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What Should You Do When a Fox Shows Up?

Q. Cathy in Glenside, PA (home of the famed Keswick Theatre) wrote: "I have a question about a fox. I noticed piles of droppings right up against the side of my house in loose dirt that doesn't have much in it besides some dormant spring bulbs. After doing some Googling, I'm confident they are fox droppings. My local garden center did not have any advice on how to deter the fox aside than maybe some nighttime lighting. Any advice on how to rid myself of this creature?"

A. I replied: "Why deter it?? Your fox is eating mice, rats and voles. Foxes are our friends!

"But racoons are another matter entirely. Look up 'wildlife scat ID' online and try and verify what you have. (You should specify that you live in Pennsylvania or the Mid-Atlantic region, so they don't suggest that its armadillo or platypus poop.)"

Cathy replied: "I hadn't thought about it eating those kinds of pests! It's most definitely a fox. My biggest problem is that my yard is very small and now it stinks! I already pick up enough poop between my dog and cat. Are fox droppings particularly hazardous healthwise? I'll use gloves to garden in that area in the future but I'm wondering if there's anything else I should be aware of since my three kids play in the yard digging for worms and whatnot."

To which I replied: "Any soft-footed mammal (dogs, cats, fox, coyote, racoons, people, etc.) can carry parasites that are excreted in their 'scat', which is a polite word for poop. Racoon poop is really bad stuff; filled with parasites and disease spores. If you want to have disturbed sleep for the next couple of months, watch the PBS Nature episode on racoons. But fox scat would be on the same level as your cat; far from wholesome but nowhere near as toxic as racoon droppings.

"The fox should move on when the food near your house is exhausted--so make sure your trash is in secure containers and don't feed your pets outside. Failing to do so is sure to also lure rats and racoons to your home, so be diligent.

"And make sure there aren't any openings under your home that the fox (or other animals, especially skunks and groundhogs) could use as a den. If there are openings, fence or screen them off now, before birthing time in the Spring. If your fox is a female ready to produce pups (one of THE cutest animal babies) she will be impossible to remove once they're born."

OK--as far as I can tell (it was a BUSY January), that was the end of our correspondence. But I kept thinking about the topic. I know a lot about skunks, groundhogs, deer, racoons and other sometimes-nuisance mammals, but my responses to Cathy were largely off-the-cuff basic mammal advice, plus my observations of fox in our rural neighborhood, where seeing healthy ones always makes me happy.

So first, I'll mention the unhealthy possibilities. The first is mange. Decades ago, a creature appeared in our backyard that I could not identify, other than it was weak and looked weird. It turned out to be a fox with a severe case of sarcoptic mange, a condition caused by a nasty mite that infests the fur of creatures like dogs and fox and can literally take them down to bare skin. Having a fox that is missing some of its fur in your yard could be bad news for your dog and even your family. But if the fox looks healthy, it isn't mangy. (And yes, that is where that expression comes from...)

The next negative possibility is tapeworms, which, if present, would be in your fox scat and could be transmitted to you, your pets or your kids. The outward appearance of the fox would be unchanged here, so you can't let anyone handle your soil barehanded.

The final possibility is rabies. Foxes are nocturnal animals, although I have seen healthy playful ones running through my woods in broad daylight, and I've seen them running across roads during the day. But if a fox is showing itself constantly during the day, seems to have no fear of dogs or humans or is just plain acting weird, it might be rabid, and you have no choice other than to contact an animal control specialist while you keep your pets, children and you inside. (The newer rabies vaccines, pioneered by the Wistar Institute back in the late seventies, are a vast improvement over the earlier endless shots in the belly, but rabies is still best avoided.)

And that brings me to a point pertinent to people living in Pennsylvania--and perhaps many other states and commonwealths as well. If you DO call a professional to trap your animal, whether they are a private contractor or an employee of the state, they are required by law to euthanize it after capture to prevent the possible spread of rabies. Same with skunks, racoons, coyotes and groundhogs.

So I would first try a motion activated sprinkler. Every time the fox comes near your home it would shoot cold water at the animal, perhaps convincing it to relocate. Good luck!

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