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What does the fox want?

September 2, 2016


Anthropomorphism and Violence

“Just because an animal hunts, that doesn’t mean that’s all they do.”


Recently, we’ve had a handsome young fox visit our garden during the day. We’ve got guinea pigs, and we put them out on the grass in fine weather, so his presence gives my mum and I cause for concern.

Like a cat, he tends to stalk around the pen; it’s what they do compulsively, by instinct. When he starts getting too frisky, we chase him off to be safe, feeling bad as we do so.

If he is not being too frisky, we often let him roam. Indeed, we often don’t go outside when he’s there so as not to disturb him. Mum commented wryly that from the outside, that must seem completely counterintuitive.

Having kept an eye on him for a while, he doesn’t seem very proactive about getting into the guinea pig pen. He just sort of sits there, watching them, as a curious dog might watch a new baby in the house. One time, he even curled up and went to sleep next to them.

The ‘pigs, too, seem not remotely phased. Of course, that may be because domestic guinea pigs are a bit daft, and our red foxes aren’t a native threat to their ancestors, so the instinct to flee may not be there.

That said, they certainly run away when I go near them, and all I do is put them back in their cage. They jumped out of their skins when our hamster went near them.

I can only assume that they have met the fox so often, and each incidence was so completely uneventful, that they have decided that he is less of a threat than the humans that feed them. I suppose the fox at least doesn’t bundle them into a cat carrier and hurtle them across space.

Some of you might roll your eyes at that. Typical vegan, anthropomorphising animals. Of course the fox wants to eat your guinea pigs. It’s a wild animal.

Here we see some classic confusion about what anthropomorphising actually entails. Not assuming the worst of animals is not anthropomorphism. If anything, it is people who do not understand animals of any kind who assume that all predators are constantly, irrationally violent.

If I thought the fox was just like a human with fur and four legs, I would be more inclined to think he wants to eat my pets. We are, after all, the great consumers, and be damned with the consequences. But I think it would actually be maladaptive for the fox to attack our pets, and thus, they might just hesitate.

We feed our fox every now and then with titbits of food waste. Many of our neighbours do also, and those who don’t intend to feed the foxes still do because they fill their bins with food waste they can’t be arsed to compost, which the fox then ransacks.

A scavenger hunts very little. If he can get enough food without killing, he will avoid killing, because it expends too much energy for the gain. Instead, his digestive tract develops to handle waste for which there is not much competition – sour milk, bones, etc.

In rural environments, foxes do kill chickens, because that is the easiest and most energy-rich food they can attain in their environment; in suburban and urban environments, they tear open bin bags filled with feasts of leftovers instead, and flourish as a result.

Moreover, the more threatening foxes are, the more likely they are to be chased off by the humans they rely on for food, and consequently lose some of their edge. Fox populations are rising because of us, and to my observation they seem to be changing habits, becoming more diurnal and bolder.

And yes, perhaps less inclined to attack even easy prey, which may belong to humans – one of the only species who irrationally protect and keep all manner of smaller species for their own amusement.

To be clear, the fox does not have to consciously understand this. He only has to suffer as a result of his imprudence in attacking the sacred living objects of humankind; by being chased away from food, or perhaps even killed. The result is that he does not live to pass on his murderous trait, but instead his cannier cousins take the niche.

Alone of all the species, humans are the ones who display totally maladaptive tendencies over a long timeline. This is because we can postpone problems with the use of technology and medicine, using our gigantic brains to find multiple short-term solutions to problems that would wipe out other species.

A perfect example of this is our food culture; we alone choose to forgo easily accessible, sustainable sources of food in favour of ones we think taste better. That is the entire basis of animal agriculture in the developed world today.

So, who really anthropomorphises when they judge the nature of foxes? Killing things for the sake of it, when they pose no threat and render little gain, is a human process. The abundance we have created gives us time and energy to waste.

We assume animals must be like us in that regard, while simultaneously refusing to see ourselves in that way – thus thinking ourselves morally superior. This trend pervades in all circles; we have launched pre-emptive strikes against many predators, driving a handful to extinction in some of the places they used to inhabit.

Our fear over predators drives us to treat them badly, not remembering that of all the species, the predatory ones are among the smartest and the most likely to adopt interspecies relationships. We do; and judging by the sheer amount of YouTube content, dogs, cats and even bears, lions and tigers also will in safe artificial environments – human environments.

As my mum said while keeping an eye on the fox (we are not totally naive): “Just because an animal hunts, that doesn’t mean that’s all they do.” The tendency for animals connected to human society to act in human ways is such that one has to wonder whether anthropomorphism of pets, so-called livestock and urban wildlife is any kind of fantasy. 

We are determined to think the worst of wild animals, via the overzealous self-defence mechanism of paranoia. The difference is that we can use our giant brains to figure out that’s what we’re doing, and examine our own attitudes.

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From → Animal Rights

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