“Wanna do a story on urban foxes?”
It was a casual — almost offhand — question from WFPL’s Executive Editor Stephen George. In all the newsrooms, in all the towns in all the world, he walked into mine.
“Urban foxes? Is that A Thing?” I wondered.
Over the weekend, I asked around at a party. “Oh yeah, I saw one just last week!” “My mom sees one all the time.”
Monday morning, I took my unscientific poll straight to Unscientific Poll Headquarters: Facebook. “Have you seen a wild fox in Louisville?” I asked. “Where did you see the fox? Is there a fox who is a ‘regular’ in your neighborhood? I want to hear from you.”
I turned away from the computer for about eight minutes. When I turned back, there was already almost a page of comments. Now there are almost 100.
NuLu. Eastern Parkway. Windy Hills. Clifton. National Turnpike. Valley Road in the Highlands (that one came with photographic evidence). People said they’re around all the time. But I grew up in Louisville, and I don’t remember ever hearing much about foxes in our neighborhoods.
I went to the Louisville Nature Center to talk to naturist Rosemary Bauman and find out what might be going on. We met in a library stuffed with nature books, surrounded by animals stuffed with … whatever they stuff taxidermy animals with.
Bauman said, in the case of the urban fox uptick in Louisville, there’s a very likely suspect: coyotes.
“Coyotes will kill foxes because they’re competitors in the same niche for the same food — they’re both small carnivores,” she said. “And we know that we have coyotes surrounding the city — even in the city. However, probably fewer in the interior of the city. So the urban area is likely a good bit safer.”
Not only that, but coyotes are nocturnal, whereas foxes are crepuscular — a really cool word that means they’re most active around dawn and dusk, like deer.
The hip foxes spotted enjoying the nightlife in NuLu and the Highlands are likely red foxes, (Vulpes vulpes). We also have gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) around, but they tend to be more shy.
Foxes live in groups and form strong social bonds. They might den under your shed while they’re raising their pups. Even if you haven’t seen one, you might have heard one. During courtship and breeding season (which we’re in now), the vixen will often make what Bauman described as high-pitched shrieks.
“We went camping when my kids were young and we heard some shrieking in the middle of the night, which really raised our hair on end,” she said. “They have barks, yips, they have a whole range of language sounds.”
Foxes are canids, just like dogs. In fact, a guy named Pecos Edwards commented on my Facebook page that he sees foxes on his street every single night.
“They come out and play hide and seek with my dog (seriously),” he wrote.
This I had to see. But like anyone who’s trying to solve a mystery, there was something I needed: A Girl Friday.
I enlisted WFPL’s Digital Editor, Jonese Franklin. Actually, she enlisted herself, because she loves foxes.
Jonese drinks out of a fox coffee mug. There’s a fox sticker on her house keys. She has a fox tattoo. I asked her how much she loves foxes on a scale of one-to-10; she said 12. When we went to see the fox, she was wearing fox earmuffs (which is kind of like wearing the T-shirt of the band whose concert you’re going to see).
We took a walk with Edwards and his dog, Gator, down their dead-end street in the Tyler Park neighborhood. I thought Gator, with his keen sense of smell, might be the key to cracking the case.
“No, I usually have to point them out to him,” Edwards said. “He’s too low to the ground.”
We walked down the block and back, keeping our eyes on the ground. We went through a little wooded area that leads to a parking lot. It soon became clear why so many foxes made this residential street their home.
“This house feeds them, and that house up there feeds them,” Edwards said, “and I think that house three on the right down feeds them in her backyard.”
But in spite of a long walk (with a brief intermission to warm up and refuel), all we saw was the quickest flash of fur, running away.
“If we don’t see any tonight, this will literally be the only night in the past month or two that I have not seen a fox walking the street,” Edwards said. “It’s like a doctor’s appointment — you’re well by the time you get in there.”
After we said goodbye to Edwards and Gator, we decided to try a stakeout.
We pulled up to where the flash of fur had been and turned off the car.
“I’ll watch behind, you watch in front,” I said.
We’d been sitting there less than five minutes when a motion-sensor light nearby sparked on, catching Jonese’s eye. We looked, and there it was: The most beautiful, perfect fox I’d ever seen. And the only fox I’d ever seen.
When I listened to the tape later, this portion was a jumble of rapid-fire gasps, shrieks and giggles. Jonese said “oh my god” six times and “oh my gosh” twice within about 45 seconds.
“That was exactly what you think of when you hear the word fox,” she said. “It was him.”
So if you keep your eyes open, especially around dawn and dusk, you too might spot one of Louisville’s many urban foxes. And if you do, Rosemary Bauman said there’s nothing to fear.
Just keep these rules in mind:
“Don’t offer it any food. Don’t try to tempt it in,” she said. “Just enjoy letting it let you in its life as much as it’s willing to do.”