Nature up close: A red fox family in Yellowstone

A quiet moment for a female red fox and her kits.

By "Sunday Morning" contributing videographer Judy Lehmberg. 

Many of the stories I write in this space come from my background in biology, generally information about a specific species. But occasionally I want to share what I've learned about individual animals I've gotten to know. Because I am both a wildlife scientist and a filmmaker, I spend hours and hours in the field watching animals, sometimes the same individuals for days. Over the years I have come to realize how unique animals are, with their own distinctive personalities, likes, dislikes, and quirks.

One such example is a red fox family I got to know fairly well several years ago when they decided to build their den and have their kits,  in a very public place: under a large Douglas fir tree right next to the Yellowstone Picnic Area on the north side of Yellowstone National Park. From a photographer's view point, it was almost as if we had put up a sign in fox language reading, "Free home to any fox family who doesn't mind having us photograph their every move"! A pair of foxes took us up on that offer and moved in.

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A male fox (left) had just brought a couple of squirrels to his mate.

You might think that since there were right next to a picnic area they would become habituated to humans and learn to beg for food. Surprisingly that didn't happen, but we never had the foresight to see was what actually did happen. They knew we were there, but they went about their foxy business as if we didn't exist. We kept a respectful distance from them, they understood we meant them no harm, and everyone was happy, especially the 50+ photographers that snapped their pictures every day for about ten days.

We first became aware of their presence when we saw the male digging for a ground squirrel across the road from their den site. That fox knew exactly where the squirrel was. It would repeatedly dig furiously, stop, listen carefully, and then dig some more. At one point it tore a large sagebrush out of the ground, tossed it aside and kept digging. He was on a mission. He finally emerged from the hole, looking quite proud, with a mouth full of ground squirrel and triumphantly crossed the road. It was then that we saw his mate and two of the cutest little kits I've ever seen.

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The kits spent the majority of their time playing.

From that moment on we were there every day for hours recording their every move like proud grandparents. They had a routine. The vixen and the month-old kits hung around the den while the male went hunting. Every few hours he came back with a mouth full of several ground squirrels and gave them to the female.

The kits were still nursing but they used the squirrels in their tug-of-war games. Occasionally the female left for a little while, presumably to go hunt, but only when the male was there to babysit. The kits didn't care whether their mom or their dad was there, although they did seem more respectful of their dad. They climbed all over their mom, but they usually kept a little distance between themselves and their dad, who was rather aloof.

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The female playing tug of war with one of the kits.

On the tenth day a badger suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Badgers have a reputation for being fairly tough, and this one probably had kits to feed as well. The male was out hunting but the female was there. She and the badger fought. The kits went into their den and it was obvious the female was trying to keep the badger away from the den. Every time she lunged and bit, the badger lowered its head and took the brunt of the bites on the back of its head. A little blood was visible, but the badger was determined. The fox fought hard but the badger got into their den. The vixen stared down into the den and dug around the opening, but it was obvious she didn't know how to get the badger out, and the male wasn't there to help. We all had visions of the badger down there killing the kits.

We stood there quietly for about 20 minutes and hoped for the best. After what seemed like hours, the badger came out and then, miracle of miracles, the kits emerged untouched. We don't know this for a fact, but we believe the badger was down there eating their stash of ground squirrels. The female fox and the badger fought again, and again the badger went into their den, but this time the kits stayed above ground.

That evening the female dug a new den about 50 yards to the west of the old one. The old one had at least two exit holes; the new one was shallow, and only had one opening. The next day, when the female had been without food for over 24 hours she left to go hunt. She had never left the kits alone, but I assume her hunger overcame her caution. As soon as she left the kits went into the new den. Then a few minutes later the badger emerged from their old den and went to the new one, silently disappearing down the only entrance/exit hole. There was suddenly dead silence from all the photographers. We knew a second miracle wasn't likely. After what seemed like a long time the female fox returned. She immediately knew the badger was in the new den with her kits and she began to dig, and dig, and dig. The badger finally came out and quickly disappeared. There was no fighting. It just left. The female went down the hole and after a minute or so came out with the small remains of one of the kits.

Then she did the most remarkable thing. She put the remains on the ground and slowly walked around in a circle pushing dirt over them. She was burying her kit.

That's when I lost it.

She did such an unbelievably human-like act. I'm purposely avoiding the use of the word "anthropomorphic" because I don't believe in that word. Of course, humans do things similar to other animals, especially other mammals who we are most closely related to. If we all evolved from common ancestors, it makes sense that we have a bunch of things in common, including the way our brains function. I've watched wolves mourn the loss of one of their pack, bison females mourn when their baby is stillborn, and many other examples of animal feelings. Do I think they grieve the way we do? I don't know. But I do know they show some of the same behaviors we would exhibit in similar situations.

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Several times, some big horn sheep stopped by to watch the foxes.

Judy Lehmberg is a former college biology teacher who now shoots nature videos.    

       
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