn how to handle the little minx without coming to further harm.
Feeding was not much of a problem. She took to the bottle greedily – driven, as she was, by the irresistible survival instinct. For a warm, snug “starter home,” I emptied out a high drawer, lined it with old towels laid over a hot water bottle. Lucky for her, our American Eskimo dog, Mr. Simba, was out “on business” while I was settling her in and was none the wiser when he returned.
With her belly full of warm milk, the baby fox fell asleep instantly. All fine, therefore, until four hours later on the dot, Mr. Simba came rushing into my office in a state of some agitation. I followed him to the chest of drawers from which a fairly loud whimpering could be heard.
I cautiously took out the little fox and let the dog sniff her. Good fellow that he was, Mr Simba was reliably tolerant of the “weird” creatures I would bring home on occasion – “the good, the bad & the ugly,” as he rated them, always delighting in letting me know his “opinion”. He would either wag his tail with approval, or, at other times, give me “the look!”
In the case of the pip-squeak “canid,” as it is technically, he seemed more interested than he had been in most other baby animals. Who knows? Maybe he recognized a distant cousin?
The baby fox returned his friendly interest by haughtily ignoring his presence, obviously at that stage only the next meal mattered to her fragile existence.
It was Mostly Bliss, however, among the various species in the house. We all got on with our lives & relationships, jointly & severally, and also fairly harmoniously.
For the smallest of the menagerie, life at that stage was a fairly limited routine of feeding, running around a little, and sleeping a lot. Also routinely she “nipped,” when she felt like it. My hands were a mess of superficial scars as she continued to “get me,” ungratefully, with her piercing canines when I wasn’t watching.
“What’s its name,” one of my friends asked, and spontaneously – not thinking – I said: “Brit” Such a caring person of that nationality had originally saved her life, so why not? Brit it was – and remained.
She was soon very much part of our lives. Everybody, including the dog, took turns in providing entertainment for the spoiled little beast throughout her waking hours.
Like me, Mr. Simba also learned the hard way that you don’t turn your back on a sly, cunning, loveable little brat of a fox, ready to nip you in the rear at every opportunity. By the time he whipped around to teach her a lesson, Brit was either gone or pretending, disarmingly, that she’d been otherwise innocently occupied.
“That wasn’t me” was the clear message and Mr Simba regularly fell for it, or at least pretended to.
As she grew the ears seemed to grow twice as fast. Her face also changed, the snubby-puppy nose extending itself, Pinocchio-style, to a delicate point. A dark robber’s mask also formed around the eyes, giving her a kind of racoon look.
A minor domestic problem was that Brit had decided her toilet hygiene would follow ours in terms of location and duly did it, “smellily” on the bathroom floor when no one was looking. While I pondered how to work that out, Don tried an experiment, making a cat-style sandbox to see if she would use it before she made “our” bathroom unliveable.
She duly did, rather unexpectedly given the inborn cussedness. As soon as she saw the “sand-tray” (as it was, convenient to her size), she knew exactly what it was for. Promptly started to perform in it, tidily if nothing else – and still does to this day, so long as it is placed in a “private spot.”
Even so, it was time she went outside more often. Also, hopefully to find alternative amusements to her regular “playful” tricks on dogs and humans, or sacking out on a sofa watching other animals on TV!
Another, more curious diversion, was that she would often scratch the floor and then hold one ear to the boards. Bemused for a while, I finally realized she was doing her instinctive “thing,” listening for termites, the preferred food of the species.
She was out of luck, though. Not much hope of getting to any favourite morsels under the thick, red cedar floors & walls of the house. But the realization of what she was up to was a timely reminder that I should see about finding her some wild food.
Don was persuaded to knock a small hole in the wall of her favourite room, which gave her unlimited access to her own piece of garden without danger from cars and the rest of our large dogs. But the demanding little Brit wouldn’t go out unless I stood guard. Then she would play “hunt the bugs” for hours, but without – poor thing – finding much to get her teeth into.
But the problem was quickly solved. The Game Scouts took time to gather a supply of fresh insects every day and “release” them back into her patch of “wild.” Now she was all set – happily hunting and wolfing them down with great satisfaction.
Presumably they gave her the nutrients missing in the food we could provide – bits of chicken, fish, meat, milk and fruits. Or for treats, there’s cheese – and chocolate, of course, her never-forgotten original sustenance from the soldier’s survival kit.
If, say, I get down behind a sofa in the house, it’s not long before she’s in there. Ears turning separately like two periscopes, she simply stands still in the middle of the room listening for my ever-so-hushed breathing. She hears it, of course, whereupon I’m instantly found.
A favourite, purely recreational hunting game is “hide and seek,” at which Brit is a skilled & wily player. She dashes off and disappears without a trace, staying under cover, rarely easy to find. When I do eventually spot her – no kind of sporting loser – she takes off on a victory circuit, after which it’s my turn to hide.
Another show of vain glory from the victor and the unequal game begins anew.
Quick & Nimble though she was, little Brit still limped badly and was often in pain. Over time, the bloody crust on her injured paw had fallen away and under it emerged what I’d feared. All the bones of her toes seemed irreparably mashed and mangled.
One evening, we met an American up on safari on Mount Kenya and invited him to the house for “sun-downer” drinks. He was a well-known osteopathic-paediatric surgeon and I debated with myself for a while on whether or not to seek his eminent opinion on Brit’s behalf.
I was aware, of course, that most doctors, lawyers and other professionals hate to be pumped for free advice on social occasions. But after a few convivial drinks, I found the courage to forget mere etiquette and broach the subject of the injured paw. The fact notwithstanding, of course, that it was a veterinary matter well outside his field of surgical expertise with small humans.
But I needn’t have worried. He was altogether gracious about it and actually became quite interested in a novel, small, bat-eared fox in the course of his examination. He related her condition to that of very young babies with similar injuries and told us that, generally in these cases, he & his colleagues do nothing at all in terms of repair surgery.
Normally, they choose to let Nature mend broken bones in her own way and, in Brit’s case, felt that the foot would right itself (or near enough) over the course of time and natural healing. It could be that the patient sensed a reason for an unaccustomed show of gratitude to the examining doctor and chose not to bite him. A signal event in itself.
Also a salutary event as it turned out. By the time Brit was fully grown a couple of years later, we’d more or less forgotten about the foot. The expert prognosis had proved correct and the sturdier fox’s paw was near enough “right as rain.” Or not quite that, since – during the actual seasons of rains in Kenya – we see she’s now and again bothered a little by arthritis
In the Course of Time, the growing & thriving fox became even more trusting and, if anything, more imperiously commanding of “affection on demand,” a mutual give & take in the form of grooming.
Clearly great for a fox, judging by her contented, even sensuous reaction, although whatever it is she’s giving out to me, the “nipping & tucking” – or maybe imaginary nit-picking – is still not too great on my relatively hairless human skin.
Nor, in the same way, am I altogether taken with another of her self-serving amusements. A more boisterous, grown-up game of “play-fighting,” in which she jumps high into the air, letting out fearsome, threatening growls, and – like any other fox in flight or fight – catches my arm on the way down. It always results in a bloody forearm, with Don & friends doubting my sanity.
If she’s not engaged in this kind of ruffian affray, the little vixen is off doing her innate “thief-in-the-night” stuff, swooping on things and bearing them off to the den. Nothing animate, of course. It’s shoes, socks, pens, specs – more or less anything I’ve used or put down without a thought, as you do. They’re gone – swiped “lifeless” – like surrogate prey. She’s never more in her element, as it were.
Bath-time is altogether the opposite; never more out of her natural environment and nothing more appalling to one of Nature’s more finicky creatures on matters of personal care. She would normally have had a proper mom to administer a proper saliva (“lick & spittle”) clean up. But getting dumped in sudsy water is simply beyond the pale.
It takes two strong men, usually Don and another, to hold the feisty little fox, squirming and squealing in outrage until I can administer the sponge bath, which she clearly considers “attempted murder.”
At the end of operation, we all know to “watch out.” The bedraggled spitfire doesn’t hesitate to dive and deliver a furious, well placed bite or two. Quite contrarily, however – true to her (some say female) type – she’s all “sweetness & light” when she’s dried and feeling great. It’s almost as if she’s moved to show a little grateful affection for once.
A Friend and renowned natural scientist, Dr Richard Estes, came to visit. He had never seen a bat-eared fox up close, and this rare specimen, Brit, gave him ample opportunity for study.
Dick watched her nibble – grooming me. “You know what,” he said, bemused. “This fox thinks you are another fox.” An observation I took as a great compliment coming from one of the world’s leading authorities on wild animal behaviour.
After all, it would have been an ideal relationship and what I’d hoped for. Me, that is, thought of by my charge as an oversized, strange mutation of her carnivorous ancestry of wolves and belied by her vulpinus behaviour : “foxy” most times as the occasion demands.)
At these times too, she’s capable of some show of possessive even jealous miff should Don or let alone my beloved dog “Mr. Simba” interfere.
What, in this regard, is actually going on in that inscrutable, Machiavellian mind, I’ll never know. But I suspect she’s probably just congenitally “foxy,” cute enough to manipulate me in modes of behaviour to her liking and advantage.
With due respect to my learned friend, Dick, I think that Brit is far too perceptive to consider me a “sister” fox. She has figured out that I can be made to deliver, on command, whatever she cunningly communicates she wants and needs for survival. Specifically, the classic Freudian imperatives of food, shelter, affection and care from a human seduced into providing these basic “vulpine rights,” if you will.
Who ever knows these deeply psychological things? What I do know, however, is that, more than any other wild animal I’ve raised, this one knew at a very young age how to help herself to the necessities of life.
It took almost two years before young Brit started to return some affection. Now, getting on a bit, she will sit with me for hours when she wants to be warm and close. She enjoys having her ears or belly rubbed and will sometimes lick my hand in gracious response.
But at other times, female again, she will flatly reject any overtures of affection, even growl with her eyes closed when she’s not in the mood. (I’m sure, if she could, she’d mumble something about having “to wash her fur.”)
As the mood takes her, she’ll follow me around the house and has started to “talk” a great deal. Obviously I can’t pretend to understand a guttural grunt or squeak of Ki-Fox (as I can with Ki-Swahili), but most of the time I get the gist of what she’s on about.
She has a special harmonic of three soft, melodic notes for wanting bugs, for instance. If dinner is late, we’ll get a virtuoso up-the-scale squeaky “reminder”. There’s a litany of minor chords for other wants – company, amusement, or a clean toilet tray. “Sick” is a soft low moan.. And so on…
Another thing is that when she sees us packing suitcases, we get various descending whines from some sad “tristesse etude” in her head until she retreats to her den and sulks. Just like a dog.
When we return, we are treated to the greatest reward: A mad performance , skittering all round the house, up & down (leaping & falling), ending up on her back in total submission, her beautiful brush, wagging out of control.
After all that, she returns to type. She attends the unpacking, eyeing anything that’s new and interesting, craftily “nicking” whatever she can which we must ultimately retrieve from her den.
I Never Had in Mind to keep this happy, hugely diverting wild animal as a pet.
I would say that, wouldn’t I? But it’s a fact.
She has retained a wonderful, essentially natural, free spirit. Adult now, in beautiful condition, her seasons are regular and she’s clearly ready to start her own family. And we’d like nothing better for her, of course. We’ve been casting far & wide to find her a sturdy bat-eared mate and, when we do, I’m sure she’d have no trouble in switching primary attention to her own kind. The ultimate aim would be to return the whole “family Brit” to a rightful place in the wild.
Out on her own, her chances at survival would be virtually none. Even if she were to be freed close to an occupied den, it’s unlikely that she’d been welcomed in and would almost certainly bolt from the strangers. The only way, really, is for her to go out there eventually with the security of an accustomed mate and their brood around her. One day, hopefully.
Meanwhile, she has us! Second-best, as I said. But who again knows? Maybe she’s temporarily “externalising” the mothering instinct and is sly-eying me, waiting to see if I’ll produce her a surrogate litter!
Some wait. Some hope!
About Bat-eared Foxes (Otocyon megalotis)
- The bat-eared fox is the only canid to have more or less abandoned mammalian prey in favour of insects, which nowadays make up much of its diet – termites & grasshoppers in particular. If there’s anything added, it would be the occasional small bird or lizard, or more likely eggs and fruit.
- Although retaining the “fox” appellation, in fact the animal is not closely related to the mainstream Vulpes family. Scientists now assign bat-eared foxes to a sub-family of their own: Otocyoninae, and recent studies have shown them to be more closely related to wolves and jackals than foxes.
- Natural enemies include cheetahs, lions, leopards and hyenas as well as the larger raptors to which – at only 4- 5 kg. – they are easy prey.
- The typical den may be home to several females with one or more males sharing. Between two and five pups are born to each female and are raised communally in the polygamous family. Some of the yearlings then set off to find their own mates, although mother and female young often stay together until the next litter.
- Bat eared foxes are distributed in two main populations – in East Africa, where they favour grassy plains & open woodlands, and in the arid zones of South-west Africa.
- The species is not considered to be endangered, although they are hunted for the fur. Until recently, they were quite plentiful in East Africa until we noticed, recently, there were far fewer reports of sightings. Some speculate that, as with the hunting dog, they may have succumbed to a canine distemper epidemic.