May 28, 2012 / 12:47 PM / 5 years ago

Is he Fantastic Mr. Fox or a dangerous city pest?

LONDON (Reuters) - Button and Tawny, two furry fox cubs abandoned by their mother, huddle in the corner of their cage at the Fox Project in the southern English town of Tunbridge Wells.

If all goes well the British charity that rescues injured and sick foxes from urban areas will eventually release the two cubs into the wild.

As a new television programme on urban foxes finishes on British TV, the debate over whether urban foxes are dangerous predatory pests or harmless woodland animals whose presence enhances urban life has heated up.

Fox Project Director Trevor Williams told Reuters the two cubs are part of a much-maligned population of creatures vilified in the UK media by reports of attacks on children and pets, raising fears that foxes are a growing urban danger.

Williams - who has been working to dispel myths about the red fox for more than 30 years - says splashy headlines in the British press warning that foxes attack babies and carry off kittens and other precious pets are overexaggerated nonsense.

“I wouldn’t say that occasionally people don’t get nipped by foxes,” said Trevor Williams, director of the Fox Project. “But we’ve rescued 8,000 foxes in the time we’ve been going and I’ve never been attacked by one”.

In June 2010, the British press reported that a fox allegedly attacked nine-month old twin girls Lola and Isabella Koupparis as they slept in their cots in east London.

Pest controller Bruce Lindsay-Smith told Reuters that problems with foxes are real and growing more serious.

“They are becoming more of a nuisance because of the greater numbers of them,” he said.

But there is no scientific evidence of an upsurge in urban fox population. A new census conducted for TV show “Foxes Live: Wild in the City”, which aired three episodes in early May, estimated the current urban fox population at 40,000.

If there aren’t more of them, certainly pest controllers and plenty of urban residents feel the foxes have become bolder in recent years as they scavenge for food.

Digging in the garden, leaving faeces, raiding dustbins, and the vixen’s shrill mating call at night are the fox’s calling cards. Fears for the safety of children and pets in light of fox attack reports have divided public opinion.

“There’s tons of them around here. They open up the bins a lot, but we’re not bothered by them,” south London resident Sheila Redfern told Reuters.

But Kay Taylor, a resident in the same area whose garden is frequently visited by a family of foxes, is not so keen.

“I hate them. They poo everywhere and they scream a lot at night,” she said. “I used to like them when we first moved in. When they’re cubs they’re all cute. But it’s been five years, and we’re bored of them.”

Foxes became common in British cities in the 1940s, as rapid urban development expanded into the countryside. They adapted well to residential areas with back gardens providing shelter, prey, unsecured dustbins and sometimes human handouts.

Some troubled homeowners call in pest controllers like Lindsay-Smith, who said he kills around 1,700 to 2,000 foxes a year.

Since trapping a fox and releasing it elsewhere is illegal, “the best thing to do is to humanely dispatch it by using firearms and shoot it in the head,” Lindsay-Smith said.

He spends many nights patrolling golf courses and cricket grounds shooting foxes with his rifle, and claims to have never missed a shot.

John Bryant, a wildlife expert who runs the Humane Wildlife Deterrence Association, blames the pest control industry for maligning the image of urban foxes.

“No one’s ever been killed by a fox, that’s for sure,” he said. “But pest controllers, they make money out of killing foxes, so they’re going to exaggerate the dangers of foxes.”

Bryant, who advocates humane deterrence of wildlife, calls the pest control industry a “disgrace”, pointing out that Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) does not consider killing foxes a solution to problems.

“Territories made vacant by culling resident foxes are rapidly colonised by new individuals,” wrote Jill Tytherleigh from Defra’s Customer Contact Unit in an email.

Instead, Defra advocates using non-lethal methods to keep out unwanted foxes by employing fencing, chemical repellents, and removing sources of food and shelter.

While some homeowners try to keep foxes away from their children and gardens others are just as happy to feed foxes, seeing the beasts in the same sympathetic light as the amusing fox family in the 2009 Hollywood film “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, starring George Clooney and based on the story by Roald Dahl.

Encounters between man and fox often prove more dangerous to the furry red canine than to the human. Sid, a young dog fox rescued by the Fox Project, was hit by a car and sustained a back injury and two fractured toes.

Others are not so lucky. Each year 100,000 foxes are killed by cars, the leading cause of death among urban foxes, according to The fox website (www.thefoxwebsite.org/).

Experts maintain that attacks by foxes are extremely rare. The risk of being injured by man’s best friend is much higher, with Bryant saying that more than 6,000 people are hospitalised by dog attacks every year in the UK.

“I‘m always very amused when people say we’re being overrun by foxes in London,” Williams said. “Because there’s 5,000 foxes in London, there’s 175,000 cats, and there’s several million people. So who’s overrunning who?”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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