Fox in the Headlights

Red Fox
Red Fox

As we were driving home yesterday evening I saw what I thought was a cat creeping out from behind a car and on to the road.

“Cat!” I shouted, and my stepdad slowed down.

It was then I realised that what I’d thought was a cat was in fact a fox. In the split second that it took for the fox to pause in the headlights, turn and run back behind the car my brain was able to process the bushy tail, the pointed face, and the deep red and bronze of its fur.

The sight of it sent a jolt through my stomach. I’m not sure what it is about seeing a fox that is so mystifying, but I keep replaying that moment, that blur that lit up the already well-lit urban night. It probably has something to do with the elusiveness of foxes. It must have been about five years since I last saw a fox. It crawled through my neighbours hedge and along the back of their garden, before climbing through a hole in their fence and into the field behind. Like last night it was an electric moment that I can still clearly remember.

Not only are they elusive but despite having made a home for themselves in the city they seem, more than most other urban wildlife, to have retained their wildness. They always look to me as though they have just wandered, long haired and mud smeared, out of the open countryside. The fox is a begrudging urbanite, a misanthrop.

A lot of writers tell us not to anthropomorphise animals and to some extent I do see the danger in it. If we attribute human characteristics to animals then we risk misunderstanding them. We risk being alarmed when they behave in “uncivilised” ways. On the other hand it is something that is difficult not to do, because we are humans and that’s how we relate to the world. We can never know what it is like to be a fox, but we can try to understand why the fox transfixes us by looking at its human-like characteristics.

Interestingly, ‘foxy’ has come to mean attractive, although it is perhaps used in a more tongue-in-cheek manner these days. The fox I saw last night seemed far removed from that particular etymology. It seemed to have shrugged off all concerns for appearance and cared about nothing but survival as it disappeared into the night.

Photo used under Creative Commons from Rylee Isitt.

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