Barrier Status: ‘none’ Aside from Peter, who supposedly guards the gates of heaven and is a pivotal figure in any number of jokes, the only saint who’s ever remotely interested me is Francis of Assisi, who was friends with the animals. I recall pictures of him, birds perched on his shoulders and his outstretched hands, deer at his feet, maybe a cougar in the background, looking on, and thinking, There are some birds and deer I can kill, but, wait . . . who’s he? Creatures gravitated to St. Francis because they recognized something in him, a quality that normal men lacked. Let that be me, I used to wish when I was ten and felt so desperately alone. There’d usually be a hamster clutched tight in my fist, trying with all his might to escape instead of resting companionably in my palm the way he was supposed to.
Skip ahead fifty years. It’s late summer in West Sussex and I’m seated on the patio outside the converted stable I use as my office. It might be midnight, or 2 A.M. I’ve brought out a lamp and set it on the table in front of me. To a casual observer, I’m tabulating receipts or writing letters, but what I’m really doing is waiting, almost breathlessly, for Carol.
I grew up in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, so didn’t see a fox until I moved to France, in 1998. There were plenty of them in Normandy, and every so often I’d come upon one, usually at dusk. It was hard to get a good look at them, since they’d run the moment they saw me, not as if they were frightened but as if they were guilty. This had to do with their heads, the way they were hanging, and their eyes, which were watchful but, at the same time, averted.
In Sussex, too, foxes are common, though most of the ones I come upon are dead—hit by cars and rotting by the side of the road. The first time Hugh and I visited the area, in 2010, we stayed with our friends Viv and Gretchen, who live in the village of Sutton. They’d roasted a chicken for dinner, and when we finished eating Viv threw the carcass into the yard. “For whoever wants it,” he said.
When we got our own house, not far from theirs, we started doing the same thing: tossing our bones into the meadow our back yard opens onto. Whatever we put out has vanished by the morning, but who or what took it is anyone’s guess. We have badgers, but, as with foxes, you’re more apt to come across them dead than alive. Occasionally, I’ll see a hedgehog on our property—Galveston, his name is—and there’s no shortage of deer and quail. We have pheasants and stoats and so many rabbits that in the spring and summer it looks as if our house is the backdrop for an Easter commercial.
One of the reasons I don’t want a cat is that it will kill our wildlife. My brother in North Carolina has to change his doormat every two months, that’s how much his savages drag home, and my sister Gretchen’s are just as bad. She’s forever returning from work to find a chipmunk on her sofa, its head chewed to a paste, or a bird that’s not quite dead flapping the stump that used to be a wing against her blood-spattered kitchen floor.
Another argument against pets—at least for Hugh and me—is the fights they lead to. In the mid-nineteen-nineties, we got two cats, the last of thirty owned by the actress Sandy Dennis, who had recently died of ovarian cancer, and who had lived in a house in Connecticut that on a summer day you could smell from our apartment in SoHo. Angel and Barratos were black with white spots, both shorthaired. We changed their names to Sandy and Dennis, and from the day they entered our lives until the day they died Hugh and I fought over how to feed and care for them.
I’m of the “Let’s-fatten-you-up-until-you’re-too-obese-to-do-much-of-anything” school, while he’s more practical, or “mean,” as I’m apt to call it. “You don’t know what it’s like, living in a small apartment day and night with nothing to look forward to,” I used to say. “All they live for is food, so why not give it to them?”
This “healthy pet” nonsense—I just don’t buy it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a neighbor with a bag of leftovers, only to be told that their dog doesn’t “do” table scraps. And bones—no way. “He could choke!”
These are the same people who avoid canned food in favor of dry nuggets that remain in the bowl, ignored, for days at a time but are, I’m told, “So-o-o-o-o much better for him than that other stuff.”
I once knew someone in New York who insisted that his black Lab was a vegetarian.
“Just like you,” I said. “Gosh, what a coincidence!”
When the dog charged after a hamburger someone had dropped on the sidewalk outside a McDonald’s on Eighth Avenue, he was, I guess, just going after the pickle.
Then there are all the behavioral arguments that joint pet ownership leads to: “Don’t let her jump up on the table/countertop/stereo,” etc. As if you can stop a cat from going where she likes. That’s why you want them fifteen pounds overweight. It keeps them lower to the ground.
Sandy was old and died a year after we got her. We brought Dennis to France when we left New York, and shuttled him between the house in Normandy and the apartment in Paris. This led to regular fights over how to get him into his cat carrier and how often to let him outside. When he died, we fought over where to bury him, and how deep.
All I can say is: Thank God we never had children.
We even fight about the creatures I drag home, things I find, most often, on my walks and wrap up in a handkerchief. They’re usually mice or shrews, already doomed, not by anything obvious—they haven’t been run over, there are never any teeth marks on them. Perhaps they’re diseased, or just too old to run away from me.
“You’re not giving it croutons, are you?” Hugh will say.
“ ‘It’ is named Canfield, and I’m not forcing him to eat anything he doesn’t want,” I answer, dropping what looks like a fistful of dice into the terrarium or, if that’s already in use as a hospice for some dying toad or vole, into my backup bucket. “They’re just there if he wants them.”
Onto this battleground, Carol arrived. “It’s the funniest thing,” Hugh said one evening this July. “I had the kitchen door open earlier and this little fox walked by, looked in at me, and continued on her way. Not running, not in any hurry. She looks to me like she might be named Carol.”
The next afternoon, I threw a steak bone into the pasture, and at dusk I glanced out and saw a fox with it in her mouth. “Hugh,” I called. “Come look.”
At the sound of my voice, the fox—most certainly the Carol I’d been hearing about—returned the bone to the ground, the way you might if you were caught trying to shoplift something. “I was just . . . seeing how . . . heavy this was,” she seemed to say, before taking off.
The following night, we ate chicken at the table on the patio outside my office. It was dusk, and just as we finished there was Carol. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate is that you never see her coming. Rather, she simply appears. When she reached a distance of six feet or so, I threw her the bones off my plate. “What are you doing?” Hugh hissed, as she commenced to eat them.
Here we go, I thought.
Once a week during this past summer I’d stay awake all night, tying up loose ends. I liked the way I was left feeling at dawn—not tired but just the opposite, speedy, almost, and brilliant. Not long after the chicken dinner, I was working at my outdoor table when, at around 4 A.M., Carol showed up. We had no meat in the refrigerator, but she waited while I found some cheese and opened a tin of sardines.
Foxes often bury their food, saving it for later. I thought that meant for a day or two, but apparently there’s nothing they consider too spoiled. Rotten is acceptable, as is putrid. Since meeting Carol, our back yard has become a graveyard for pork chops and beef jerky and raw chicken legs. “What’s this?” Hugh demanded, not long ago. He was on his knees in a flower bed, a trowel in one hand and what looked like a desiccated thumb in the other.
I squinted in his direction. “Um, half a hot dog?”
He was furious. “What are you doing? Foxes don’t want junk like this. Hot dogs are disgusting.”
“Not to something that eats maggots,” I said.
He claims that I’m manipulating Carol. “That’s you, the puppet master. It’s the same way you are with people—constantly trying to buy them.”
He’s under the impression that the occasional chicken carcass is enough; that anything else will “spoil” Carol, will, in fact, endanger her. “Believe me, she was just fine before you came along.”
But was she? Really? It’s a hard life out there for a fox. Yes, there are rabbits and birds around, but they don’t surrender easily. According to the Web sites I’ve visited, Carol’s diet consists mainly of beetles and worms. There’s an occasional mouse, and insect larvae, maybe some roadkill—just awful-tasting stuff.
“And I’m willing to bet that all those same Web sites advise against feeding wild animals,” Hugh said.
“Well, not all of them,” I told him.
They do discourage hand-feeding, not because you’ll be bitten but because, once tame, the fox is likely to approach your neighbor, who may not be as receptive to his or her company as you are. I can see how that might be a problem in America, where everyone has a gun, but in England what are you going to do, stab Carol to death? Good luck getting that close, because the only person she really trusts is me.
You should see the way she follows me to the garden bench, almost as if she were a dog but at the same time catlike, nimble, her tail straight out and bobbing slightly as she walks. Then she’ll lie on the grass at my feet, her paws crossed, and look at me for a second before turning away. Carol’s uncomfortable making eye contact—a shame, as hers have the brilliance of freshly minted pennies. From nose to tail, her coloring is remarkable: the burnt-orange fading to what looks like a white bib protecting her chest, then darkening from rust to black on her front legs, which resemble spent matchsticks. Because I give her only the best ground beef and free-range chicken, her coat is full, not mangy like those other foxes. Carol’s come as close as two inches from my hand, but I have to look away as she approaches. Again, it’s the eye-contact thing.
In pictures she looks like a stuffed animal. And, oh, I show them to everyone. “Have you seen my fox? No? Hold on while I get my phone . . . .” In my favorite photograph she’s outside the kitchen door. It’s around seven in the evening, still light, and you can see her perfectly, just sitting there. It’s actually Hugh who took the picture, so the expression on her face says, “Yes, but where’s David?”
The response to my photos is wonderment tinged with envy: “How come I don’t have a Carol?” Unless, of course, the person I’m speaking to is small-minded. A lot of small-minded people out where we live raise chickens.
“Horrible, brutal things, foxes,” they say. “Once one gets into the henhouse it’ll kill everything in sight, just for the hell of it.”
The charge was repeated in the comments section of a YouTube video I watched one night, about a vixen named Tammy that was hit by a car and healed by a veterinarian, who later released her back into the wild. “I know how much people love to save wildlife but how would you feel if a fox killed your chickens or turkey?” someone named Pat Stokes asked.
To this a man responded, “My chickens are cunts.”
I don’t know if this made him pro-fox or if he was just stating the facts.
If I had to badmouth Carol, my one complaint would be her sense of humor. “You are so-o-o-o-o-o serious,” I often tell her. I’d add that she never grows any more comfortable in my presence. She seems to me very English in her awkwardness.
“Then stop making her uncomfortable,” Hugh says. Instead of feeding her on the patio outside my office, he thinks I should leave her food in the field, and let her eat it in her own time.
The first problem with that suggestion is slugs. I thought I knew them from my youth in Raleigh, but the slugs of North America are nothing compared to their British cousins. They’re like walruses in Sussex—long and fat from eating everything Hugh tries to grow that the rabbits and deer happen to miss. I’ve seen them feast on the viscous bodies of their stepped-on relatives, so when something decent is presented, pork shoulder, say, or a fresh lamb kidney, they go wild. And we must have—no exaggeration—at least twelve million slugs on our two-acre property. Galveston the hedgehog keeps their numbers down, as do two toads, Lane and Courtney, but it’s a losing battle.
The second problem with throwing food into the pasture is one of perception. It would allow Carol to feel, if not like a huntress, then at least like a successful scavenger—Look what I found, she’d think. This as opposed to, Look what David gave me.
I insist that Carol eat in my presence for the same reason I wait for the coffee-shop employee to turn back in my direction before putting a tip in his basket. I want to be acknowledged as a generous provider. This is about me, not them.
I don’t need Hugh to point out how ridiculous this is. Wild animals do not give a damn about our little feelings. They’re incapable of it. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” we say.
What they hear is senseless noise. It’s like us trying to discern emotion in the hum of a hair dryer, or the chortle of an engine as it fails to turns over. That’s the drawback but also the glory of creatures that were never domesticated. Nothing feels better than being singled out by something that at best should fear you, and at worst would like to eat you. I think of the people I’ve known over the years who found a baby raccoon or possum and brought it home to raise it. When young they were sweet. Then one day they became moody and violent, like human teen-agers but with claws and sharp, pointy teeth. It was their wildness reclaiming them. After the change it was back into their cages, their heartsick owners—jailers now—watching as they tore at the bars, never tiring of it, thinking only of escape.
“But wait,” we tell ourselves, always wanting to project, to anthropomorphize, to turn the story in our favor. “But what about this.”
One night in late September, as I was walking home in the dark from the neighboring village, I felt a presence next to me. A dog? I wondered. But the footsteps I heard were daintier, and I wasn’t near any houses. I keep a flashlight in my backpack, so I turned it on, and there was Carol. Foxes establish a territory, and work hard to defend it. I had no idea that hers extended this far. “Is this where you are when I call for you at two in the morning?” I asked.
There was a canopy of leaves over my head. Once I moved beyond it, the moon lit my path, so I turned off the flashlight. I’d expected Carol to be gone by that point, but for the next half mile, all the way home, she walked with me, sometimes by my side and sometimes a few steps ahead, leading the way. No cars approached or passed. The road was ours, and we marched right down the center of it, all the way to the front of the house and then through the garden gate to the kitchen door. Just me and my wild friend Carol.
Source: Untamed – The New Yorker