Monday, 24 March 2014

Cunning Foxes and Wily Coyotes

Lately I’ve been enjoying a film and a book, very different in character yet united by a common theme. The film is the animated comedy ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, directed by Wes Anderson and based on the story by Road Dahl. The book is called ‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver, and although it’s a novel it cleverly integrates a lot of science, in a way that it always remains a part of the story rather than as an ‘expository lump’. I’m not a scientist, but Kingsolver is, and in this book one of her main characters is concerned with the role of predators in ecosystems. She studies coyotes.

This character, the aptly named Deanna Wolfe, tries passionately to explain to her lover, a farmer who hunts coyotes, why predators are more important to an environment than prey animals. In an ecosystem, there are relatively few ‘top predators’, such as bears and wolves, but lots of prey animals, from deer to mice and squirrels. Shooting most or all of the local top predators can have devastating effects beyond the loss of a single noble species, because the prey animals then multiply. Squashing spiders causes flies to increase; killing foxes can cause a plague of rabbits that eat the farmer’s carrots. The increase of the top predator’s natural prey can also crowd out other species, causing their extinction. Often we cannot predict the effects of wiping out a predator population, but it will nearly always cause problems for a previously stable ecosystem.

Deanna has written a thesis which attempts to explain why the wily coyote, despite being the ‘most despised animal’ in the United States, killed in hundreds of thousands every year (a horrible statistic), actually increases in numbers when it’s hunted. Something happens to their breeding. It may be that when their population is under threat, all of the females in a pack start to breed, instead of just the alpha female. Or perhaps something hormonal causes bigger litters. Either way, the efforts of farmers to protect their lambs seems to make the problem worse. Mothers, fathers, pups are killed for nothing – except for money: the annual ‘coyote bounty’.

This got me thinking about foxes. Here in a UK, a lot of people love foxes, but a lot of people hate them. This hatred and distrust has been coded in tradition (partly through ritualistic and cruel aristocratic ‘sport’) for centuries. They kill our chickens! farmers rage. They raid our wheelie bins! townies complain. This hatred is pointless, because there’s nothing to hate; it’s just a focus for people’s frustration, a scapegoating. In a touching scene in ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, Mrs Fox (rather sexily voiced by Meryl Streep) asks her husband, “Why did you lie to me, when you promised you’d never go raiding the farmer’s birds again?” Mr Fox (a characterful George Clooney) replies regretfully that he doesn’t know. “I’m a wild animal”, is all he can say. And of course, that’s right. How can we hate an animal for doing what it can’t help? Foxes just do what they do. They can’t make a choice to do something else.

In the British countryside and towns, foxes are the top predator. They are often called pests by angry homeowners, but they are not pests. By preying on rats, mice, even insects, they help keep down pest numbers. They do us a great service. True, they also kill birds, just like our lovable moggies do. But the RSPB insists that the decline of garden birds has more to do with our own effects on the ecosystem than with predation by cats and foxes. As so often, foxes are scapegoated for our own failings. 

Going back to the fictional Deanna’s thesis, I wondered if foxes also breed differently when they’re hunted. Who knows? – it may or may not be. But when culls have been tried in the past, they’ve always failed. Killing foxes in towns costs a lot of public money (which surely we can ill afford), yet despite the killings, foxes maintain a fairly stable population. Numbers don’t increase, but they stay roughly the same. It seems that foxes from the countryside or other town areas simply move into spaces left available by cullings, glad of the opportunities provided. Foxes are a wonderfully adaptable species, and we punish them for that adaptability, viewing it suspiciously as cleverness, slyness or cunning. Once again, this is scapegoating; foxes are too like us humans, the most adaptable mammal species on the planet. And we make them pay – but for nothing, it seems, than enjoyment, sport or revenge. Yes, some predators can be wiped out, and their loss is devastating beyond their extinction as a single species. But foxes’ numbers remain the same; coyotes’ actually increase. By killing them, we cause blood and suffering, and the starvation of cubs, all for nothing.

‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ ends with the foxes and other animals, having been persecuted throughout the film by the farmers, making a new home underneath a supermarket owned by the same farmers. Adaptable to the end, they have lost their home in the hill under the beautiful tree, but have made a new life where they can raid an unlimited supply of food every night. ‘Destroy’ them in one place, and they pop up in another. Mr Fox is fantastic indeed!

There’s no question whose side the film is on. It celebrates the wit, the audacity, the adaptability, and the cunning, of the fox. As we should do. And that goes for the wily coyote as well. We may have to put up with nuisances from both species, but hating them is just silly, and we need them too.