• Rae Gellel

I Couldn't Help Her: Rae's Rescue Journal

Foxes have always been special to me.

As an animal-obsessed kid growing up in the city, I often felt starved for nature. I’d pour over books with big glossy pictures of the rainforest in them, and curse my luck at not having been born in Costa Rica or Australia or even in Malta, where one side of my family is from. Because every time we’d visit, I’d only have to put on a mask and snorkel and suddenly I’d have access to an entire ocean full of animals.

Back home seemed barren by comparison - a world of concrete and asphalt, with only a muddy brown river in place of the scintillating blue of the Mediterranean sea.

Now that I’m older, I can appreciate the subtle beauty of nature in London a bit more - like the pretty, iridescent plumage of the humble feral pigeon. But I had no patience for such detail as a kid, and so felt positively cheated on the animal front. With one exception.

The Red Fox. I was fascinated by them. One of the few large predators native to the UK - there were once many more, but they were wiped out by human activity - and they were right on my doorstep in South East London.

Quite literally - my mum would leave leftovers for them on our doorstep.

I was utterly thrilled every time I saw a fox as a child. I still am, and as an adult I’ve had the opportunity to scratch a domesticated fox between the ears. They are as beautiful as anything I’d pay hundreds of pounds and get on a plane to see, and it’s possible to see them skulking past a chicken shop at 3AM; a little bit of wilderness in the midst of the mundane.

I have two tattoos of foxes, and the design of this website should speak for itself.

So maybe that’s why it hit me harder than usual on Thursday when I was involved in a fox rescue that did not end well.

This isn’t a happy story, and I may leave out a few specifics as I want to get through it quickly. I wasn’t going to write a blog about it at all, because I’m not sure if it offers anything positive to a reader. But I had all kinds of grand plans for articles to work on this weekend, articles I’ve spent weeks researching, but then this happened, followed by an emergency trip to the vet for my cat Mylo, and all the wind seemed to go out of my sails.

I wanted The Animalist to be about the reality of rescue work, and I guess this illustrates it better than any statistic could.

I was doing the cleaning, feeding and socialising routine for the cats at the CatCuddles Sanctuary’s main rehoming base when I got the message about the fox. It was an injured cub (or kit) in a playground at a primary school in Plumstead, about five minutes away. The Fox Project were willing to take the kit on but could not get there for over an hour, so said they’d be grateful if I could contain it ready for them to collect.

I arrived at the school armed with a carrier, tins of smelly food, and the most vital piece of equipment of all - my long-suffering mother. We were ushered into the playground by an anxious looking caretaker.

It was play-time, and the school grounds were alive with activity, with hundreds of noisy, laughing, chattering kids. The caretaker led us through the throngs of children to a bicycle stand, and gestured at the small orange face poking out from under it. Her head was inside the stand, with her butt poking out the back, pressed against a brick wall. The whole area had been cordoned off, but with hundreds of children playing a few feet away, she must have been terrified.

We went through all the rigmarole of blocking her into the space, so that she couldn’t suddenly bolt into a playground full of kids, or out into the road. But as we worked around her, it became apparent that it was unnecessary. She made little effort to escape, and when I scruffed her and lifted her into the carrier, she hung limply in my grasp. It was my first inkling that this would not end well.

I was utterly absorbed in the task at hand, apparently so much so that I hadn’t noticed an audience gathering behind us. When I turned, carrier in hand, I was startled to see hundreds of faces staring back at me - the entire playground had gathered at the edge of the cordon to watch the rescue. I was even more startled still when the kids erupted into raucous applause. I couldn’t help but smile as they whooped and clapped, even though I really wanted to tell them to shush, because they’d scare the fox.

I’ve never been applauded for my rescue efforts before, but I would highly recommend it. It gave me a very warm feeling - one I wish had lasted.

We got home and after isolating the fox from all the other animals, I examined her with a rapidly sinking heart. She quite clearly did not have the use of her hind legs. The feet felt cold, and she did not react to me examining them - like she might have if she’d had a painful broken bone - or when I pinched her skin lightly. She was also weak, unresponsive and worryingly docile for a wild animal.

I put her on a heat pad and gave her fluids. The improvement was instantaneous - she regained some sense of her surroundings, and dragged herself upright on her front legs to take in the room. I offered her re-hydration fluid from a syringe, and she lapped at it eagerly, staring up at me with amber eyes, her huge ears trembling.

I had a flutter of ridiculous, unrealistic hope, that I honestly wish I could take back.

I rang the Fox Project and updated them. They asked me to get an assessment from a vet on the extent of her injuries. Because, they said, if there was nothing that could be done for her, then there was no reason for her to endure a journey all the way to their base in Tunbridge Wells. I couldn’t disagree with them.

The next bit - finding the right vet - was a headache. I have thus far been unable to find a sympathetic vet for wildlife in South East London, either willing or able to treat wildlife beyond passing it to a rescue centre or rehabber or offering euthanasia. Even CatCuddles’ regular vet was on holiday.

In theory, there should’ve been few obstacles involved in any vet assessing the fox, even free of charge, because 1) vets can claim money back from the RSPCA for wildlife casualties over 1KG, 2) the fox had a place lined up at the Fox Project, so they were not expected to keep her at the practice and 3) her injuries would be very similar to that of a dog hit by a car, so they didn’t need to specialise in wildlife to asses her. Nevertheless I spent the next forty minutes on the phone, explaining the situation to a series of vet receptionists, until we found a practice sympathetic enough to help without charging a small fortune - Medivet Woolwich. We were there in ten minutes, and the vet, a young Mediterranean guy, saw us straight away.

You probably already guessed that the outcome of the assessment was not good. The vet was a nice man. He examined the cub gently, thoroughly, and listened politely to my long-winded explanations (that you, the reader, must be familiar with by now).

He felt for breaks, he tested her reflexes, and he determined a probable spinal fracture. What were the chances of her regaining sensation? I asked. Zero. Even with months and months of rehab? Even then. Could she toilet by herself? Definitely not. Was she in pain? Most likely. What would you say if this was a dog, instead of a fox? I'd say exactly the same thing.

You’re absolutely, 100% sure that there’s no hope?

I’m sure.

He recommended euthanasia.

She was sitting on the examination table as we had this conversation, a small, trembling thing, the epitome of vulnerability. I looked at her, and it just seemed utterly unthinkable. Yet if it came to it, I would have to do it.

We requested an x-ray to confirm the diagnosis, even though the vet was certain. He offered it for free, which was a relief. Not all vets are so generous, as I’d soon be reminded.

While we waited, I started calling and messaging wildlife sanctuaries, including those that house disabled wildlife long-term, and friends in wildlife rescue. I was looking for second, third, fourth, fifth opinions. I asked the same question, over and over - is there any hope for a fox with a fractured spine? And I kept getting the same answer.

Everything now rested on this x-ray.

But then, a cruel stroke of luck to prolong her ordeal; the x-ray machine suddenly stopped working. I’d have to find another vet. Pacing in the examination room, I got back on the phone.

The first practice I spoke to quoted me £200-£300, which included a charge for the possible euthanasia; charming. Just as I began to get another headache, the Woolwich vet stepped in, offering to call across to the next Medivet branch to request a free x-ray. And he did just that; told you, very nice man.

So we got back in the car. By this time, my mum had to be home for her foster kid (she's a carer), so she’d be dropping me off to see this thing through alone.

They were expecting me. I handed the carrier over to a female vet whose face creased in sympathy when she looked inside it. And then I sat in the waiting room and chewed my nails while an elderly chocolate Labrador, waiting with his owner, wagged his tail weakly at me from across the room.

I felt like a fraud for being so anxious. Seasoned animal rescue volunteers should be more detached than this.

My first ‘rescue’, and arguably the reason I got into this line of work, was a severely disabled cat called Church. We’d pretty much had to do everything for him - help him eat, help him go to the toilet - and for the eighteen months that he was alive, he was never left unattended once, to the point where we had a friend babysit for him if no-one could be home.

Maybe, I thought, this fox came to us for a reason. Maybe it was up to us to do everything for her, just as we had done for Church, for six months to a year or however long it took, until she regained some feeling in her lower body. Maybe if I just worked really fucking hard, she could live, even if she could never be returned to the wild.

But I couldn’t quite persuade myself. I was familiar with this kind of bargaining. I’d done it in my head in numerous vet waiting rooms over the years, made promises, prayers, and outright denials of undeniable diagnoses. But on those occasions, the bad news that I was braced to hear was always about my own animals. About Church, once upon a time, and in the end, I had to do what was right for him, too.

The door opened, the vet came out, and as she walked over to me, she was shaking her head. She showed me an x-ray of a spine with a vicious snap in it, and while she repeated what the previous vet had said - that the fox was in pain, she would never recover, she would never have any quality of life - I concentrated on forcing down the fist-sized lump in my throat.

Later, after it was all over, after she was gone, I sat on my garden wall in the dwindling daylight and watched the foxes who visit us nightly. A few years ago, before we started monitoring and feeding them, they were gaunt and sickly. Now they were robust-looking, glossy-furred and doubled in numbers from the recent breeding season.

And I wish I could say that as I sat there, I came up with something that would offer you some comfort at the end of this awful story. There are all the obvious things; at least she wasn’t left to suffer, at least she had people who cared for her with her at the end, even if she didn’t know it, and at least it wasn’t worse, because it can get a lot, lot worse.

But let’s not pretend that that’s enough. I couldn’t help her, and that’s heart-breaking, because life just fucking is at times. The only consolation I can offer you is this; I’ll try my best to help the next one. And the next, and the next, and the next. I’ll keep trying.

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