My dog and I were crestfallen. In the early-morning chill, the fox lay lifeless on the sidewalk in front of us, her thick, honey-colored fur damp with rain, her golden-brown eyes staring blankly at the road, where she'd presumably been hit by a vehicle.
In life, this mischievous vixen had moved with a limp, making her easy to spot. But still, she was quick and flirtatious. My springer spaniel, Finn, and I had watched her pass through the back alleys of London's East End for the better part of a year on our late-night strolls.
These encounters came as a pleasant surprise when I first moved to London. In the United States, I'd seen a fox all of once, just a fleeting apparition in a snowy, Midwestern forest. By contrast, the British capital is full of them — red foxes to be exact, Vulpes vulpes — although it hasn't always been so.
The species began encroaching on British cities in the 1930s. Or rather, the city encroached on the foxes. In the years between the two World Wars, Britain's suburbs pushed deep into the fox's natural habitat in the English countryside, and in response, many foxes headed for the inner city.
Today, Britain is home to about 33,000 urban foxes, according to the Mammal Research Unit at the University of Bristol. That's about 14% of the country's entire fox population, but it's difficult to pin down just how many of those live in London. A number often bandied about in the British press puts the city's fox population at about 10,000. However, Stephen Harris, an expert on urban foxes at Bristol, calls that number "complete rubbish."
He says no reliable figure has ever been calculated, although he once estimated the number at 5,000 to 6,000 for London's boroughs. "That was years ago, so I wouldn't quote that," Harris said. That rough figure would make foxes about as common in London as pubs, which you'll find on nearly every other corner.
Come March, the fox population grows as birthing season hits.
"Every pair will have four or five cubs," Harris said. "So the population will suddenly triple and then, by the end of the next year, the population will be back at 33,000 or thereabouts."
That is to say, urban foxes live short, sometimes brutal lives. Harris said their average life span is a mere 18 months, even though foxes in general can potentially live as long as six to 10 years. Often, they are killed by dogs, die of disease or are hit by cars.
The trade-off, I suppose, is that urban foxes may lead far more exciting lives than their rural counterparts, partly because they're less afraid of people. A fox was once spotted riding an escalator out of London's Underground subway system. And in 2011, one was discovered roaming the top of the Shard, London's tallest skyscraper, while it was under construction. A local pest control manager who helped rescue the animal was quoted in Britain's Sun newspaper as saying, "The fox would have had to climb 71 sets of stairs and an old-fashioned ladder."
"Sometimes people say foxes in London are tame. They're not tame," said Trevor Williams of the Fox Project, which operates an animal hospital just outside London that specializes in treating injured foxes. "But they're seeing people all the time and … they know what rural foxes don't know, and that's that we are lumbering, slow beasts and we stand no chance at all of catching them."
Harris believes most Britons look favorably on foxes. After all, there have been TV shows here dedicated to watching foxes via hidden camera. But there has also been growing concern over whether the urban fox populations have grown too large and whether the animals have become too brazen. Foxes are regularly blamed for killing pets, including small dogs; sullying people's gardens; even chewing through brake lines on parked cars.
Other charges are even more serious. Last year, a 4-week-old baby was badly injured when he was dragged from his bed by a fox that had wandered into a home in South London.
And in 2010, a fox reportedly attacked 9-month-old twin girls as they lay in their cribs in a neighborhood not far from my own. The debate over urban foxes is so contentious that the twins' parents were accused of lying and received threats online, prompting police to provide protection to the couple.
London Mayor Boris Johnson has at times said a cull of the city's foxes should be considered. But Harris contends that incidents of fox aggression are overblown by Britain's tabloid press and pro-hunting organizations still seething over Britain's 2004 ban on fox hunting. He said both groups were trying to "reinvent the fox as a pest."
The prohibition on the use of packs of dogs to kill foxes was created on the grounds of animal welfare; Prime Minister David Cameron has toyed with the idea of easing the restrictions.
"Yes, occasionally they go into people's houses. Occasionally they will bite someone," said Harris, who explained that foxes sometimes bite something to help them identify whatever it is they've stumbled upon, be it a bone from the garbage or a small child's hand. "The risk is very low, but when it happens, the hunting lobby like to jump all over it.
"If you'd have been a British journalist, I wouldn't have spoken to you because the story is just going to be crap and it's a waste of my time," Harris told me. "Whatever [I] say will be taken out of context and misquoted."
As for our resident fox, the neighborhood wasn't empty for long. Foxes are territorial. Once one is gone, another replaces it in a matter of days. We've seen many urban foxes come and go since our sidewalk discovery.