Photo courtesy Marcela Viglianchino
By Cheryl Blackerby
In early morning, a gray fox peeked out of dense foliage by the Little Club golf course in Gulf Stream and trotted with its distinctive bounce across the grass, its ears straight up and alert.
“Look, a red fox!” exclaimed a birdwatcher looking for birds, not foxes.
The little fox was actually a gray fox with red fur on its ears, neck and sides. It quickly disappeared into the bushes.
Gray foxes are native Floridians that usually hide in dry forests. But as their inland natural habitats succumb to development, they are being driven into coastal communities.
If there are increased sightings, it probably means construction has run them out of woodlands.
“Unfortunately, their natural areas are getting bulldozed and construction is pushing animals out. They’re losing habitat,” says Ricardo Zambrano, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regional biologist. “And we’ve lost a lot of large predators such as bobcats, panthers and coyotes that prey on foxes.”
Urban dwellers tend to love them or hate them. But Florida wildlife experts say there’s a lot to love and admire about the foxes, particularly their choice of food — mostly rats and mice.
“People should rejoice when they see foxes because they keep the rodent population down,” says Sherry Schlueter, executive director of the South Florida Wildlife Center, which handles wildlife rescue and nuisance calls in Palm Beach and Broward counties. “Gray foxes are highly beneficial in our ecosystem.”
Mice in the dunes on the beach and rats along the Intracoastal are bringing foxes to the coast. “And where there are people, there are rodents,” says Zambrano.
That foxes eat dogs and cats is strictly urban myth.
“I’ve never heard of a fox attacking a dog or cat,” says Zambrano.
In fact, the reverse is true. Dogs and cats left outside often attack foxes and kill fox pups.
Gray foxes and raccoons do prey on turtle nests and cause the loss of 5 to 7 percent of the nests in Boca Raton. They are the predominant mammalian predators of sea turtle nests, eating the eggs and killing hatchlings, says Kirt Rusenko, marine conservationist at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.
“The worst thing people can do is feed the foxes as that increases their population and puts tremendous pressure on the nests in the area. South of the [Boca] inlet this year is our hot-spot so we are pretty sure someone in one of the condos there is feeding the foxes,” Rusenko says.
But the center can keep turtle nests safe with pepper, he says. “Our use of habanero pepper powder on the nests deters them quite well. In really bad areas like south of the inlet we [also] screen the nests with a 4 by 4-foot wire mesh in an attempt to keep the foxes out of the nest.”
Schlueter says raccoons, not foxes, are more commonly the culprit for eating turtle eggs on South Florida beaches.
Like other Florida mammals, foxes can get rabies, but this has not been a problem in Florida, says Zambrano.
Foxes rarely carry rabies, but can get distemper, which is not harmful to people. And the disease is generally not given to domestic animals because most pets get distemper vaccinations.
Nuisance calls about foxes usually are from people who are frightened by wildlife or, more commonly, homeowners who have found fox pups.
“We have already taken in 38 foxes this year, and 23 were babies,” says Schlueter. That’s a tiny percentage of the 12,000 injured, orphaned, or imperiled animals the South Florida Wildlife Center takes in annually. The center is one of the largest wildlife hospitals, trauma centers and rehabilitation facilities in the nation.
“What often happens is that people mow their lawns and scare off the mother fox, and they find the babies and bring them in,” says Schlueter. She advises homeowners to observe the fox den from a distance to see if the mother returns before they remove the pups.
Foxes also eat fruit on the ground — another service to humans — but generally don’t eat vegetables in a garden.
And they don’t usually eat garbage, says Schlueter.
“Foxes get unfairly blamed sometimes for overturned trash cans. Remember, these are tiny creatures. In all likelihood, trash cans are overturned by dogs,” she says.
The dainty fox weighs only 7 to 13 pounds and has a gray coat with red around the ears, face and throat — although there may be red on the sides, which leads people to believe they are red foxes. There are no native red foxes in Florida, although there are a few red foxes on Florida’s Panhandle that are descendants of red foxes released on fox hunts.
Foxes are shy and nocturnal. If you see a fox in the daytime, it is almost certainly a mother fox foraging for food for babies, says Schlueter.
She warns people not to feed them or any wildlife. “There’s plenty of food for them in sunny Florida,” she says.
Foxes should be appreciated, not feared, say the experts.
“They are adorable, really endearing animals,” says Schlueter.
And here’s a fun fox fact: They are the only member of the dog family that climbs trees.
If you find an injured or sick fox or other wildlife, contact South Florida Wildlife Center at 954-524-4302 or 866-SOS-WILD.