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Appearance of this sickly fox alarmed Orillia residents in north ward

Death will become a merciful release for this 'almost blind wobble of a very weak and sickly animal'
2018-07-08 Tomasini fox for hawke.jpg
This photo, courtesy of Chris Tomasini, shows a fox with mange. It was photographed at Couchiching Beach Park earlier this week.

As I write this, and certainly by the time you read it, the subject of today's column will likely be dead. I hope so, as a suffering animal is a pathetic thing to see.

Our case today is that of the skinny fox, the urban street-wandering critter that looks like it was pulled through a knothole backwards. What fur remains is matted and askew and where fur once was is but a red rash of infected skin. It has caught the attention of many residents of Orillia, especially when it tottered into Couchiching Beach Park.

First reaction is usually, "Oh poor thing, looks like something's wrong with it". Second reaction is often, "Ew, don't go near it. It's sick!" And, occasionally, there is a third reaction, "Hey, somebody should do something!". My reaction is, "Well, here we go again".

Is something wrong with this particular animal? Yes, indeed there is. The behaviour is not of an urban fox or raccoon alertly prowling your backyard in search of mice or other yummies, no, it's the almost blind wobble of a very weak and sickly individual.

To "not go near it" is wise advice. Whatever is afflicting this fox could be rabies, distemper, or simply grievous injury from being hit by a car... you just don't know and should therefore display a goodly amount of prudent caution.

Then we get to the "somebody should do something", which has a range of interpretations from shooting it to rescuing it, or at least advising the neighbourhood of its presence. Should the animal be aggressive then an official and possibly lethal response may be necessary. But today's fox is not aggressive, just kind of odd that it's wandering around in mid-day and looking so very rough.

Of the pictures I've seen of it there appears to be a good case to be made in calling this mange, or fox scabbies. Loss of fur, raw skin patches, and weak condition all add up to a common but nasty situation of mange.

Itchy mange in dogs and foxes is officially called sarcoptic mange, a skin disease caused by a little parasite called a Sarcoptes scabei mite. These mites are tiny indeed, called microscopic in the literature I'm reading. But they are there of course, and as they burrow into the outer skin they set off an overpowering urge to scratch and scratch and scratch. With enough scratching the fur is dislodged and the skin tenderized, making a welcome mat for more mites to hop on board.

The mites love it when two or more animals den together, making the jump from one to the next quite easy. This year's fox kits are currently dispersing from the home base, but a few still hang out together. And so the condition spreads.

The itching not only reveals the temperature-sensitive skin (burns in the sun, shivers at night), but keeps the animal awake 24/7. Sleep deprivation is a very debilitating condition, and when combined with lack of food (who has time to hunt patiently when all you want to do is scratch?) the animal is on a steady and downward spiral to death. No food and a weakened body allows for any number of other parasites (tapeworms, roundworms) or bacteria to charge in and claim the body.

Dogs, cats, foxes, squirrels, and coyotes all get mange, each having their very own species of Sarcoptes mite to do the nasty work. Humans can also pick up these itty-bitty hitchhikers, but other than a skin rash we get off comparatively easy. The good news is that this condition is treatable if under the guidance of a veterinarian.

The treatment, however, takes four to six weeks of constant daily application of salves and medicines. That's okay if Fido is used to being handled, but not okay if Todd the fox is a wild animal.

And so... "somebody should do something".  There are a few wildlife rescue and remediation centres scattered throughout the countryside; some specialize in reptiles, another one takes in bears, a couple centres rescue owls, and a few tackle mammals. But this is not a perfect solution.

Most (all?) of these centres are funded by donations and while their hearts are big their budget is small. Really small. As in if you work there you volunteer there. If you feel that they have to be called in to save the day, may I suggest, strongly, that your call is followed up with a hefty financial donation. Fair's fair.

Back to our sickly fox. There comes a point when even good medicine can't reverse a bad situation. Starvation, dehydration, and loss of body functions are the end game of a mange infestation. Death becomes a merciful release. This is a real thing in the real world of wildlife.

Personally, I think it's a hoot that foxes, coyotes, skunks, owls, squirrels, and many bird species have adapted to our human structures and ways. But now we get to see, up close and personal, that wildlife is seldom pretty all the way through.