Rae's Rescue Journal: Sleepover with a Fox Cub
It’s 5 AM on a Saturday morning, and I wake up on the bathroom floor with a fox cub sitting on my head.
One small black paw is wedged into my cheekbone. Another is tangled in my hair. I feel the tickle of a tail on my neck, and in spite of the layers of bedding beneath me, a dull ache in my back from the cold, tiled floor.
I reach for my phone, and the fox fidgets, disturbed by the movement, causing a paw to intersect painfully with my ear. I wince at the glare of the screen, read the time, and then groan. I’m not sure if this is one of the best moments of my life, or one of the worst.
Just as the sun had been threatening to set on Friday night, a fox cub - soon to be named Bumble - had been found wandering alone on a residential street in Thamesmead.
This isn’t unusual. Fox cubs or ‘kits’ are typically born in late March or early April, and by the time May comes around, many have emerged from their dens and are trailing their mothers through gardens and back alleys, dodging traffic and up-ending wheelie bins for scraps. Often, they get a little too bold and stray from their families, or scale fences only to find they can’t clamber their way back over.
In Bumble’s case, there was a fox lying dead in the road nearby, and the people who found her fretted that it might be her mother. They sifted through Google for nearby animal rescue centres to call, but due to the late hour and the pandemic, hit a wall of pre-recorded messages. So they brought her home, where she promptly climbed into bed with their cat, probably mistaking the bewildered feline for a littermate. Then they remembered their friend Paul, who has animal rescue connections, and called him for advice. Paul called me, and within a few hours, Bumble was in my bathroom, sitting on my head.
Originally, we’d intended to return to Thamesmead and examine the body of the dead fox, to ascertain whether it was lactating, and therefore whether it had been a female with cubs. If not, we’d have staked out the street where Bumble had been found, watching for any anxious-looking vixen who might be her mother. This is the best possible outcome for a lost cub: reuniting them with their family.
Once Bumble had been delivered to me, however - some people get pizza, I get foxes - it was decided that she’d need veterinary treatment the next day. She had a cyst-like bump under one eye, eye discharge, and noisy breathing that I hoped was not pneumatic.
I discovered this as I sat cross-legged on the bathroom floor with Bumble on my lap: the bathroom, being easy to clean, always doubles as our ‘quarantine room’ for new arrivals. Holding her firmly by the scruff of the neck, with her black paws hanging limply, I gently examined her all over, checking for ticks and wounds and anything else amiss. She stared at me with a mixture of awe and fear, her pupils huge in the amber pools of her eyes. A couple of times, she twisted her head back over her shoulder to snap at my hand, but I held my grip.
Checking her teeth, I noticed that her mouth was dry and tacky, suggesting dehydration, so I relaxed my hold and offered her some rehydration fluid through a syringe. She hesitated at first, but it’s packed full of electrolytes, including sugar, and once the sweet taste reached her tongue she started lapping with an increasing eagerness, eventually getting impatient with my careful drip-drip-dripping and trying to bite the syringe.
After that, Bumble’s fear seemed to dissolve. It’s both amazing and scary to me how trusting infant animals can be - baby squirrels have been known to climb the leg of just about anyone, for example. I let go of her scruff entirely, but she collapsed on my lap and lay there, as if the stress of the evening - losing her mum, being brought to this strange place - had finally caught up with her, and all the adrenaline had drained from her body the moment she sensed she was safe. I watched her black-fringed eyes start to blink more heavily, and then she was asleep. The only sound in the room was the whir of the bathroom fan and the soft, snuffling gasps of her breathing - like a kid with a cold.
For all the stress, heartbreak and exhaustion that being involved with animal rescue has brought into my life over the years, at that moment, with the warm weight of this very small, very precious thing on my lap, I felt lucky. She was so close that I could count the small, crater-like black pores on her nose, and study the delicate white fringe of fur on the inside of each huge ear. To share such an intimate space with a wild animal is a privilege that I hope will never be lost on me, no matter how many weird and wonderful species cross my path in the coming years.
Of course, for the price of a ticket to a zoo you can buy a similarly close experience with a wild animal - but a manufactured interaction, dependent on the exchange of money, isn’t quite the same as one borne of chance, circumstance, and good intentions.
Skip forward a few hours to Bumble being on my head.
She’d started off in a huge rabbit cage, stretching from the toilet to the sink. It had made her incredibly anxious; she paced back and forth in it, sending her water bowl clattering, gnawing at the bars, whining. We’d made her a den at one end of the cage from a cardboard box and blankets, and she’d sit inside it for five minutes at a time, her ears peeking out from the swathe of bedding. Then she’d be off again, rattling the cage, desperate for freedom.
So I let her out; she was a little less agitated when free to explore the bathroom, but still a bull in a China shop, chaos incarnate in orange fur. She knocked over shampoo bottles like dominos and stuck her head down the toilet and pissed in the sink while I watched, aghast at the weirdness of my life.
The only time she was truly calm and content was when she was on my lap or being held in some way, and this posed an ethical predicament for me. It’s not good form for a wildlife rehabilitator to cuddle and socialise wild animals too much, as acclimatizing them to human contact can render them unreleasable further down the line.
On the other hand, she was a baby who’d lost her mum, who was accustomed to sleeping in a pile of warm cubs and who had probably spent just a fraction of her life without company in some form. She craved comfort and contact, and I instinctively wanted to give it to her, to hold her close and make still the anxiety and curiosity and adrenaline that were all working in overdrive inside of her. But I couldn’t.
The whole night was spent wrestling with this dilemma, trying to strike a balance between my empathy and my pragmatism.
It quickly became clear that she would cry piteously each time I left the bathroom. I tried to be tough and ignore it, thinking maybe she’d stop when she realised it didn’t get a reaction, since this has worked with needy foster kittens in the past. She didn’t stop. My cat Mylo has a condition that makes stress potentially life-threatening for him, so I couldn’t let her go on calling all night.
That’s how I ended up sleeping on the bathroom floor for a sizable portion of the evening. Even this did not satiate her desperate need for company; she still hated the cage, even when I laid alongside it, and would only sleep in her makeshift-den for spells of about five minutes. So I compromised, placing one hand inside the cage next to her as she slept. This bought me up to thirty minutes of precious, undisturbed sleep at a time, but she’d still wake up frantic, startling me into consciousness with a forlorn call or rattle of the bars.
It had been a long day of feeding baby birds from sunrise to sunset, of cleaning cages and fielding calls about distressed and orphaned animals. I was bone-tired, and the hard floor offered my aching muscles little relief. In my exhaustion, I compromised again, letting her out to clatter and crash around me as I dozed. She was happiest like this, at one point laying down next to me and sleeping for a good hour or more. I knew I should discourage it, but by the time I felt the warmth of her small body next to me, I was halfway between sleep and waking, and it all felt like some strange dream.
In the morning, I crept out of the bathroom to do the first feeds for some baby pigeons, leaving Bumble asleep in our nest of blankets on the floor. At some point, I dozed off in the room with the birds, and my alarm woke me with a start at 9 AM; this was opening time for The Fox Project, the organisation where I usually direct any calls from the public about distressed or orphaned foxes, and where I was hoping to send Bumble.
I don’t have this luxury for other kinds of wildlife, like pigeons and songbirds, owed to a shortage of wildlife rescue centres in the South East London area. But The Fox Project, despite being based in Tunbridge Wells, has a massive reach, with a mobile ambulance service operating over seventy miles in the South of England, from Sussex to Greenwich, where I live. This is lucky, because whilst I can care for small animals out of my home fairly effectively, it isn’t a suitable rehab setting for larger species in the long-term - hence Bumble’s bathroom accommodation.
In the midst of a pandemic that is causing universal chaos, however, The Fox Project is struggling to work at its usual capacity. This is the case for many animal rescue organisations, who’ve seen their fundraising events cancelled, their most vulnerable volunteers confined to their homes, and multiple services, like adoption and hands-on rescue work, greatly inhibited by government guidelines. As a result, the charity’s mobile ambulance hours have been reduced to 9 AM to 5.30 PM, and outside of those hours, I’m on my own when it comes to foxes. In fact, I didn’t know it then, but another cub would be enjoying a sleepover in the bathroom the very next night - this one a younger, less boisterous boy called Toby, who was likely hit by a car. I would not be catching up on sleep any time soon.
I called The Fox Project, and felt contradictory tugs of relief and regret when they said that they had space for Bumble, but I couldn’t fool myself for a second that she’d get a better standard of care in my bathroom than in a specialised Cub Unit. Soon, she’d have a whole new set of siblings, and her craving for contact and love would be satiated in a way that helped, rather than hindered, her prospects of release. And I could sleep in my bed again, or so I thought.
I arranged for a lovely volunteer called Vicky to drive her to The Fox Project Cub Unit in Tunbridge Wells via The Greenwich & SE London Wildlife Network. Then I sat in the bathroom with Bumble and waited for the knock at the door. She was now wide awake, and had resumed her frenzied exploration of the room; clambering into the bathtub and then crying when she couldn’t climb out, nipping my toes and then bolting off.
Vicky messaged to say she was five minutes away, so I lifted Bumble up to put her in the animal carrier, ready for collection. Once again she relaxed immediately when held, resting her head on my arm and closing her eyes. We sat like that on the floor for a few moments, warmed by the sunlight streaming through the bathroom window. I took one final opportunity to study all the perfect details of her face, whispering goodbyes in my head.
A few days later, I got this update from The Fox Project;
“Bumble who came in from Thamesmead, she had a swollen right cheek, luckily the swelling has disappeared now and she is bright-eyed and doing well. She has been paired with another cub for company, and we expect her to thrive.”