Friday, July 02, 2010

After the urban fox

Britain is known throughout the world as a nation of animal lovers. Domestic pets are common place whether it is the cat, the dog or caged bird. It is not unusual for people to feed wild animals. Seed and bread is left out for birds, beach goers can be seen feeding the gulls and it has been a popular pastime to feed squirrels in the park. But the recent horrific attack on two young children by an urban fox has shocked the nation and some have called for a cull.

Animal psychologist Roger Mugford, speaking on a London radio station said the problem has been created by people handing out food and tolerating the fox. "We are in the process of inviting a carnivore into our home," Mugford said. "We need to keep our distance from nature," he advised, "we've stopped feeding seagulls because they've started biting back." And referring to the attack on two twins in Hackney in east London, Mugford added, "We've just had a big wake up call."

Amongst the farming community foxes have long been considered vermin and fox hunting was seen as a way of controlling the population. But in 2004 hunting the fox with dogs was banned in England and Wales. While the fox may still be controlled in the countryside with other methods, the urban fox thrives without impediment.

The urban fox has no natural enemies and the population has grown significantly over the years. Complaints of urban foxes invading gardens have quadrupled in the last three years as they lose their fear of humans, pest controllers have warned. And while there are only estimates as to the numbers some say there could be up to 50,000 urban foxes across Britain. But control of the animal is a problem. Poisoning is outlawed, and foxes have to be individually trapped and taken to a vet to be put down humanely at a cost of about £100 per animal [Telegraph].

Roger Mugford has said he is against a cull but agrees that the population has to be reduced. "There may be individual foxes who are a problem," and may need to be culled he says. But the animal psychologist said depriving the animal of its food supply could be enough. "Let nature take its course," he said.

The incident of two nine-month old twins being bitten is far from isolated. Friday's newspapers highlights many other attacks by the urban fox. Thirty three year-old Natasha David told the Sun newspaper that she had been bitten on her foot in the middle of the night as she lay in the bed of her west London flat. At the Ruislip home of his daughter Aine Morrow, Gerald McGivern was watching television when he caught sight of a skinny fox staring at him. Morrow, who has a six-month-old son Shane, now shuts all windows and says she is too scared to leave any doors open as the fox still regularly prowls the area [Daily Mail].

Callers to phone-in shows gave similar tales. One woman from Kew in west London said an invading fox had cost her several hundred pounds after her garden became infested with fleas. The fox was eventually trapped and removed by pest control experts but left the woman with a £300 bill and large holes in her garden. One man spoke of an incident where he witnessed a fox invade a kitchen at a take-away in Bethnal Green in an attempt to steal some chicken from the work surface. It even stood its ground for a while as several members of staff attempted to usher it away with a broom.

But the recent attack on the baby twins has been the most shocking incident involving the urban fox. In an interview with the BBC, Pauline and Nick Koupparis said that one of their daughter's arms "looked like it had been through a cheese grater". Lola Koupparis suffered facial and arm injuries in the attack on 5 June, while her sister Isabella was bitten on the arm [Guardian / BBC].

It could have been much worse. The fox has yet be blamed for a death in Britain, but some say it is only a matter of time. Being a wild animal they can not only be carriers of fleas but also disease. Foxes carry intestinal parasites such as toxocara canis that lay their eggs in the fox's intestines. These eggs are excreted in the faeces left by foxes, and they can infect humans. In some cases the infection can be fatal. They often carry the distemper virus. They can spread sarcoptic mange, a highly contagious infestation of Sarcoptes scabiei canis, a burrowing mite. The canine sarcoptic mite can also infest humans and cats, pigs, horses, sheep and various other species. These mites dig into and through the skin, causing intense itching and crusting that can quickly become infected. Hair loss and crusting frequently appear first on elbows and ears.

In mainland Europe the fox is a rabies carrier, a particularly dangerous disease. While rabies has been virtually eliminated in Britain there are still some concerns. Bats in Britain and in some other countries carry European Bat Lyssavirus 1 and European Bat Lyssavirus 2. The symptoms of these viruses are similar to those of rabies and so the viruses are both known as bat rabies. An unvaccinated Scottish bat handler died from an EBLV infection in 2002.

There is an understandable hysteria surrounding the spate of fox attacks. The parents of the twins have received threats from so-called animal rights campaigners while others have called for a widespread cull of the fox which they regard as vermin [Daily Mail]. Several years ago the then London Mayor Ken Livingstone declared war on the pigeon. Also a carrier of disease, they had become an increasing pest. People are discouraged in feeding the birds, which are often referred to as rats with wings. Tom Lehrer became well known for his 1950s song 'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park', though it is unlikely he engaged in such pursuits. Grey squirrels have also received a bad press in recent years and been labelled tree rats. It appears the fox will soon join the hit list. [Pictured: An urban fox with severe mange]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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