by Ryan O’Connor
I grew up on Prince Edward Island. As a youth I heard stories of the once-booming silver fox industry, which brought considerable wealth to the province in the early 1900s. While fox ranching has long since ceased, one need look no further than the provincial armorial bearings, adopted in 2002, for a reminder of its former significance.
Red foxes are native to the woods and fields of Prince Edward Island. (The silver fox is a rare mutation of the red fox.) Despite spending countless hours exploring the Island’s outdoors as a youth, I only spotted a fox once before moving out of the province to attend graduate school. I still recall that moment. I was in grade ten, and was taking my dog for a walk. We were cutting through a nearby wheat field when I spotted the fox leaping through the rows. It was majestic. Over the next few days I mentioned my sighting to a number of friends and family members and, for the most part, they shared stories of the rare time they too spotted foxes.
Much has changed in the past fifteen years. Fox sightings are now commonplace, even within Charlottetown. Whereas foxes once avoided human contact, they now venture up to parked cars, presumably looking for food. Likewise, their kit can be found playing alongside popular city walking paths during the early summer.
The increased visibility of the province’s fox population is startling, particularly given its rapid occurrence. At the root of the problem is the recent introduction of the eastern coyote. It is believed that coyotes first entered the province in the late 1970s, having crossed the Northumberland Strait during the winter. While the two animals enjoy the same habitat and enjoy many of the same food sources, the much larger coyotes, which typically weight 30 pounds but have occasionally grown larger than 50 pounds, have driven the foxes into the human sphere.
What happens next? Some Islanders fear that coyotes may pose a threat to their children and pets, and therefore want to see the coyotes culled. Biologists have argued that placing a bounty on the animals will not be effective, and that Island residents will have to get used to life with coyotes. By extension, Islanders will have to get used to the new position of foxes.
This past December I was visiting my family on Prince Edward Island. One day, as I drove between the communities of Bonshaw and Cornwall, my car hit a fox that was running across the highway. I felt awful. Furthermore, the strike caused significant damage to my car’s bumper, so the next day I took it to an autobody shop. As I explained what happened one of the employees laughed and said “I wish you’d hit a few more of them. Those foxes are all over the place!” Looking back at this statement I can’t help but wonder if we’re seeing a shift in the public conception of foxes. Are these beautiful creatures on their way to becoming considered public nuisances?
Ryan O’Connor is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at Trent University. A historian of Canada’s environmental movement, he maintains a research blog at www.thegreatgreennorth.com.