Foxes Attracted to Life in the Big City


They've visited Buckingham Palace Gardens, the House of Lords and Downing Street. A whole family of them has camped out at Paddington Station's Platform 1.

No, not tourists. Foxes. Some of the 5,000 urban foxes that live in London and roam the streets, usually by night and preferably--their preference--in leafy neighborhoods.

An estimated 14% of Britain's fox population has taken to the cities, apparently feeling less threatened by the automobile than by the rural hunter, although both take their toll.

"Foxes very quickly learn that in a town they are safe and the vast majority of people don't pose a threat," said Stephen Harris, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Bristol. "They're very blase once they feel safe. They become unconcerned by human presence."

Smart, those foxes. Except for the one that wandered into the lobby of the House of Lords in February around the time that body's countrified members were gearing up to overturn a ban on fox hunting with hounds.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was summoned to rescue the fox before the hounds could be called. After a 15-minute chase, an animal collection officer captured the fox in a third-floor office. It was later freed in St. James's Park.

Harris said foxes generally don't like London's well-tended parks because there are too few hiding places. They also avoid Victorian houses with small patios and crowded apartment blocks in favor of 1930s residential neighborhoods of detached houses with big gardens and tool sheds.

"We say the foxes are true blue because they tend to live in wards that vote Conservative," Harris said.

That is not to say foxes are Tories--who are partial to country sports such as hunting--but that they like the same neighborhoods Tories generally like and can afford.

Preferences notwithstanding, foxes have been seen in most London neighborhoods, as well as in cities such as Cambridge and Bristol, where, according to a recent study, about 10% of the residents of the northwest part of the city regularly put out food for the animals.

Adult foxes usually weigh 10 to 13 pounds and eat a range of critters, including worms, mice, rats and small birds. In the cities, they will eat pet guinea pigs and rabbits that aren't in cages, along with dog food that people put out for them and anything interesting they might find in the garbage.

Generally, they won't pick a fight with anything as large as a cat or dog, because the odds of winning are a little too close for the fox's comfort.

"They are not aggressive animals," said Trevor Williams, director of the Fox Project charity's wildlife information service. "Flight rather than fight."

Harris and other fox experts say there are no known cases in which an urban fox has attacked a human being. The few reported attacks that have appeared in the press over the years have been disproved, he said.

They make their urban homes in garden sheds, cellars and overgrown backyards. They also seek out hiding places along railway lines, as did the family that moved into Paddington Station. Though not naturally nocturnal animals, they have adapted to city life by going out late at night and in the early morning, when they are less likely to run into garbage collectors and other people.

When they are caught sunbathing on a tool shed or sitting on a street corner, as one was in the West London neighborhood of Little Venice the other day, they are anything but panicky.

"It was quite relaxed and looked quite like it likes living in the city," said Jeremy Rowe, 54, who saw a fox parked near his motorbike. "It drank from a puddle, and after a time it decided to move. It didn't bat an eyelid when a car went by and it didn't run away like it would in the country."

Urban foxes do make pests of themselves, however. They dig up gardens, particularly roses that are fed fish blood and bone-meal fertilizer, which the foxes smell and think is buried food. They leave their droppings on patios and pull up the vegetables that city folk have lovingly planted on their allotments. Worst of all is the noise made by boisterous cubs and mating males.

"The other night we heard the most bloodcurdling shrieking noise, like an animal being slaughtered," said Fred Woolsgrove, a resident of southeast London. "My wife looked out the window, and there were two cubs playing under a car and the vixen was just sitting there watching them."

Woolsgrove, 61, doesn't object to foxes but also doesn't feed or encourage what are supposed to be wild animals.

"It's just a fact of life now that there are foxes around," he said. "Some people complain, but I've never had any nasty experiences."

The same cannot be said for Queen Elizabeth II and the flock of flamingos given to her by the London Zoo. The pink birds lived on an island in the lake in Buckingham Palace Gardens until the exceptionally cold night of Jan. 26, 1996. The lake froze, a fox walked across the ice to the island, and the flamingos were history.

"Sadly, we don't have the flamingos anymore," a Buckingham Palace spokesman said. "I am not aware of what happened to the fox."

A new fox collar for the queen, perhaps?

"No, the queen does not . . . Oh, I see, you were joking."

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