Wildlife & ethics
Ensuring the animals’ needs are put first should be every wildlife enthusiast’s priority.
Red foxes (vulpes vulpes) face many threats to their survival in the UK, including habitat loss, climate change, hunting, traffic and disease. The decline of birds, insects, mammals, reptiles and amphibians over the past few decades, will also have had an impact on the variety of food sources available to foxes and people are rightly concerned about how this decline may be impacting them. It is important to remember that despite the loss of biodiversity, their adaptability and ability to tolerate a varied diet means fox populations are by no means in any decline, quite the opposite.
Foxes have been thriving in our shadows and consuming human food waste for over 42,000 years. As an elusive but regular visitor to our gardens, it is understandable people want to support foxes, sharing their insights and experiences with these fascinating animals through social media. However, it is important it is done responsibly, for the best interest of the fox.
As stated perfectly by National Geographic:
“Modern society’s disconnect from nature presents its own threat, one of a culture of indifference. We lead virtual lives, plugged into devices instead of the outdoors... Wildlife photography has the power to turn people on to the wonder of nature. It’s an essential tool to inspire the desire to protect wildlife and spark real change. Photos can go viral on social media in mere minutes, bringing much-needed attention to wildlife in the throes of crisis. At the same time, social media throws together those who seek to visually capture nature in honest, careful ways with those who take shortcuts at the expense of the subject, intent only on more likes and followers.”
Habituation: Why Does it Matter?
Wild animals face novel environmental threats as a result of human activities, which occur along a gradient of different human interactions. Recent studies have shown that merely living close to humans has major implications on a variety of traits and physiological responses in animals.
Habituated individuals are characterized by their low aggressiveness and their reduced physiological stress response, as well as by their enhanced boldness and behavioral plasticity. Such ‘preactive’ individuals have a physiological and behavioral coping style that falls outside of the classical proactive or reactive coping styles.
What is Habituation?
Habituation is a phenomenon that occurs when an animal is repeatedly exposed to a stimulus, to the point they become unresponsive to that stimulus.
Wild foxes should have a natural fear of people but in our towns and cities foxes are constantly exposed to human activity, becoming habituated to our presence and with a reduced ‘flight distance’ as a result (the distance they know to maintain between them and threat, in order to remain safe). When wild animals no longer see people as a threat, they may allow people to come close or they may actively approach people out of curiosity.
If people then feed the animal, they will be reinforcing that behaviour, increasing the likelihood it will occur again. If this process is repeated, it will actively condition the animal to seek out humans as a source for food. While this gives people an incredible opportunity to experience a connection with wildlife, habituation and behavioural conditioning are dangerous for both wild animals and people.
Habituation is Dangerous for Wild Foxes
When animals become used to human presence it can open them up to unintentional harm, such as the health results of an improper diet or because they are less likely to avoid traffic, hunters and pest controllers. Unfortunately, many urban foxes have become so habituated and conditioned to perceive people as a food source, that more and more foxes are being reported approaching people or casually entering homes. While some people may see this as endearing, others may see it as a nuisance behaviour or as a sign of ill-health.
This is not without just cause. Tameness is the top symptom for toxoplasmosis in foxes, a parasite that infects the brain and removes their natural fear responses. It can be congenital and may not be visibly noticeable until the fox is older and the symptoms become more severe. More foxes in one area also means more potential for contact and transmission of diseases common in foxes, like toxoplasmosis or sarcoptic mange. Not testing and treating a suspected case of toxoplasmosis allows the parasite to spread and to continue its harms, but with habituated foxes around, it makes recognition of the disease more difficult, (toxoplasmosis is also a concern for private keepers - ensure wildlife cannot get close and that cats and rodents cannot enter the enclosure, deep clean weekly and know the signs of the disease).
"With all the Toxo infected foxes we have dealt with over the years the condition left them almost like a domestic dog. Whilst this may be difficult to understand for anyone not involved with fox rescue, we have found in almost all cases of Toxo infection, the wild eyes that you would expect to see in a fox are gone and it is almost like looking into a domestic dogs eyes where Toxoplasmosis is involved."
Habituation is Dangerous for Ecology
In a typical ecosystem, predators tend to have the smallest populations. Predators and prey share a balance within an ecosystem but that balance is easily disrupted when we feed predators such as foxes. With extra food from us, their numbers can increase and become artificially high, potentially outstripping their supply of natural foods and increasing the incidence of injury and disease, as nature attempts to restore balance.
"Two of the main arguments against feeding wildlife are that it leads to artificially high population sizes that cannot be sustained if the supplementary food is removed, and that supplemental feeding may lead to the animals becoming dependent on the handouts. The idea that provision of food by humans leads to greater numbers of animals and could lead to them becoming dependent on our handouts go hand in hand...
In his fascinating overview of the issues and impacts of feeding wildlife as a tourist attraction, published in the journal Tourist Management during 2002, marine ecologist Mark Orams, at New Zealand’s Massey University at Albany wrote:
“The ability of animals to find food is often determined by learned behaviour – such as where to go, how to approach potential prey and how to effect capture of that prey. When an animal does less of this, they quite simply become less efficient at it.”
Habituation is Dangerous for People
Foxes in towns and cities may allow people to get unusually close to them. If they seem tame and are not unwell, it is because they have become habituated to humans and that is not natural.
Despite appearances, they will feel threatened if a person comes too close. When foxes feel threatened they will usually run away, increasing the flight distance. But a habituated, bold fox may stand its ground, gekker or even bite. An overly bold fox may also approach a person and nip at their hands or clothes in order to initiate a response and elicit food. Naturally, a wild fox would never allow a person to come close enough for them to be injured.
A Note on Caching
Caching is not something that might happen with foxes, it is pretty much guaranteed, and certainly so if there is excess. Feeding excess is a surefire way to annoy neighbours and cause tension, putting foxes at risk from pest controllers. Foxes have cat-sized stomachs and toilet more frequently, also using it as a means of communication (they will toilet on caches to mark them). If foxes are burying food in neighbours gardens, it is because they don't like, want or need it. It is a sign you are feeding too much.
Habituation Leads to Domestication
Behaviour, form and function are inextricably interlinked and the feeding of wildlife is not without consequences. In 2017, Oxford University published a study revealing how human-directed evolutionary changes have resulted in British birds adapting their beaks for specific bird feeders.
Changes in the diet and behaviour of urban foxes hasn't gone without consequence either and there has been divergence and morphological changes observed in urban foxes in comparison to their country cousins, as reported in the 2020 study, Urban Red Foxes are Diverging from their Country Cousins* by the University of Glasgow.
Habituating an animal to human presence is an important step in the domestication process, so it is important to understand the impact human activity is having on wild foxes, especially when studies are reporting ‘self-domestication’ symptoms among wild populations.
*As others may also (Foxes are self-domesticating in the U.K, so why not Canada?), Black Foxes UK CIC does not feel this picture is yet complete. The domesticated silver fox, also known as the farmed North American red fox (vulpes fulva), is a species known to have feralised and hybridised in several regions across the UK, including London. We look forward to further studies into the matter.
Three Basic Principles to Remember
1. Do No Harm
- Do not seek or reinforce a foxes attention or interaction.
- Take special care at breeding season.
- Know the signs of stress and overconfidence in foxes.
- Ensure a heightened level of awareness of your impact on your subject(s).
In short, “do no harm” means allowing foxes to hunt, eat and rest in comfort as they would naturally, without feeling threatened or imposed upon - however much they may invite it. Breeding season requires special care. Avoid actions that might habituate cubs to humans or that might result in driving parents away from the den. Do not purposefully teach foxes, especially mothers and cubs, to beg for food from humans.
Continuously observe animal behavior and realize when there is a need to back off or walk away. Reading up in advance and being educated about fox behavior is the best means people have to recognize what might be considered as an unethical imposition.
2. Keep Them Wild
Be cautious about feeding foxes: Overfeeding may reduce wild hunting behaviours and can cause frustration to neighbours with the caching of excess supplies. More caching in gardens may result in more contact with cat faeces and the toxoplasmosis parasite. On top of this, highly processed foods are a well known contributory factor for disease in humans and an unnecessary burden we do not wish to impose on wildlife deliberately.
Avoid habituating foxes or making them dependent: Healthy wild foxes do not need our interference or our companionship. They are opportunists and will take food if it is offered, but they are perfectly capable of finding food on their own. Never feed a wild fox by hand or inside your home. That perfect photograph is not worth a fox’s life.
Honor their wildness and allow them some space and privacy: What foxes lack is the space and time to be foxes. You can provide a means for them to stay safe from human activities by building and planting a decent wildlife habitat in your garden. Support their natural ability to provide for themselves, you won't be disappointed!
Be neither friend nor foe: For wild foxes, humans are a predator. We need them to maintain healthy boundaries away from people if we wish to avoid increasing human-wildlife conflict. Foxes should not be actively approaching you, eating from your hand or entering your home. Please keep a respectful distance.
If a wild fox is seemingly tame or is seeking out human contact:
- it may be an escaped exotic pet (vulpes fulva),
- it is being fed in a way that has reduced its fear of man,
- it has been rehabilitated and released incorrectly,
- or it may be sick (it does not necessarily need to ‘look sick’).
If a fox is approaching people, these things must be considered and the cause addressed. Illness or injury must be ruled out first. Contact a wildlife charity for more information if you are concerned about a fox.
3. Feed Responsibly
Is feeding the animal likely to change its behavior in harmful ways?
When encouraging foxes for photographic opportunities with food lures, make sure you are not feeding in an area where foxes are unwelcome, hunted or controlled. As feeding foxes will habituate them to humans and make them an easy target. Or they may become too bold in approaching people for food, which might lead neighbours, councils and local landowners to capture and humanely euthanize the animal.
Is the food appropriate and safely provided?
Foxes are primarily carnivores (meaning they consume meat) and are nocturnal (meaning they hunt at night), but can be more accurately described as crepuscular mesocarnivores (hunting at dusk and dawn, with a diet that consists of 50-70% meat), eating a wide variety of foods, including;
- Rodents, Rabbits & other Small Mammals
- Birds & Eggs
- Amphibians & Small lizards
- Insects & Invertebrates
- Berries, Fruits & Vegetables (a valued seasonal treat)
- Grains, Nuts, Shoots & Seeds
- Human & Pet Food Waste
- Commercial Wildlife Diets
While foxes do eat a variety of foods, it is important to remember that they have an ecological role to play and that their digestion and physiology is primarily geared towards the digestion of insects and small ground dwelling prey species. Bear in mind that inappropriate diets and food presentation can also contribute to poor health and promote disease.
How much food is too much?
We know from studies into fox diets that up to 18% of an urban foxes diet can consist of human food waste (considerably less for country foxes). We also know that foxes weigh around 4-8kg on average and that they need around 120 calories/kg of bodyweight/day for maintenance in a thermoneutral environment.
Foxes also consume a weight of about 400g daily, meaning that a single urban fox will eat approximately 70g of human food waste throughout a single day and then will cache the rest (we don't want caching). So we can infer from this, that if a fox is being fed <70g of appropriate foods every 2-3 days, it is unlikely to be making them dependent on you or impacting on their health and behaviour in any meaningful way.
An example of a 70g treat bag, from Lily's Kitchen (approximately 270 cal/bag) can be found, here. Or an example of a formulated wild fox diet can be found, here. More on fox nutritional needs can be found, here.
The Do's and Don'ts
- Do leave out a bowl of fresh water, ensuring you change it daily. Make sure you take responsibility for cleaning any bowls or utensils to avoid the spread of disease.
- Do scatter feed to keep foxes entertained longer for your viewing pleasure, but only offer just enough food so that there is little to no waste. Ensure the fox still moves off to forage naturally and retains it's natural hunting skills and caution of people.
- Do feed at a time when foxes are most in need. Winter, for example, or during particularly dry spells when things like insects and earthworms are harder to reach in the hard ground.
- Don't leave out uneaten food that could attract rats, flies or mold. Nor provide excessive amounts of food, which could cause overconfidence and dependence or could artificially increase natural population density and the threat of disease.
- Don't put out food that foxes can take away and cache. Offer something they can eat on the spot to discourage them from digging up gardens, as your neighbours might not be as welcoming to foxes as you are and it may contribute to the spread of disease.
- Don't encourage foxes into your home, try to tame them or attempt to hand-feed them. Leave out the food then watch from a discreet distance. If you see a tame fox or a fox in need, contact a wildlife charity directly for advice.