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Foxes

By noon the New York Timesman was tipsy on bootleg champagne. His necktie was long gone, and he found himself stumbling up an endless flight of stairs. The whole scene was too much. Since stepping off the train in Miami two days ago, January 14, 1926, he'd been pulled and prodded and peppered with figures and facts and canned quotes by a trio of public relations men assigned to follow him everywhere.

The Biltmore, they told him, was not only the most elegant hotel in the world but also the tallest structure in Florida, rising 315 feet above the glorious new city of Coral Gables. The Biltmore tower, they explained, was modeled on the Giralda Tower of Seville, and designed by the same architect responsible for Grand Central Station. The Biltmore swimming pool, they remarked more than once, was the largest in the world.

A banquet for 200 visiting dignitaries took place on the first night of the grand-opening festivities. The public relations men sat on either side of him pointing out New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, golf great Bobby Jones, and various members of the Chicago Grand Opera Company. These last guests passed around a tuba, tooting it with gusto. All had come down from New York on a specially chartered Miami Biltmore Special in world-record time: 36 hours, 23 minutes.

The second night, after a formal inspection of the new hotel, the public relations men accompanied him to a black-tie dinner dance and fashion show, featuring three orchestras, a fox-trot competition, and fifteen of America's hottest fashion models. A riot nearly broke out as 3500 would-be guests were turned away from the hotel. In brash disregard of Prohibition, gallons of Scotch were consumed, along with platters of sea trout and pheasant. Stepping out for a smoke with his three handlers, the Timesman observed a woman fall headlong into the swimming pool from an imported Italian gondola. The imported Italian gondolier, smoothing his mustache, jumped in after her. The public relations men laughed nervously.

In the morning he gave them the slip. For a while he wandered the hotel grounds with a half-full bottle of champagne, dodging stray polo and golf balls, and scribbling a few desultory notes. The thought of climbing the hotel tower seized him like the answer to a riddle.

Sweating and dizzy at the top of the tower, the Timesman noticed a scene on the greenery far below. Men and women on horseback ambled about in the red and black garb of eighteenth-century huntsmen. One of the riders blew gingerly into a curved horn, which produced a high-pitched, farting squawk. Servants struggled to hold back a pack of dogs on tangled leashes. After an expectant pause, the lid of a wooden box flapped open with a bang, and a rust-color blur moved toward the tree line at the border of the golf course. The dogs went berserk.

The Timesman yanked a pair of opera glasses from his trousers pocket, spewing spare change over the edge of a low parapet. He held the glasses up to his eyes and the fox leapt suddenly into focus. He could see it running pell-mell around a dense stand of pines beyond the second fairway. Just out of sight of the hounds, the fox stopped, doubled back on its own trail for approximately 100 yards, and burrowed under a flat rock. The hounds, braying idiotically, ran past the fox's hiding place and into oblivion. The horsemen followed.

Just before vomiting against the parapet, the Timesman screwed the opera glasses up to his eyes and saw the fox emerge from under the rock, lick its fur thrice, and trot toward Miami. Through the glasses, the fox's snout appeared to curl in a grin.

At least that's the way it might have happened. Fox hunts did take place at the Biltmore in 1926, as at least one photograph illustrates. (The Florida land boom collapsed a few months after the hotel opened, bankrupting the first in a procession of unlucky Biltmore owners and dooming all further fox hunts.) That some of the foxes used in the Biltmore hunts escaped to the encircling Coral Gables pineland seems probable. And chances are good that the Biltmore foxes were of the species vulpes vulpes, the red fox long prized by Continental and American houndsmen and imported across state lines to star in the ancient blood sport. At any rate, no record remains to tell where the Biltmore foxes originated.

For decades Coral Gables residents have repeated the genteel history of the Biltmore fox hunts. They've also reported seeing descendants of the Biltmore foxes in the predawn light, slipping through yards and parks. The legendary flavor of the Biltmore fox stories was reinforced in the early 1980s when a lone and elusive fox took up residence in the then-vacant hotel, as though returning to an ancestral mansion.

 

Local scientists and state wildlife officials say residents of Coral Gables are probably mistaken when they stubbornly claim to have spotted red foxes descended from Biltmore escapees. What the startled citizens are actually seeing, they suggest, is the native Florida gray fox, whose thin salt-and-pepper fur is tinged bright orange around the belly, upper legs, and neck. The red fox - larger and better-known cousin of the gray - has the widest-ranging habitat of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere, but South Florida remains one of the few places it officially does not exist.

The difference of opinion illustrates how little is actually known about the natural history of foxes generally, and that of South Florida foxes in particular. Archaeologists and historians aren't certain, for example, that red foxes even lived in North America prior to their importation from England by Southern planters sometime around 1750. Zoologists are fairly sure that the red fox had expanded its range into south Georgia by the turn of this century, and two studies published in the Journal of Mammology in 1959 and 1969 show reliable sightings of vulpes vulpes first in the Florida Panhandle, then, sporadically, as far south as Orlando.

Biologists and government game officials point out that they know of no red fox ever being captured or killed in Dade County. Yet they concede there is an outside chance red foxes have finally arrived at the peninsular tip of America, either through natural range expansion or the haphazard forces of trapping and importation from other regions.

After observing and handling scores of foxes in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties over a period of fifteen years, urban wildlife trapper Todd Hardwick says he's convinced the Gables fox-spotters and the skeptical scientists are both correct. Hardwick, a self-taught naturalist and founder of a company called Pesky Critters (1-800-TRAP-14U), performs "nuisance wildlife evictions" for urban dwellers terrorized by raccoons, pythons, and other local pests. He says the fur of gray foxes he finds in Dade County - especially those in and around Coral Gables - is unusually red. Something about the restrictions of South Florida habitat or geography, he theorizes, caused four-footed refugees from the Biltmore hunts to interbreed with their indigenous gray cousins. The result, he believes, is a new hybrid fox unique to Greater Miami.

Wildlife biologists say they doubt Hardwick's hypothesis, but stop short of calling it impossible. They point out that other regions of the nation where red and gray foxes coexist have not produced a mixed strain. The very definition of "species" - a group of similar organisms that can interbreed only among themselves - militates against it. Yet there is a history of scientific argument over whether various types of foxes actually constitute separate species. And paradoxically, local scientists concede that Hardwick, a nonscientist, probably knows as much as any human about the surprising and secretive lives of South Florida foxes.

Local scientists and state wildlife officials do feel comfortable agreeing with two other Hardwick observations. Recent years have seen a slow population explosion among gray foxes. Perhaps because of it, the furtive furbearers have moved deeper into developed suburban areas, and seem to have permanently established themselves in Miami's urban core.

A decade of good health, increased numbers, and constantly diminishing natural habitat have made the gray fox far more visible to humans throughout South Florida, and the once-rare mammal is well on its way to joining the ranks of more common urbanized wildlife such as raccoons and opossums. In recent months New Times readers and staffers have made reliable sightings of gray foxes at the following locations:

* The parking lot of the 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant, near Miami International Airport's noisy south runways

* A stand of Australian pines near Sunset Drive and SW 72nd Avenue in South Miami

* The old City of Miami Cemetery on NE Second Avenue in downtown Miami
* Kendall Indian Hammocks park, two blocks north of busy North Kendall Drive
* A mango grove in the Redlands
* The Miami Springs public golf course
* The Florida East Coast Railway yard in Medley

Part Two
"People thought that commercial and residential development would kill off the fox or force him to move west into the Everglades," says Hardwick. "Instead he's adapted. Acre for acre there are probably more foxes in urban Dade County now than in the Everglades. They eat natural things like insects, birds, bird eggs, fruit, and berries, but they're also taking advantage of free meals in the form of garbage, mice and rats, pet food. Every other house leaves a dog bowl or a cat bowl out at night, and that's their favorite thing. The fox will sneak in and chow down on Purina, and then return to his den site, which in most of these urban areas is under wooden patio decks.

 

"I have a lot of respect for the gray fox," Hardwick adds. "He's my favorite of all the urban animals. He's cunning, he's one of the ultimate predators we have down here, he's stealthy, he's an extremely good-looking animal, and he's not a pain in the butt to everybody like a raccoon is, or a possum. He minds his own business. He's the only species of fox that climbs trees."

Not everyone shares Hardwick's affection for urban foxes. "There are three or four reactions," he says, describing the daily calls he gets from startled city dwellers who have encountered foxes for the first time. "First of all they want to clarify that they really did see one. They're like, `I think I saw a fox. I didn't see a fox, did I?' I say, `Yes you did.' They don't want to hear that. They feel dismayed that there are foxes here. The immediate reaction after that is fear.

"There are a lot of foxes in the Turnberry Isle area in northeast Miami," Hardwick says. "Those foxes cause me the most calls because there are a lot of condos up there, older people from New Jersey, New York, all those good places. They call up hysterical. They're demanding that their condo board exterminate all these foxes. They're filtering off the Turnberry Isle golf courses, they go right into these condo areas, scare these old ladies to death. A heavy-duty fox might weigh twelve pounds. These folks have cats in their apartments bigger than that. But they're just scared to death of them."

With the help of enthusiasts in downtown Miami, Hardwick has been tracking one gray fox who showed up to startle security guards in front of the Miami Herald building in late September. At first Hardwick thought the fox was injured and disoriented because of his presence in Miami's urban core. He later came to believe that the little fox is the leading edge of a movement.

"As soon as we realized he wasn't injured, we backed off," says Hardwick. "To try to catch him would endanger him worse than to leave him where he is. He seems to have immediately adapted, eating on the resident rodent population. That area of Miami has a huge feral cat population, and there's a lot of old ladies who go to the corners and dump out bags of cat food. It's sort of like the Camillus House for cats down there.

"I think Mr. Fox lost no time in locating those streetcorners and is feeding on all that food that's dumped out for the cats. He's got a lot of things going for him down there. He hangs out from the City of Miami police station on over to the historical museum, over to the county courthouse, then back over by the I-95 area. He sleeps under BMWs and Mercedeses during the day. That's where the most calls come in. Somebody slams their car door, and the fox darts out from the car next to them and panics them. They call up all excited and hysterical."

Hardwick believes there are now "several hundred" gray foxes living in population pockets in Kendall, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, northeast Miami, the Redlands of South Dade, several areas of West Dade beyond Florida's Turnpike, and a wooded corridor along Old Cutler Road. Groves, parks, cemeteries, and power line easements are favorite den sites. Hardwick says the fox population has bounced back from "next to nothing" in the early 1980s, when an outbreak of canine fever killed hundreds. The absence of the disease during the past decade is the most important factor in the current abundance of foxes, he thinks. Though gray foxes are highly susceptible to rabies, the deadly disease occurs rarely. Juan Tomas, who retired in June after three decades as Dade County's chief veterinarian, says the last known instance of fox rabies occurred in 1980.

"This is fox Disney World," says Thomas Goldsmith, a Dade veterinarian who specializes in exotic mammals. "Living in the city is way better than hunting in the Everglades. The fox has always inhabited the fringes of civilization. Where there are people, there are small defenseless animals. Look at Miami's urban core: you have big, stupid rats like corn-fed cattle."

"Nobody thinks twice about cats living downtown," Goldsmith adds, mentioning another staple of the gray fox's diet. "The fox is a catlike canine - in its snout, in its hunting techniques, in its social interaction. You have some animals in the world that have evolved toward different forms, and this is one of them. As long as this is a town like Atlanta - a town with a lot of vegetation - foxes will feel at home. There have been sightings of bobcats in Miami. If those things can live in the city, the fox can easily. I've even seen them trying to cross the Palmetto."

 

Goldsmith tells a tale about a captive gray fox who dug a tunnel under the wall of his pen. Every night for nearly a year, unknown to its owner, the fox escaped to hunt through the city. At dawn the fox returned to his pen to eat a free breakfast and sleep through the day. "They have a reputation for being incredibly bright, and they deserve it," says Goldsmith. "They are extremely analytical. They are not pack animals. They are solitary, except when mating.

"A very wily animal, and very adaptable," offers Lt. Armand Miller, a 30-year-veteran of the Dade County Animal Services Division, whose principal mission is picking up dead animals along county streets and highways. Though figures for road-killed foxes aren't kept, Miller says they are picked up "very seldom. But I can tell you there's a huge fox population in this county. They've taken over the [Woodlawn Park] cemetery at Tamiami Trail and 32nd Avenue. People actually go out there at night and feed the damn things! There's another family of them at the trailer park on Biscayne Boulevard and 87th Street."

Every November since 1978, the state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission has gathered data from "scent-station surveys" at twenty locations in South Florida. Tom Stice, a state wildlife biologist who conducts the survey in Broward, Palm Beach, and Hendry counties (none are conducted in Dade), explains that it involves placing a cotton ball soaked in bobcat urine atop a small mound of sand, then periodically checking the sand for animal tracks. The test was originally designed to monitor bobcats, but officials noticed from the outset that foxes were showing up, too. Although the exact numbers of fox visits aren't available, Stice says they show a rough increase in foxes on the edge of the Everglades.

Scientists say the annual scent-station surveys, unrevealing as they may be, amount to the sole attempt at systematic study of the gray fox in the region. If the American red fox is elusive, Urocyon cinereoargenteus floridanus is downright invisible. "Like the difference between a robber and a burglar," Goldsmith quips.

Thanks to its thin coat and knack for staying out of sight, the gray fox managed to avoid involvement in Miami's turn-of-the-century fur industry. Its comparative scarcity also seemed to assist its survival. When a pair of English gentlemen named Frederick Townshend and Edmund Mansfield explored the area in 1874, they reported seeing only one gray fox - and managed to misidentify the little mammal as a timber wolf. While the red fox has always held a magical place in mythology and folklore, its gray counterpart managed to avoid fame, at least in South Florida. Betty Mae Jumper, a Seminole storyteller, says the native animal is never mentioned in her tribe's stories. "I was taught by my grandmother, my mother, all the elders, and I never heard of it," Jumper says. "Seminoles don't have gray foxes in their religion."

Oron Bass, a wildlife biologist at the Daniel Beard Center at Everglades National Park, says gray foxes are also plentiful in their original habitat, and just as adaptable there. He has tracked and occasionally captured them in box traps baited with sardines and meant for raccoons, and notes that the gray fox shows up in "unusual" places. "I've found them in small hammock areas in prairies, places that are much wetter than where I would expect to find them."

Bass says he has wanted for some time to launch a study of the Florida gray fox and its adaption to city life in Greater Miami; he's still hunting for grant money. "I think there's almost nothing known about these animals, except that they occur here," Bass says. "But we don't even know where they occur. For instance, I don't know whether they inhabit mangrove areas or not. I live in the Redlands, and I see them out there all the time. They seem to be making a good living in areas that aren't natural, and I'd like to know how."

Jay Savage, a biology professor at the University of Miami's department of tropical studies, also emphasizes how little is known about gray foxes. "No one down here has done any research on the gray in ages," he says. "They seem to be doing pretty well in the city, and that's about as much as we know." Says Gordon Spratt, wildlife biologist for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission: "I don't know of any major study on the gray fox. Or minor one, for that matter."

 

Spratt says the gray fox population has been growing ever since the abolition of Florida's fox hunting season in 1972 and the institution of a ban on fox trapping. Today it's illegal to possess a fox, be it living or dead, without a special state permit. Only one trapper in Florida has applied for the permit. Spratt calls the all-out protection of the gray fox "a black day in the business of fish and wildlife management."

"Biologically it is a sound practice to trap and take fox," Spratt contends. "There were studies done at the time of the ruling showing that 25 percent of the fox population could be taken annually without ill effect - that's how quickly they reproduce. With a closed season and assuming reasonable compliance by the public with the protection law, the foxes should expand to a natural carrying level. We don't know if they've reached that level or not."

Part Three
In central and northern Florida, a poor man's version of the fox hunt lives on. At night, on private land far from any town, men gather with their favorite hounds. Sometimes the hunt plays out inside a large but tightly fenced area of woods from which the fox cannot escape. The illegal pastime doesn't involve horses, or much effort on the part of the human participants. "It's a form of activity that has come down through the ages," says Spratt, the state wildlife biologist. "Sitting in the dark around a campfire, telling stories and listening to the dogs run. Maybe drinking some whiskey."

Last year 200 red foxes bound for Florida were confiscated from a single South Carolina farm. Yet Florida fox hunters are increasingly replacing their traditional quarry with an entirely different canine. "A red fox just doesn't have the endurance for the hunt," Spratt explains. "A gray fox is a little better. But what they really like is a coyote."

"The number of coyotes has just mushroomed up here," Spratt says, speaking by telephone from Ocala. "I've been in this business 30 years, and before 1990 I had never even seen a coyote. Now we have incidents all the time, coyotes killing sheep and goats, that sort of thing. We knew they were here by the late 1980s, in the Panhandle and central Florida, from natural range expansion. But now I think the same hunters who used to hunt fox are bringing them in. Whatever the cause, one can only conclude that they're coming on fast."

Hardwick agrees. The dean of Dade animal trappers predicts coyotes will arrive in Miami within five or six years, sooner in the event of importation by humans. In many Western cities, including Los Angeles, the coyote has proved itself capable of adapting easily to urban life - and impossible to eradicate. Hardwick says he doesn't know what the advent of the coyote will mean for the gray fox in South Florida. When different species of the canine family inhabit the same locale, intense aggression is the norm.

"This enmity appears to be characteristic of interaction between foxes and other members of the dog family," David MacDonald, the world's leading authority on the red fox, writes in Running With The Fox. "It may arise because, apart from differences in their size, members of the dog family are very similar. It is a basic principle of ecology that competition will prevent two species from occupying the same niche."

Hardwick adds: "There's going to be a lot of competition for food. And it won't be a fair fight. The coyote's average weight is from twenty to 50 pounds. The gray fox is from seven to fourteen. It's hard to say, but the 1990s might be the last hurrah for foxes down here."

Meanwhile, beginning this week and continuing through early March, Greater Miami's foxes will be especially visible, mobile, and audible as mating season drives both sexes into new territory, searching for companionship. In some parts of the city, the chilling call of the gray vixen - a high-pitched, strangling scream repeated several times - has aleady begun.


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