Story and Photographs by Melissa Groo
This past spring, in upstate New York, I had the opportunity to photograph a family of wild Red Foxes at their den. The den was located under a shed in a suburban backyard, and the homeowners granted me permission to set up my pop-up blind in their yard, about 50 yards from the shed. Though they knew full well that I was in the blind, this fox family seemed pretty accustomed to human presence, and they went about their lives without appearing disturbed by me. This is of paramount importance to me when I photograph a wild animal, as I seek to capture behavior that’s as natural as possible, and I never want to disturb or endanger my subjects.
Over the course of about a month, I traveled to my set up whenever I had a free moment, spending hours in my blind; I always left wishing I could stay longer. I was fascinated by the relationship dynamics among the family members, and enthralled by the playfulness of the kits. I counted 6 kits at first, guessing they were roughly 2 months old. I was struck by how much they acted like puppies, which is no surprise, as foxes are members of the Canidae family. The kits roughhoused constantly, rolling and tumbling over each other. As time went on, their playfulness had an edge of ferocity, and their interactions became more adversarial. They honed their hunting skills by stalking one another around the tree trunks and shed corners, and familiarized themselves with prey by proudly carrying around the bodies of star-nosed moles and squirrels that their parents had brought back for them.
I was surprised to discover that it was the father, not the mother, who almost constantly attended the kits. The mother was around very little. Of course, she would have spent the first 4-5 weeks of their lives holed up in the den with her kits, constantly nursing. From what I have learned, this is commonly the exchange of labor that occurs among Red Fox parents. The father’s main preoccupation, besides keeping a keen lookout for threats posed mostly by neighbors’ dogs that came too close, was meticulously grooming the kits. They would endure it for brief moments but then struggle to get away, or to distract their father in play.
When either parent returned from an absence, even if brief, the kits put on a slavish display of devotion and excitement, leaping all over the parent. The more exuberant welcomes were often met with disciplinary snarls and nips by the father, and in response the kits would literally grovel, baring their teeth, and putting their bodies close to the ground in submissive gestures.
Sadly, by the end of my time with these foxes, only 3 kits were left. This is the harsh reality of the life of a red fox, whose average life span in the wild is 1.5 years. I know that a busy road nearby claimed the life of at least one kit. Cars are a major cause of death, as well as coyotes, disease, and humans who have misconceptions about foxes and shoot them, or trap them for their pelts.
I look back on this opportunity and feel very fortunate that could spend so much time observing and documenting the natural history of this fox family. I think there’s a lot to be said for really “working a subject,” as some photographers call it, for staying with a story and seeing it through. What you learn about the animal by watching for so long helps one to be a better predictor of animal behavior, which of course aids in creating richer images. And it opens up a whole world of discovery about an animal that, although charismatic to many, is also misunderstood by many. I hope that my photographs can help to educate people about the intelligence, benign nature, and close family ties of this species.
For more of Melissa’s work, check out http://melissagroo.com.