Is a rabid fox ‘a really good sign’ for the city?

A rabid fox bit a young mother on the leg this week as she crossed a road in Northwest Washington’s Rock Creek Park.

Tuesday’s attack was bad news for the fox, which was later captured by D.C. animal control officers and put down, and for the victim, who has to get a series of rabies shots.

But it was good news to city officials, who saw it as confirmation that the District’s environment is improving, making it more inviting to wildlife, even an occasional sick one.

“It’s actually a really good sign,” maintained Najma Roberts, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Health, which oversees animal control. “When you look at areas that are filled with pollution — not a lot of trees and grass, and garbage everywhere — there is less wildlife.”

The District, it turns out, is not just a hot spot for overeducated 20-somethings, charcuterie enthusiasts and bicyclists but also foxes, city officials said. They don’t know how many urbanite foxes there might be. Unlike deer, the District’s fox population has no one keeping close tabs. But anecdotally, they appear to be thriving, as evidenced by the torrent of stories about fox sightings and run-ins that residents relayed on neighborhood e-mail discussion groups and on blogs after learning of the attack.

The woman who was bitten described it this way on an online forum for denizens of Mount Pleasant: “I was crossing by the bridge (Tilden?) at the end of the little trail down the hill behind Ingleside when a little fox attacked my ankle and wouldn’t let go. I had the baby in the carrier in front and couldnt see very much, but I eventually managed to get him off of me just as Animal Control happened by. I am not sure if they caught him. He looked really sick and I’m still not sure why he came at me or from where but keep a look out.”

The woman told animal control officers that she was walking in the park with her baby in the afternoon when the fox approached from behind. She didn’t see it until it bit her right ankle, the report filed with the Health Department said. The fox ran; the victim called animal control, then flagged down an animal control van that was driving by, the report said.

Residents along a block-long stretch of Rosemont Avenue NW that dead ends into the park said they later saw an animal control van parked at the end of their alley, close to the woods, in the area where the fox was eventually caught.

The attack has left some residents wary of the creatures, which are about the size of large cats. Some Crestwood residents suspect foxes are to blame for unexplained cat injuries and fatalities, and they’re keeping their felines indoors at night.

Christina Ryan, who has worked in the neighborhood for 20 years, wondered if foxes were responsible for the disappearance of rabbits, which she used to see regularly. Others welcomed foxes because they believe they keep deer with Lyme-disease-carrying ticks at bay.

But urban wildlife experts said these are all misconceptions. John Griffin, director of Humane Wildlife Services, part of the Humane Society of the United States, said dogs or other larger animals are much more likely to attack cats. Foxes don’t keep away deer. And as for disappearing rabbits, “rabbit populations fluctuate pretty widely from year to year,” he said.

Griffin, who said his service gets about 20 to 30 fox-related calls a year from across the region, took issue with District officials’ assertion that the presence of a rabid fox had anything to do with the size of the population or the health of the environment. He said warm winters could just as easily explain a spike in numbers. Higher temperatures ensure that more young survive.

Scott Giacoppo, a spokesman for the Washington Humane Society, said suburban sprawl could be driving foxes into the city.

“Foxes don’t know the District boundaries,” he said. “For all we know, these are Maryland or Virginia foxes.”

But fear not, Giacoppo and Griffin said. Foxes are ideal city dwellers. They like the anonymity of city living: When they see people, they run away. They prefer small quarters. And best of all, Griffin said, “they really do eat a lot of rodents.”

Urbanites should enjoy the chance to live in close proximity with wildlife, Griffin said. And that is the attitude many have in Crestwood, where there are at least three dens nearby. Dog owners said they see foxes daily, darting along 17th Street or Blagden Avenue around dawn or dusk.

A few residents feed them, which wildlife experts warn against and which irks neighbors who fear foxes may attack their pets.

Others, such as Debra McDonald, delight in the sight of kits frolicking in the grass. She posted a picture of some on the neighborhood Web site.

“We need to practice a little tolerance and patience with them,” Giacoppo said. “We are forcing them to live in our world. They don’t want to be with us. If they had their way, we would not be around.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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