Animal Spirits & Totems: The Fox
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.
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.
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.