Disbelief mixed with the realization that the inevitable had happened when we arrived at the Waterton fox den site on that fateful morning. We knew the den site – combined with a blind corner and no signage to warn traffic to slow – meant this day would surely come. Still. One of our beloved foxes was dead.
We irrationally yelled for the kit to wake up, but the fox never moved. Finally, with tears streaming down our faces, I got out of the car and took a closer look.
Flies were starting to land on its dear little face and the kit was clearly gone. Immediately, our thoughts went to Curious. The previous night, she spent far too much time in a roadside pull-off, following the vixen as she hunted. Though Curious would listen to us when her mother wasn’t around, she refused to avoid people when her mother was present. And the vixen never listened.
We both were beside ourselves. If only we hadn’t left the den. If only we could have done more. If only the sign hadn’t been taken down.
Finally, I mustered the courage to take a photo of the kit, clearly hit by a car, likely by a border guard returning from work and obeying the speed limit. It had been left to suffer until death finally took it to a better place.
And then we heard a noise coming from the direction of the den, about 100b yards up the road. A kit emerged. Followed by another. And another.
Tears gave way to shock and shock gave way to joy. Though we were devastated by the loss of the kit, amazingly we found that each of the three kits we had grown to know and love were alive and well.
The dead kit, upon further study, was one we rarely saw, except for that second day, when it rested near the entrance in the sun. He must have spent most of the time in the backcountry with the equally elusive dog, the father of the family. We never had a chance to teach him about cars. Brave, as we named him, was lost.
As we wrestled with our conflicting emotions, we saw the vixen emerge from the far side of the road, near where the kit lay dead.
Anyone who says animals don’t mourn clearly haven’t spent any time with them.
The vixen let out the most heartbreaking noise – a tortured semi-scream – as she ran to the kit.
First, she nosed Brave. Then she started barking at it. Then she licked his face. Finally, she took it by its neck and lifted him up.
As the kit, now hard with rigor mortis, fell back to the ground, the vixen would time and again lift it up, trying in vain to bring it back to life.
Curious finally noticed something was wrong and ran over to join the vixen.
Confused, Curious tried to get its sibling to play – again and again – as the vixen looked on, clearly in shock.
Finally, Curious laid down beside Brave, joined by the vixen, as she called and called and called, while gentling nosing her two kits – one alive and one now dead. Eventually the vixen moved a few feet away and threw up.
The den was never the same for us after that day.
We spoke to the rangers, who were deeply saddened by the loss of the fox, and equal parts frustrated by their lack of resources and the decisions made by elected officials that allowed for this sequence of events to transpire.
The sign was returned and we helped rally the park and its small townsite to run an awareness campaign for people to slow down near the den. Slowly traffic seemed to understand the stakes and more people started to help us protect the surviving members of the family.
Sadly, one tourist decided to try to feed the foxes, but thankfully we were present to stop them and the rangers went to extraordinary lengths to find, fine and ban the culprits from the park.
And as each day passed, the situation appeared to improve, though no matter what we did, Brave wasn’t coming back.
For a day, the foxes would take turns visiting the dead kit and nosing it – almost as if paying their respects – until finally a ranger moved the body.
But less than twenty-four hours later, the vixen somehow found the carcass and brought it back to where she found it. And then she gathered the kits and seemingly buried Brave. Now I’m well aware that foxes eat carrion and will cache food they find, but this seemed different. For the remainder of the day the vixen stayed with her three surviving young and each of the siblings took turns trying to make her happy – catching a mouse and giving it to their mom; licking her face; trying to make her play.
Over time, other animals – including a big black bear and a coyote – dug up the dead kit and consumed parts of the carcass. But every time the carcass would go missing, the vixen would bring it back. And no matter how desperately the family needed food, none were able to bring themselves to feast on the remains.
The stress of the situation began to get to us and we knew we had to eventually leave if we were able to retain our sanity. But one lingering concern kept us den-side.
Since the day of Brave’s death, more than a week had gone by and we hadn’t seen Wise. The vixen, so often aloof, now never left the two kits for more than an hour, constantly checking on their whereabouts and always playing with them if they wanted her to join their games.
It was like she had lost too many of her young and would do everything to protect those who remained. We had the creeping sense of foreboding; the belief that one of those carcasses the vixen returned to the gravesite wasn’t, in fact, Brave, but was Wise.
On our last evening in Waterton, however, we arrived at the den and found Wise resting comfortably in the sun. Soon Curious and Shy-Friendly appeared. And then the vixen. Everyone was alive and healthy. The joy of the family coming together wasn’t just felt by us, but was clearly seen in the incredible acts of love each fox poured onto one another.
For hours, the family played and ate and relaxed. It was the greatest encounter yet, on so many levels.
Finally, as the sunset, one final, amazing chapter was to be written.
The vixen, which rarely would acknowledge our presence, stopped playing with the kits and walked up to our car and gave us a long, soulful look. Then she turned back to her kits, gave them a call and crossed the road.
Each kit, one at a time, walked up to the car. If it weren’t so unbelievable, you’d swear they knew we were leaving and wanted to say goodbye.
Wise approached first and then disappeared to wherever Wise goes.
Then Curious, before she took off after the vixen.
Finally, Shy-Friendly walked up – with her prized piece of paper. She placed it on the ground. And nosed it toward me. And then she hurried after his sibling and mother. It was the most remarkable gift and one of the kindest acts I’ve ever been privy to.
As the foxes climbed the far hill, silhouetted against the fading light dancing on the edges of the mountain peaks across the valley, Curious turned to look at us once more before disappearing over the ridge.
We left Waterton the next day, but nearly three weeks later, we couldn’t resist returning to the foxes for one more look to see if we could find them; to make sure they were still safe.
As we approached the den, it was immediately obvious that it had been abandoned. In fact, we learned from Parks Canada the foxes were never seen at the den again after we left, but they were occasionally found hunting by the road – all present and accounted for.
Though we were disappointed that we wouldn’t see our fox family again, we also were thrilled they had moved to a safer habitat – and were healthy and strong and ready to take on the wild.
As we prepared to drive home to Toronto, we packed up our campsite and drove past the den one last time.
Then we saw it.
Around the bend and down the road, a kit crossed quickly, with a mouth – amazingly – full of a recently killed snowshoe hare. The markings and jump in her step made it obvious as to who we had seen: Curious.
We pulled up to where she disappeared into the forest and like a fool, I lowered my window and started yelling:“Curious! Curious! Curious! I just want to say goodbye.”
Jill gave me a glance like I was nuts, but also understood why I suddenly had become so irrational.
And then it happened.
Out of the trees, Curious walked back, confident and, well, curious, and looked at me – still holding her hare.
I was dumbfounded. Jill and I both teared-up. It was a moment we’ll never forget. And though there was no photograph, the image in my head will never fade.
Though she was no doubt anxious to eat and show off her hunting skills to her family, Curious had learned her name from the many times we urged her to leave the road. She had come back when I called; she came back to say goodbye.
Of everything I’ve seen – that Jill has seen – nothing was as profoundly touching as our time spent with this family of foxes. We learned so much. We were given a chance to observe an exceptional species at close range and in a way so few are ever able to do. They changed us, without question, for the better and forever.
As Curious gave us a quick, happy look, she turned once more and left our sight for the last time, heading towards her new den and towards, what we hope, will be a long and good life in the wilds of Waterton National Park.
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.