For at least two decades, small bands of red foxes have made their home in the shadow of the giant Unocal fuel storage tanks that stretch west from Crenshaw Boulevard on the north side of Lomita Boulevard in Torrance.
They sleep during the day in dens burrowed into the containment dikes around the tanks, then apparently dart across Lomita Boulevard in the dead of night to forage for food in a vacant lot on the south side of the street.
"They've been here at least as long as I have, and that's 21 years," said Barry Emeneger, Unocal's district superintendent. "They haven't bothered us and we don't bother them. It's been kind of a peaceful coexistence."
'Commute' to Food
He said workers occasionally see a fox or two around the tanks in the early morning or evening, and once in a great while, several baby foxes, called kits, can be observed in broad daylight, sunning themselves or playing outside their dens.
In recent months, he said, workers have estimated that up to 10 foxes, mostly kits, may be using the dikes as living quarters and "commuting" to the vacant lot for food. He said their diet consists mostly of gophers, field mice, an occasional rabbit and any unwary birds who take refuge in the field.
"It's a real novelty to have these little wild critters camping out in the midst of the big metropolis," Emeneger said. "Most people don't even know they're here."
But now the metropolis is moving in on the Unocal foxes and soon they will be camping somewhere else far away. In a few weeks, bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment will be taking over their hunting grounds, which Unocal has sold to private developers.
Huge underground concrete reservoirs that once stored up to a million barrels of bunker fuel will be demolished, and then giant machines will "farm" the vacant lot for several months with a bacterium that eats up hydrocarbons.
And when the land is cleaned up and ready in a year or so, the developers may build a retail shopping center there, although no formal plans have been submitted, a Torrance city official said.
But Unocal spokesman Art Bentley said the company doesn't want to sacrifice the foxes in the name of progress. "We respect wildlife and the environment, and we certainly don't want to see any harm come to these foxes," he said.
So to save the foxes, Bentley said, the company has hired a trapper to catch and transport them to an animal facility in the mountains north of San Fernando. He said Unocal has donated $10,000 to the nonprofit shelter, Wildlife Waystation, to cover the cost of building cages for its new guests.
Uses Wire Cage
The trapper, Terry Jensen of Laguna Hills, said he trapped the first fox, a female about 4 months old, on July 2 and delivered it to the way station. "She was very tame and didn't seem upset," he said.
Jensen said he uses a wire cage, called "Have-a-Heart," that doesn't hurt the animal when it steps inside to partake of some canned food and trips a door-closing device.
To help ensure that all of the animals in the area are caught before the machines move into their foraging ground, Jensen will use at least half a dozen traps strategically located near dens that appear to be in current use by the foxes, he said.
But the mountain way station can offer only a temporary refuge for the Unocal foxes, said Larry Sitton, a wildlife manager for the state Fish and Game Department's office in Long Beach. "They'll have to go somewhere else, as soon as a place can be found," he said. "Under the law, they can't be relocated permanently anywhere in California."
That's because the red fox has already wiped out several species on the endangered list, such as the clapper rail and least-tern birds, he said.