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Desperate Foxes?

Abundant suburban foxes not a cause for concern, officials say.

Sometimes they come into Chuck Sizer’s backyard, their reddish coats glistening in the sun as they snoop beneath birdfeeders eating seed. And while the presence of foxes disturbs some people, including some of Sizer’s River Falls neighbors, Sizer feels otherwise.

“Not me, I’m not worried about them,” said Sizer, who has seen his cats chase away a fox in his yard on more than one occasion.

Foxes have become more prevalent in suburban areas throughout the country in recent years, said Bill Hamilton, a Wildlife Ecologist with Montgomery County ’s Department of Parks.

“[Foxes] have been present in suburban areas for many years,” said Hamilton, but the animals have become more prevalent as human development has reduced their natural habitats. The foxes are drawn toward human activity, Hamilton said, as pet food provides an easy meal, and vacant structures such as sheds can be used for dens.

Foxes feed on berries, insects and small mammals such as mice and rabbits, Hamilton said. He exercised caution, not panic, when dealing with them, as healthy foxes rarely pose a threat to humans or their pets.

“Foxes are very curious, but generally they are fearful of humans. That being said, they are a wild animal and people should keep their distance from wild animals and keep a wide berth,” Hamilton said. “They can attack if they’re fearful, [but] in general if a human gets too close to a fox it will run.”

ON JUNE 4 a rabid fox in the Potomac Falls neighborhood was reported to Montgomery County’s Animal Control, who responded and caught the animal in the 10700 block of Stanmore Drive, said Suzanne Mullen of Montgomery County Animal Services. Mullen said that tests confirmed that the animal was rabid and subsequently it was euthanized.

Rabies is most commonly found in racoons and bats, said Leslie Sturges, Park Naturalist at the Locust Grove Nature Center in Cabin John Regional Park. Because of the way the disease is transmitted - typically through bite wounds - it can also be found in foxes and coyotes.

The symptoms of rabies include staggering, apparent disorientation, an inability to drink water, excessive salivation and hyper-aggressiveness, Sturges said.

Hamilton said that reports of rabid foxes are rare; the last time that Hamilton was aware of a rabid fox being found in the area was in the mid-1990’s.

While foxes are nocturnal animals, seeing one in the daytime is not necessarily indicative of the animal being rabid, particularly during the spring and summer, said Ken D’Loughy, the regional manager for the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Services, a department of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“Typically people see a fox out during the day and automatically assume there’s something wrong with it and that’s not the case,” D’Loughy said. The spring and summer months are when foxes give birth to litters of new foxes, so the new parents spend extra time, including the morning and daytime hours, foraging for food for their youngsters.

THOUGH NOT yet prevalent in large numbers in the Washington, D.C. area, coyotes are spreading to suburban areas throughout the country. Coyotes, said Hamilton, are more of a threat than foxes.

“If you’re in an area where coyotes are located, people want to take precaution to protect their pets … and their children,” said Hamilton. Cats and small dogs are potential prey for coyotes, which until recent years were indigenous mostly to the Western United States. Coyotes still aren’t nearly as common to the East Coast as foxes are, Hamilton said, but are growing in numbers.

“I’m not familiar with anywhere in the county now where we haven’t had at least a few,” said Hamilton.

Though coyotes are generally fearful of people, they are more likely to attack pets or very small children.

“They prey on just about everything,” Hamilton said. That includes small mammals such as rabbits, mice, raccoons — and scavenging dead roadkill. “They’re opportunistic feeders. It’s one of the reasons been so adaptable to human environments.” Hamilton said that under normal circumstances a coyote is not usually a threat to people.

“I saw a coyote in my backyard last fall,” Sizer said. Sizer said that he wasn’t disturbed by the animal’s presence. “I went looking for my camera.”

UNLIKE COYOTES, healthy foxes pose little to no threat to humans, Hamilton said.

“I’m not aware of any threat to pets,” said Hamilton. Altercations between healthy foxes and pets are likely to be territorial in nature, not predatory.

Still, people who see foxes running through their neighborhoods are often frightened and are sometimes driven to attempt to trap the animals.

Trapping foxes out of season and without a license is illegal in the state of Maryland, said D’Loughy. However, there are a number of private trapping services that people can call.

“These people are in business and do charge a fee for their services,” D’Loughy said. Animals caught by these trapping services, including healthy, non-rabid animals, are killed, D’Loughy said. A state law prohibits relocating animals to different locations to prevent the spread of diseases within the species, said D’Loughy.

Sizer said that those who seek to have the animals trapped are overreacting.

“There are a lot of people, probably your hysterical types, who are concerned about foxes,” Sizer said. He is not among that crowd. Living as close as he does to the Potomac River and to C&O Canal National Historical Park, Sizer said that fox sightings should be expected and should not be cause for alarm.

“I see them all the time, this place is filthy with foxes,” Sizer said. “They’re not wolves; they’re usually pretty skittish, I’ve noted.”