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Animal Spirits & Totems: The Fox

Updated on November 13, 2015
Reynard the Fox, drawn by Edward Griset, from an 1869 children's book.
Reynard the Fox, drawn by Edward Griset, from an 1869 children's book. | Source

Facts About Foxes

Foxes are canids, the smallest member of a family of animals that includes domestic dogs, coyotes, jackals, and wolves.

Foxes are found on every continent except Antarctica, and are especially common across Europe and North America.

Almost every culture tells similar stories about foxes, painting them as tricksters, shape shifters, and magical beings.

A male fox is called a dog or a Reynard. A female fox is called a vixen. Baby foxes are called kits or cubs. Forty-seven different species of fox can be found worldwide, with many subspecies of each type.

The Red fox, by far the most common species of fox, has adapted so well to life in Britain where it has no natural predators that it has become a serious pest, and regular fox culls must be scheduled to keep the population down.

Although in most parts of the world fox attacks on humans are very rare, in Britain at least two cases of foxes entering homes and trying to drag off newborn infants have been recorded.

Red foxes in Britain are shorter and stockier than the Red foxes in North America and Europe. The largest Red fox on record lived in Britain and weighed 39 pounds (17.2 kg).

Most Red foxes weigh between 5 pounds and 31 pounds, with females about 20% smaller than males. In addition to being smaller than dogs and wolves, foxes are also lighter—their bones are 30% less dense than larger canids, and their bodies are flexible and lean.

Foxes can briefly run at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour (about 40 Kms per hour) to escape trouble, but they hunt by stealth, not speed.

Foxes have long bushy tales that are only slightly shorter than the rest of their bodies. Their tales help them keep their balance when they are standing on their two hind legs, and also keep their noses warm when they curl up to sleep.

Foxes are nocturnal. Their habits mean they are rarely seen, especially in areas where their populations are steady, such as in the U.S. and Asia.

If you see a fox, it is either sick or it is showing itself to you on purpose.

Foxes eat almost anything, including small mammals, birds, berries, nuts, twigs, insects, fruit, and even worms. Occasionally a fox will take a small mammal such as a young lamb or small deer. Their status as a threat to livestock is somewhat overstated—they also help farmers out by keeping populations of mice, rats, and other small vermin in check.

Foxes are not pack animals like wolves, but rather solitary and elusive, like coyotes. In theory, a single fox could live to be as old as 40, but in the wild they rarely live beyond five years.

Coyotes and wolverines will kill foxes if the two species collide, although foxes do live in areas where coyotes are also common. A fox will not trespass on a coyote’s marked territory, but occasionally a coyote will enter a fox’s territory and kill it.

Foxes and badgers will sometimes share a den. The fox brings back food for the badger and the badger keeps the den cleaner than the fox would.

Foxes are secretive, clever, and family-oriented. They rear their young in underground burrows and will often keep their family together until the kits are old enough to breed. Older kits help to rear the new ones. Foxes are not pack animals like wolves, but rather solitary and tricky, like coyotes.

Foxes are curious and intelligent but they make bad pets. Baby foxes are sometimes raised in captivity by humans and show considerable affection to their keepers, but once they attain sexual maturity their loving ways vanish and they become wild and bite. They are especially susceptible to a wide range of diseases, some of which can be transmitted to humans, and are a primary carrier of rabies in the wild.

Soviet scientist Dmitri K. Belyaev was able to domesticate the silver fox over the course of 45 years by selecting only foxes most comfortable around humans for breeding.

As Belaev’s Russian silver foxes grew tamer and tamer across many generations, their appearance spontaneously began to change dramatically. Their ears turned floppy instead of erect, their tales grew curly or short, and their coats became spotted or varied in color or both. Many of them barked and whined for their caretakers like small dogs.

"Fox Fires on New Years Even at the Garment Nettle Tree at Oji" by Japanese artist Hiroshige, showing kitsune spirit foxes.
"Fox Fires on New Years Even at the Garment Nettle Tree at Oji" by Japanese artist Hiroshige, showing kitsune spirit foxes. | Source

Fox Wisdom

Foxes are masters at watching, waiting, and taking in information without being seen or heard. Their cunning comes from their patience and skill at observation, and because they are small they wait to understand their prey before acting, often by stealth or by trickery.

Because of these qualities, stories about foxes the world over focus on the fox’s trickery and getting the better of larger animals. A cycle of French fairy tales starring Reynard the Fox features the con man adventures of a Red fox dressed in highwayman’s clothes and a jaunty feathered hat.

Aesop’s fables, an allegorical series of medieval morality tales, also include many fox stories in which the fox tricks (or fails to trick) another animal into an unwise move that either does or does not result in the other animal being eaten.

Foxes are also seen as magical creatures and shape shifters and have a strong connection with shamanism. In Japanese culture, the kitsune is a fox spirit that can possess a human being (usually a young woman) or change itself into the shape and appearance of any animal or person.

When the fox chooses to connect with you, you are being asked to value the part of you who hangs back and watches, giving support to your family or mate and waiting until the precise moment to act. A fox connect often indicates an ability to see into the spirit world and to see deeply into others.

Detail from illustration by Arthur Rackham, public domain image.
Detail from illustration by Arthur Rackham, public domain image.

Encounters With Foxes

Not long ago I had a dramatic encounter with a fox while accompanying my spouse on a genealogical expedition.

We were exploring cemeteries out of state and visiting the homesteads of my spouse’s ancestors.

Near the end of the day, after finding some very old graves of distant relatives, we were feeling somewhat overwhelmed by how much our ancestors suffered in their journey here, and how amazing their stories were.

We had seen lots of small frogs, lots of birds, some deer, many small rodents and various farm animals on our bucolic journey, and for no particular reason, knowing very little about fox lore at that time, I remarked out loud that I had never seen a fox, and wished that, with all the wonderful animals we’d seen that day, I could see a fox as well.

Right on cue, as if listening to and understanding our conversation, a red fox appeared on the edge of the cemetery grounds. A good 10 or 15 yards away from us, the fox was nonetheless bright and clear and easy to see.

The fox followed us along at a distance, watching us, and when we stopped, it stopped too and sat and looked directly at us for a long moment before turning and trotting away down the middle of the quiet country road.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up and a chill ran through me--something halfway between exhilaration and fear. I could not shake the feeling that these ancestors had actually appeared in that moment the form of this fox.

I felt I was being given a clear sign that silent support and quiet witness have value that reverberates through time, and that my role was an honorable, even sacred one.

Maybe that's exactly what did happen.

Take it as you will, but for my part, I listened to that fox.

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    • Rommey profile image

      Rommey 5 years ago from Texas

      To get to know a fox you got to be a poet, vulgar adepts to prose need not to apply...

    • CR Rookwood profile image
      Author

      Pamela Hutson 5 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Hi Frank! I hope I wasn't too vulgar here... but yes, you are quite right! :)

    • hecate-horus profile image

      hecate-horus 5 years ago from Rowland Woods

      To see a fox, he/she gives a rare gift of its presence. I have yet to see one up that close! Nice hub and thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Rommey profile image

      Rommey 5 years ago from Texas

      CR, you were not vulgar... but what counts is the spirit of a poet, and you seem to have that!

    • CR Rookwood profile image
      Author

      Pamela Hutson 5 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      lol! Thanks Frank. :)

      I try.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
      Author

      Pamela Hutson 5 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      hecate-horus, thank you for reading this. Seeing that fox was indescribably exciting for me, not just because it is so rare to see one, but because of the context and timing. No one will ever convince me that it was anything other than what I took it to be.

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 5 years ago

      Fascinating and interesting hub on the spiritual side of these amazingly adaptable creatures.

      If you would like to see fox's on a nightly basis you should visit central London.

      The fox population is booming there.

      Every time i visit I see them. They have lost their fear of man in London.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
      Author

      Pamela Hutson 5 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      I've heard that molometer! I guess they are becoming pests in some parts of Britain. Here in the U.S. they have fall prey to coyotes and various diseases so the fox population never seems to get out of control. That was my first (and possibly last) fox sighting ever. Thank you for visiting and commenting. :)

    • profile image

      jules 4 years ago

      have seen a fox in my garden up close it came right up to my patio door when husband was outside it even walked over to him and has been standing there even with two of my dogs barking at him from other side of door, he kept circling coming from one corner of the garden over to our house near door then back to other corner at one point it looked like he was trying to sleep or relax right near door with dogs barking, we have had hedgehogs and robins close by our feet also as well as frogs... was just so lovely to see this fox he was quite bright fluffy red with black legs black tipped tail and black on tips of ears:)

    • CR Rookwood profile image
      Author

      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Hi Jules. I love foxes. The fox in the cemetery was the only one I'd ever seen in the wild, and it was so exciting. Thank you for sharing your story. I've heard of a Russian scientists who selectively bred foxes for tameness, and it actually changed their appearance! (They looked like small black dogs.) I'll have to do that up in a hub and link it to this one. :)

    • profile image

      jules 4 years ago

      hi there CR Rookwood yw:) aww that sounds wonderful yes that will be great:) they are lovely :) it was lovely seeing him or her up so close we always hear them but never see them as such was a nice experience:)

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