For most of my life the only time I saw a red fox it was probably a raccoon. They have those same glow-in-the-headlights silvery eyes.
But a few years ago, I began to see a once-rare piece of roadkill with greater frequency. No matter how flattened the rest of the fox was, it’s bushy-tail would blow around in the highway draft of cars and trucks as they raced past.
I assumed the nocturnal red fox was unavoidable in the dark, and, like frantic squirrels or oblivious raccoons, ran right under the wheels.
Around the same time, I did a column about a rabid fox that ventured out in the daytime to attack a college student who was babysitting in a suburban neighborhood. A neighbor heard her screams came out and beat the animal off her. When police arrived, they shot it.
Fox sightings were so rare in those days, the young woman first thought it was a big cat.
Even more rare were attacks. So rare, the New Jersey Department of Environmental of Protection didn’t track them.
They still don’t, but in the last couple of years there have been at least a dozen Fox attacks that made the news.
In Hopatcong and Stanhope people were bit and dogs were attacked, as was a Lakewood child.
In Blairstown, a fox bit a woman farmer twice before her daughter killed it with a shovel, and a woman in Pittsgrove strangled one with her bare hands after it sunk its teeth into her ankle. My kind of girl.
Most of these animals were rabid, and wildlife authorities say a healthy fox poses almost no threat to humans. But like deer and bears before them, it seems the fox is becoming more accustomed to people and emboldened to trot around the neighborhood like a domesticated canine.
This former nighttime predator seems to be making more daytime appearances.
There is a fox that lives in patch of wetlands next to my house. I see it every day, crossing the street, traversing front yards, sniffing around, hoping to catch a squirrel blithely digging up the last of the buried acorns.
A few days after I saw the fox for the first time, a paper sign went up on a few neighborhood phone poles. “Missing Cat” with a picture of Mr. Boots or whatever its name was.
Across the street from me is a little yappy dog. There is another on the other side of the little swamp. The bright side of Mr. Boots probably getting dragged into the swamp is I don’t have to hear either of them much anymore. They’ve become inside dogs.
A neighbor friend of mine says the fox has stalked him while he was walking his dog, undeterred by his growl or the dog’s bark.
No less than five times have I pulled up right next to the fox and taken its picture. The fox is now as accustomed to humans as any domestic pet or zoo animal. I worry about the grade-schooler who bends to try to pet it.
When I was kid, there was a deer paddock at the South Mountain Reservation. You’d buy a nickels worth of corn or whatever deer eat, stick a handful through the wire fence and have the deer gobble it right off your palm.
That was the only time we saw deer around my hometown of Summit, which is between the South Mountain and Watchung Reservations. If you did see one, it would dart away as soon as it heard a human voice or saw a human face.
They just look at you while they devour your decorative shrubs. As if they are entitled.
I don’t remember ever seeing a bear outside a zoo until about 15 years ago. And once again, roadkill was the canary in the coal mine. Next they began sneaking around my Morris County neighborhood but still ran at the mere sniff of a human.
But within a few years, the sneaking turned into sauntering. Bang the pots? The bear didn’t care. I once saw a large bruin walking down my street right along with the grade-schoolers in backpacks. I ran out and the bruin took a left into a backyard, not on the run, but in his own sweet time. That spring a limping bruin charged one of my neighbors who was firing up the grill.
We had to adjust to them. Batten down the trash cans, raise the bird feeders, walk at dawn with a stick. And now, just as the recent bear hunts seemed to either thin their numbers or put more fear into them, we have the fox making a comeback.
Speaking of trash, I used to have a raccoon problem. The rascals could undo a bungee cord, then two. But recently, I’ve seen less raccoons rummaging through the neighborhood or lurking in the stormwater grates. The fox, after all, is one link above the raccoon on the food chain.
Above both is the coyote. A few night ago, the German Shepherd in the neighborhood, which is still an outside dog, was barking like crazy. Next came a howl, from deep in the swamp. It went on like that until Shep was pulled inside.
Yesterday morning, I saw the coyote standing in the road on my block, like any other loose dog, like it belonged there.
The coyotes are here, to take care of the fox problem.