Every day at the Waterton fox den revealed new and interesting behaviour.
We watched feeding and playing and skill building.
We learned that foxes hate bad weather and would go inside the den at the first hint of a thunderstorm.
We began to understand who was a female, based on their clear desire to apprentice with the vixen in learning how to raise young. We began to understand who was male based on their frequent disappearing acts into the backcountry to hunt.
Both genders would always wait to eat dead rodents that either they caught or the vixen provided to them by positioning the kills strategically to practice their pouncing skills. Almost every meal included at least a half hour of playful skill building – and even after the food was consumed, they would use rocks and pebbles for practice.
The vixen would always make sure each kit had an equal amount of food and if ever one kit tried to muscle in for extras from a sibling, she would step in to protect the other kit’s designated food pile. But mostly she was all business and rarely spent time playing with her young, likely due to their age.
What was also fascinating was that the more we watched the kits, the more their personalities began to emerge.
Wise, a male, rarely participated in play and would alternate between bemusement and bewilderment when his siblings tried to get him to join their games.
Shy-Friendly was also, we believe, a male, but was unsure of himself compared to Wise. He spent equal time between the den and the backcountry and would always act tentatively when something new presented itself. Like food. Or a game.
Though shy, this kit would begin to open up as it became more at ease with its surroundings, often becoming the most playful of the kits once the game was well underway, displaying nothing short of pure joy.
And finally there was Curious. A kit we believed to be a female, she was, as her name suggests, the most curious animal we’ve ever encountered. She spent hours watching her mom and trying to follow in her footsteps. She was also the most daring and willing to explore every aspect of her habitat.
Her antics often left us with tears of laughter and she never quit bedevilling her siblings or failed to bring back new toys to the den. Like sticks. Or rocks. Or paper.
Though every day we’d search the roadside for trash in order to keep it away from the kits, somehow they always found an item that eluded us.
One day it was a piece of paper which Curious discovered and taunted Shy-Friendly with. To say they believed that they had made the single greatest discovery on Earth would be an understatement. You’ve never seen two animals love something more than this piece of trash. And try as we might to get them to leave it alone, they were determined to keep it.
We also began to realize that while the den offered protection from natural predators in the backcountry, it was seriously at threat from the presence of people in the front country.
In Canada, we have long felt that the parks are managed more for the people than they are for the animal. This is not the fault of Parks Canada, but rather the mandate they receive from our elected leaders. And though the concept of golf courses and ski resorts inside park boundaries is jarring, nothing is worse than the absurdly high speed limits.
Though the Chief Mountain Highway is simply a connecting road for travellers seeking to drive between the two national parks that help compose the transboundary Peace Park, it has a speed limit of one hundred kilometres an hour.
Thankfully traffic, for the most part, is light, especially overnight when the border crossing is closed. But in an area with a high density of wildlife and on a road where people are (for the most part) on vacation, why the limit must be so high is beyond us. And without question, speed kills. Over the last decade, more than 10,000 animals have been killed by cars in the mountain parks alone.
And in 2014, the count climbed to 10,001.
After more than ten days with the foxes, we noticed a troubling trend that their impromptu games of tag would frequently take them onto the roadway, near a sharp, blind corner.
We notified the rangers, but with resources stretched, they asked if we could help. We were already doing what we could and pledged to continue: Every time a fox would go on the road, we’d stop shooting and yell and clap at the animals to retreat.
Sometimes they’d listen, but Curious too often felt like we wanted to join their game and would immediately commence an annoying (though slightly cute) game of tag that included us. We’d clap. She’d hide behind the car. We’d get out to scare her off. She’d run to the other side of the car. Jill would frequently have this task and often I’d look out of my window to see Curious poking her head out from beside the front wheel, giving me a look that pleaded with me to not give away her hiding spot.
Sometimes the task was heartbreaking, as you could see the foxes become upset if we honked the horn or yelled at them for going on the road. It was like we were betraying the very trust we had started to build with the family.
Gradually though, they started to understand the lesson we were trying to teach them and they became better about crossing and would almost always move off the road at the sound of a car engine. And an important lesson was reinforced. Animals that chose to live in the front country will always, in one way or another, become habituated. Fighting reality is futile, but working with it is critical to striking a balance that helps teach animals what can be safe and what can be harmful. Though the animals became comfortable with our presence and, even, seemingly understood the names we gave them (meant to help us quickly identify when we were trying to manage who was on the road and who wasn’t), they never stopped being wild.
Some will say that our interactions were anything but wild and the best approach is to leave animals alone, always and without exception. But when humans introduce threats like roads, I believe that we have a responsibility to mitigate the threat if at all possible. And trying to do our part, also allowed for us to do something else: We could teach. The den site was an unparalleled classroom – for us and for onlookers – and it allowed us to share with visitors facts about fox ecology, as well as showcase how animals clearly have unique personalities, emotions and far superior brains than we often give them credit for.
Still, while some people stopped to observe the foxes, mostly cars rushed between vacation point A and B – and had zero desire to follow the even ridiculously high speed limit listed by the Canadian government. Cars would fly around the corner and slow only when they saw the flashing sign warning of animals ahead.
Then one day the sign was taken away.
Without anything to warn cars about the foxes on the road, we felt we had to do something. We stopped taking photos and became full time fox-sitters, positioning ourselves at alternate ends of the bend in the road, trying to help the kits cross from one side to the other. But we couldn’t be available around the clock; we still had to sleep.
Each morning when we returned to the den, our heart was in our throat, worrying if something awful had happened while we were gone. And one morning, our fears were realized.
Resting several feet off the road was a fox kit. I don’t know why neither of us thought it was sleeping, but we just knew it was dead.
– D. Simon Jackson | DSimonJackson.com
Founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, Simon Jackson is a storyteller, connector and movement builder committed to improving our pubic discourse and shaping a better balance between the needs of people and nature. His GhostBearPhotography.com column appears on the first Saturday of every month.