Connecting Lake Simcoe's Community

Nature's darker side

Tomasini fox 1

By David Hawke (Photo by Chris Tomasini) -- As I write this, and certainly by the time you read it, the subject of today's column likely will be dead.

I hope so, as a suffering animal is a pathetic thing to see.

Our case today is that of the skinny fox, the urban street-wandering critter that looks like it was pulled through a knothole backwards. What fur remains is matted and askew and where fur once was, is but a red rash of infected skin. It has caught the attention of many residents of Orillia, especially when it tottered into Couchiching Beach Park.

          First reaction is usually, "Oh poor thing, looks like something's wrong with it." Second reaction is often, "Ew, don't go near it. It's sick!" And occasionally there is a third reaction, "Hey, somebody should do something!" My reaction is, "Well, here we go again."

          Is something wrong with this particular animal? Yes, indeed there is. The behaviour is not of an urban fox or raccoon alertly prowling your backyard in search of mice or other yummies. Rather, it is the almost blind wobble of a very weak and sickly individual.

          To "not go near it" is wise advice. Whatever is afflicting this fox could be rabies, distemper, or simply grievous injury from being hit by a car... you just don't know and should therefore use caution.

          Then we get to the "somebody should do something," which has a range of interpretations from shooting it to rescuing it, or at least advising the neighbourhood of its presence. If the animal is aggressive, then an official and possibly lethal response may be necessary. But today's fox is not aggressive, just kind of odd that it's wandering around in mid-day and looking so very rough.

          From the pictures I've seen of it, there is a good case to be made in calling this mange, or fox scabbies. Loss of fur, raw skin patches and weak condition all add up to a common but nasty situation of mange.

          Itchy mange in dogs and foxes is officially called sarcoptic mange, a skin disease caused by a little parasite called a Sarcoptes scabei mite. These mites are tiny indeed, called microscopic in the literature I'm reading. As they burrow into the outer skin, they set off an overpowering urge to scratch continuously. With enough scratching, the fur is dislodged and the skin tenderized, making a welcome mat for more mites to hop on board.

          The mites love it when two or more animals den together, making the jump from one to the next quite easy. This year's fox kits are currently dispersing from the home base, but a few still hang out together. And so the condition spreads.

          The itching not only reveals the temperature-sensitive skin (burns in the sun, shivers at night), but keeps the animal awake 24/7. Sleep deprivation is a very debilitating condition, and when combined with lack of food (who has time to hunt patiently when all you want to do is scratch?) the animal is on a steady and downward spiral to death. No food and a weakened body allows for any number of other parasites (tapeworms, roundworms) or bacteria to charge in and claim the body.

          Dogs, cats, foxes, squirrels and coyotes all get mange, each having their very own species of Sarcoptes mite to do the nasty work. Humans can also pick up these itty-bitty hitchhikers, but other than a skin rash we get off comparatively easy. The good news is that this condition is treatable if under the guidance of a veterinarian.

          The treatment, however, takes four to six weeks of constant daily application of salves and medicines. That's okay if Fido is used to being handled, but not okay if Todd the fox is a wild animal.

          And so... "somebody should do something."  There are a few wildlife rescue and remediation centres scattered throughout the countryside; some specialize in reptiles, another one takes in bears, a couple of centres rescue owls, and a few tackle mammals. But this is not a perfect solution. Most of these centres are funded by donations, and while their hearts are big their budget is small. Really small. As in, if you work there, you volunteer there. If you feel that a rescue organization must be called in to save the day, may I suggest, strongly, that your call is followed up with a hefty financial donation. Fair's fair.

          Back to our sickly fox. There comes a point when even good medicine can't reverse a bad situation. Starvation, dehydration and loss of body functions are the end game of a mange infestation. Death becomes a merciful release. This is a real thing in the real world of wildlife.

          Personally, I think it is wonderful that that foxes, coyotes, skunks, owls, squirrels and many bird species have adapted to our human structures and ways. But now we get to see, up close and personal, that wild life is seldom pretty all the way through.

© 2018 David J. Hawke

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