Bright Future for Orphaned Kits
He had noticed her stealthily sneaking into an insecure outbuilding in his yard and thought she might be making a den, based on the time of year. It was spring, and time for wild animals to give birth to their young. Since her presence there was not going to interfere in his life, he decided not to dissuade her from moving in. He liked foxes.
Days later he was shocked and saddened to find the body of a female fox laying on the highway near his property. She had been hit by a car. It was obvious to him that she was lactating at the time of her death and his mind raced back to his outbuilding. Was this the same fox he had seen taking up residence at his property? Had she already given birth? And if so, what condition would the kits be in?
Quickly he ran to investigate and found 6 tiny kits sprawled on the shed floor. They were still alive. He wasn’t sure what to do so he called us. We wanted to confirm that these were her kits and not another family and so he set up a game camera to watch the kits for 24 hours to see if their mother returned. When she did not, we knew this family belonged to the dead vixen on the highway. He scooped them up into a box with blankets and delivered them to us.
And so, began our relationship with a very special litter of red foxes requiring many hours of care and dedication by a team of volunteers who always had their best interests at heart. These little bundles of fur weighed just over 100 grams each when we got them, and were easily recognizable as red fox kits due to the white tip on their tails. They were only days old as several still had the umbilicus attached. They started their lives tragically by being orphaned so young and now we were taking over for their mother. Our journey involved trials and tribulations and many rewards. Most importantly, it provided us with valuable lessons on how to raise a litter of infant foxes to maturity and how best to prepare them for release back into the wild.
In a perfect world that mother fox would never have left her newborn kits. She would stay with them exclusively for two weeks as they would be unable to thermoregulate and she would spend her time nursing them and keeping them warm. She would rely on her partner or other female adults in her group to bring her food. Perhaps her partner had been killed or separated from her. Perhaps she was an inexperienced mother and was unhappy with the den she gave birth in. They usually have several dens prepared which are normally underground dens and not abandoned sheds on a cement floor. Whatever the reason, the kits were completely dependent on her for sustenance and they needed rescue!
In order to mimic the care they would have received from their mother we placed the three male and three female kits in a heat-controlled incubator with fleece blankets. Using specially formulated fox milk formula we started them on a feeding program whereby they were syringe fed with mammal specific nipples. This was done every three hours beginning at 7AM with their last feeding at 10PM. The amount of formula was based on their weight so that each kit was on their own feeding program. After each feeding, we also stimulated the genital area with a damp tissue to encourage urination and defecation, as their mother would have done by licking the area. This is a very important step in their care as they are unable to toilet on their own for several weeks.
Their weights were monitored every morning to confirm they were gaining weight. Sadly, one of the males was having difficulty feeding and was failing to thrive. He passed away after a few days. We tried to console ourselves that this may well have happened in the wild and was not a reflection on the care we were providing.
The five remaining cubs were thriving and gaining weight every day. We were able to switch from syringe feeding to bottle feeding and they adapted well to the nipples. Since mother foxes feed their young from the standing position, we tried to mimic that by standing them up against some rolled up towels forcing them to stand and reach as they would in the wild. This likely helped with their digestion as well.
By three weeks of age, they were down to five feedings a day and were still gaining weight and thriving. As our manuals on foxes indicated, this was the time when they would have started moving around inside the den so we set up an area for them to leave the comfort of their heated cage to try their legs out. This is also the time that they start to viciously fight with each other in a sort of dance to establish dominance. It was quite hilarious to see 400-gram fox kits with little or no teeth viciously fighting with each other for brief periods of time before they collapsed in exhaustion. Still the majority of their time was spent eating and sleeping.
In the wild, the mother would have started the weaning process by four weeks of age. This would include her feeding them partially digested food by regurgitating it into their mouths. We introduced dishes of ground chicken carcasses including ground bones and organ meat to mimic what she would have fed them. They were also given pieces of deer meat and bone to suck acquiring a taste for the things to come.
Because it was still very cold outside, preparations began to set up an indoor enclosure for them. Research was done on enrichment ideas and different types of “furniture” we could use to keep them engaged and exploring. Their room included a den for sleeping, trees to climb, rocks to jump on, hollowed out logs to sleep in, a kiddie pool full of leaves and grasses and twigs to roll around in and a noise machine that played soft sounds of nature. The articles were changed and rearranged several times a week to allow for new experiences. This is considered the most carefree time of their lives as the hierarchy amongst the cubs had been fully established. They loved exploring their new world and took comfort in their cozy den for naps. You could easily loose yourself watching them through the viewing window of their enclosure as they stalked and chased one another and imitated hunting and fighting techniques. Their play and behaviour were almost puppy-like which lead us to our next challenge.
Because we had to be so hands-on with their feeding, they were starting to bond with the few people who were involved in their care. Personally, I did everything in my power to try to discourage this. When feeding them their bottle, they would try to lock their eyes with mine but I intentionally looked away and also shaded their eyes so they would look in another direction. Certainly, they were missing the cuddling, nuzzling and signs of affection from their mother but they had to get that from each other and not us. They were like little puppies striving for affection but we would be doing them a huge injustice to give into that instinctive pull to bond with them. They needed to stay wild in order to have a successful release into their natural habitat. It was important not to even use your voice in their presence because that would contribute to possible imprinting on humans.
The next few weeks we continued to enhance their enrichment and expand their diet to include food they would eventually be hunting on their own. It was also at this time that we reached out to established and experienced Red Fox Rehab Groups for advice and suggestions on how to provide enrichment and discourage imprinting. The Canid Project based out of Louisiana and the Fox Project in the United Kingdom were ready to provide guidance and ideas on all fronts. They were primarily dedicated to fox rescue, rehabilitation and release so their body of scientific evidence and discovery were very valuable to us. It is important to Wildlife Haven to keep current in our policies and procedures and always be willing to enhance or upgrade our protocols.
Their diet was designed to prepare them for the tastes that they would be hunting and eating in the wild. Fortunately, we had deer meat and bones and goose meat that had been donated to us. We also offered organ meat, chicks, rat, native fruits such as blueberries and apples as well as some vegetables. Typically, their diet consists of 95 % meat, 4% insects and 1% fruits and vegetables. They are opportunists and will eat roadkill and whatever else is available to them. As their teeth started to emerge, they found enjoyment in the solid foods that we fed them. It was interesting to watch them cache food after they had eaten their fill. Rat heads and ground meat were found stuck inside tree branches or under leaves and you could actually watch them use their noses to bury these caches of food. Eventually, they were getting more satisfaction out of the solid foods and started to wean themselves, often drinking only part of their bottle or none at all. By six weeks of age, they were fully weaned and this coincided with a wild fox kit’s development. This not only signalled their strength and maturity but also was an important step in their independence as we no longer had to handle them for feeding.
The temperature outside was warm enough to move them into their outdoor enclosure. We had hastily prepared the enclosure as we had just moved to our new facility and the floor of the cage was several inches of hard packed gravel with the wire caging extending at least 12 inches deep along the sides. Our previous enclosure had caging on the floor as well. Sadly, we were very surprised to find that the entire litter of fox kits dug out of their enclosure one night and escaped! They had dug down past the 12 inches and found a spot where the cage was bent and they were able to squeeze out of this tiny hole. We were all devasted and immediately set up live traps, hoping they would return when they were hungry. Over the course of several days, we were able to live-trap three of the five kits and moved them into another enclosure with a cement floor and impossible to dig out of. Over the next few weeks, we continued to keep fresh food in the live traps in hopes of catching the remaining two kits with no luck. However, they were seen playing together in the area many evenings so we are hoping they were able to survive on their own at the age of 12 weeks.
Our focus returned to the three remaining kits and continuing to provide them proper nutrition and growing enrichment. We ordered several hundred live crickets that we put into a kiddie swimming pool filled with leaves and grasses and they enjoyed that afternoon hunting and eating the crickets. They also had a sandbox with food hidden inside so they could practise digging. Fresh spruce bows were provided for shade and climbing. Containers hanging from the ceiling with bungee cords provided a challenge for them to remove any food inside by jumping or climbing up to grab it as well as hiding food inside of various dog toys. We tried anything to made them think and experiment to find food.
Our kits were growing strong and beautiful and because of their enhanced diet were perfect specimens of health. Now our thoughts turned to preparing them for their eventual release. Since these kits did not have the opportunity to be coached by their mother and father on hunting and survival techniques, they were at a disadvantage. As their parents would have done, we provided them with live prey inside their enclosure so that they could practise hunting and killing and to recognize these as food sources. Live chicks and mice were offered and they caught on very quickly. This is called live prey training.
Research showed that other Wildlife Rehabilitation Centres across the world recommended soft release instead of hard release. This would give these hand-raised kits the best opportunity to adapt to the wild world they were going to live in. Hard release is simply releasing them into a natural habitat. Soft release entailed finding a suitable habitat that we could set up a temporary enclosure for them. We would continue to provide food and water daily and once they became acclimatized after about ten days, the next step would be opening the door to their enclosure so that they could leave. We would then provide them food outside the enclosure and monitor their behavior with trail cams to see if they returned for food. It was even possible that the foxes would simply run away and not return for backup food. We had no way of knowing but we made the commitment to try.
Fortunately, our original presenter offered us the use of 40 acres of vacant wooded land near where they were found so they were returning to their natural habitat. This land also backed onto a wildlife management area so it was pristine wilderness that could easily support wildlife with many more acres of vacant land around it. We were able to construct an enclosure on site and transported the foxes out to live in the wild inside their new enclosure with daily food and fresh water. A camera was set up to watch their behavior and as the days passed, they obviously were beginning to get used to the sounds and smells of the wild. When I arrived to give them fresh food, they hid quickly away from me which was a new behavior. It was the kind of behavior I wanted to observe. The camera revealed they were very active at night, running around their enclosure and chasing each other, eating and also trying to find a way to escape. I cut down branches from wild plum and apple trees ripe with fruit and they knew how to help themselves. They also continued to cache any extra food in holes they dug inside the enclosure.
After ten days, I made the decision to leave the door open to their enclosure. When I left that morning, I took a good hard look at those three fox kits. I felt confident we had done everything we could to prepare them for release and I also knew I may never see them again. It had been almost six months since we rescued them and now the rest was up to them. Cameras showed that they stayed in their enclosure all day and when night fell, they ate their food and played, and when they noticed the door was open, they ran out.
The next evening, I set food outside the enclosure and aimed the trail cam at the food, hoping to see them return. The camera revealed that my first visitor was a very large black bear who only sniffed around the food but was not interested in rats or eggs. And then it happened. First one red fox and then another and soon all three were scavenging around the food pile and running and chasing each other. The following five evenings they returned on their own or in pairs and ate and cached the food. They were interrupted by a large skunk one night and I noticed that gradually not all the food was being taken by the foxes. They were obviously only supplementing their diet with the food I left out. Soon only one returned and only took the eggs and eventually there was no action at the food pile for several days. I took this as a sign that the foxes were successfully hunting on their own and it must have tasted better than what I was offering. The last few nights a female fisher and her cub enjoyed the food. It was time to shut down the soft release site.
We know that a red fox’s average life span in the wild is 2-4 years. My hope for our foxes is that they are able to continue to hunt and feed themselves throughout the winter and that when spring comes, they have the opportunity to breed and raise young of their own. Our contribution to their future provided them the opportunity to succeed! Thank you to all the donors and sponsors and the team of volunteers and staff that made this journey possible.