June 11, 2010
Blind Fox Is Foster Dad to Orphans
Mentors on ways of the wild to ready them for release
by Julie Hauserman
A few years ago, wildlife rehabilitater Laura Nirenberg agreed to take custody of a young, wild fox because he was blind and could never be released back into the wild. She planned to use the fox in her work educating people about wildlife.
What she didn’t know then was that the fox, now named Freddie, would transform into something remarkable: a foster father to orphaned baby foxes who come through her rescue organization, Wildlife Orphanage, Inc., in La Porte, Indiana.
Accident Alters Destiny
Freddie has no eyeballs, and state wildlife authorities told Nirenberg that he might have poked his head out of his den while a farmer was spraying pesticides nearby, but no one knows for sure what happened to the little fox baby.
Nirenberg took Freddie in, and the two soon bonded. She was caring for Freddie for about a year when someone called and said they had some baby foxes who had been orphaned.
“The baby foxes weren’t eating, and they were crying all the time,” Nirenberg said. I said, “Bring them on out here, and we’ll put them in an enclosure next to Freddie and see if that calms them down.”
He ran over and started checking them for ticks, and he started digging up chicken he had buried and passing it around to them. He immediately started digging a den.
The baby foxes went into an enclosure next to Freddie—and there was a 6-foot buffer between the two enclosures.
“As soon as we put them in there, they started climbing the fence and crying. He was on his side, howling.”
Paternal Instincts Kick In
Knowing of Freddie’s gentle nature, Nirenberg and her mother—who is also a wildlife rehabilitator—decided to let the babies into Freddie’s enclosure.
“He ran over and started checking them for ticks, and he started digging up chicken he had buried and passing it around to them,” Nirenberg said. “He immediately started digging a den.
He also immediately turned them into nocturnal animals, and when I went to check on the pen in the morning, he would call them out so that I could see they were OK. Then, he’d order them back into the den to sleep during the day.
“It is very difficult to teach fox babies not to trust humans, because they imprint so quickly. But, even though Freddie trusted me, he taught the babies not to trust humans,” Nirenberg said.
When the babies were ready to be released to the wild, Nirenberg moved Freddie away from the baby foxes, to a place where they couldn’t hear or see one another. But the babies wouldn’t come out of the den for three days. Off in his other location, Freddie paced and cried and wouldn’t eat.
Leaving is the Hardest Part
Nirenberg knew that the babies were ready to be released into the wild. On a hunch, she brought Freddie back to them, and he remained in the enclosure with the babies for several days until everyone calmed down. After about a week, Nirenberg coaxed Freddie into the adjoining enclosure and closed the door. This way, the babies could still be close to Freddie, just not together.
Nirenberg and her mother then left the door open on the babies’ enclosure so that the youngsters could come and go as they pleased until they slowly acclimated to the wild.
“It took several weeks before we no longer saw signs of them returning to the inside of the cage,” Nirenberg said. “I know they remained in the area and stopped in to see Freddie throughout the winter, as evidenced by the prints and the toys, chews, and bones that we saw.
They were all set free in Freddie’s territory, and I like to think they still come home to show Grandpa the grandkids!”
Since then, Freddie has fostered six orphaned foxes, all of them a bit older than the three-week-old babies he started with. All of the babies were rehabilitated and released back into the wild. Freddie’s partings with the babies have grown less painful, Nirenberg says. Somehow, she says, he accepts his role as foster parent.
Nirenberg works closely with The HSUS on Indiana wildlife issues. "She’s amazing with all she does for wildlife," said Anne Sterling, Indiana state director for The HSUS. "I actually had the pleasure of meeting Freddie about a year ago and was so touched by the way that he cared for the orphaned foxes. I'll never forget it!"