Like lovers in Paris, San Joaquin kit foxes will always have Bakersfield.
The rare little foxes come out mostly at night. They find fabulous food everywhere: chunks of cheeseburger from dumpsters, shreds of taco on windblown wrappers. And the accommodations: What can beat a cozy den in the student quarter — specifically, beneath portable classrooms in the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District?
The 17,000-student district isn't crazy about the foxes, especially when about one-third of its 23 elementary and junior high schools have to deal with them on a regular basis. Administrators have offered a wildlife biologist $25,000 for a plan to manage the endangered species, which is literally, and uneasily, underfoot.
Mostly nocturnal, the achingly cute 5-pound critters sometimes emerge early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Their burrows can also house skunks and feral cats; officials say odors enter classrooms along with fleas.
Michael Brouse, the district's business manager, said nobody can recall "a student-kit fox encounter," but the animals can pose a problem. They leave copious droppings. They get tangled in soccer nets. And, to the chagrin of administrators, they love schools, with their wide-open campuses, brown-bag lunches, and strict adherence to environmental regulations.
"There's a certain amount of paranoia about what you can do legally," Brouse said. "You can't just shoo them away."
A few years ago, Brouse said, one of his district's principals told him about a fox plopping itself across a classroom doorway, briefly detaining both teacher and students.
"In essence, the kids were held hostage in the classroom until the kit fox decided to get up and go," Brouse said.
About the size of small house cats, the foxes are not aggressive but, according to school officials, can do more than their share of damage. Digging burrows in crawl spaces beneath portable classrooms, foxes last year created dirt piles that jammed up against the structures 2 feet overhead. In a couple of buildings, flooring rotted and had to be replaced.
Exactly what the Panama-Buena Vista district will do about its fox colonies is up in the air. With permits from environmental agencies, other schools have filled in inconvenient burrows and built artificial dens in out-of-the-way spots on campus. Some have placed one-way doors at den openings to ensure that foxes who get out, stay out.
A century ago, more than 12,000 of the foxes roamed the San Joaquin Valley. With much of the valley since given over to farming and oil extraction, the population has fallen to fewer than 3,000, scientists say. They've been a fixture on the federal endangered species list since 1967 — yet as many as 400 make themselves at home in Bakersfield's golf courses, subdivisions and schools, especially those near the edge of town.
"At first, we thought they were displaced stragglers that would be pushed out or die off as development continued," said Bryan Cypher, a biologist with the Endangered Species Recovery Program at Cal State Stanislaus. "But they're doing surprisingly well in the urban area."
Coyotes, the foxes' chief enemy, aren't as numerous in the flat, open stretches of town as in places where thick brush and steep arroyos can shield them. That leaves a fox with many potential dens to choose from in Bakersfield. Besides schools, there are culverts, irrigation channels, power lines and hundreds of storm-water drainage basins.
Then there's the food: In the wild, the foxes subsist on kangaroo rats. In town, there's fast food galore, plus the kibble that fox lovers, over the objections of biologists, set outside for their nocturnal visitors.
"Bakersfield in the past hasn't necessarily been the most endangered-species-sympathetic area," Cypher said, "but many people enjoy having the foxes around."
For 10 years, Linda DeRose, a 71-year-old retired teacher, has watched foxes skitter around the portable classrooms at Stockdale Elementary School across from her house. "Everybody who sees them really likes them. They're really cute, they run real fast, they have big ears. It's amazing they're able to exist in such proximity to people."
It could help, she said, that her husband sometimes puts out cat food for the neighborhood strays, a meal that also goes down well with foxes. When workers at Stockdale erected barriers to keep foxes from re-entering their burrows last December, the animals "were running around the neighborhood like crazy," she said. "They were frantic."
Sometimes residents have alerted the city about street work putting foxes in harm's way. A few have dug into their pockets for the foxes; three years ago, an animal lover freed a kit fox dangling by its neck from the volleyball net at Independence School. She also paid $1,200 for the leg amputation the fox required. It was the year's sixth "entanglement," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
At Cal State Bakersfield, officials ask biologists about possible harm to kit foxes before they schedule events at an outdoor amphitheater.
But proximity to well-meaning people may have its downside. A 2010 study found that Bakersfield foxes, while healthy, are fatter and have higher cholesterol than their country cousins. Researchers comparing the hair of local foxes with clippings from Bakersfield barbershops found chemical traces of the same foods.
Ted Murphy, a retired Cal State Bakersfield biology professor, has tracked the city's kit foxes for more than 40 years.
"I had a bunch of citizen-scientists who would call me whenever they came across one," he said. "It was a huge network."
Guards at an ice cream plant saw the same fox show up night after night. Little wonder, Murphy said; every night, the lucky fox was provided with chocolate-coated ice cream treats. At homes bordering a golf course, a fox would drop by patio after patio after sundown, drawn by residents who offered eggs, hot dogs, whatever was at hand. Murphy said he knew a pilot who was greeted by a fox each night he'd land at the local airport.
For a little while, Murphy, the founder of his school's Facility for Animal Care and Treatment, had a fox he'd walk on a leash.
"It's a hell of a lot easier for a fox to make a living in this town than in the dry grass," he said.