As of Friday, more than 260 of my neighbors had responded to the video and 85 had left comments.
“What a wonderful distraction!” one person wrote.
“So refreshing to see at this difficult time when we are so stressed!” another wrote.
In the video, taken from my backyard, three fox kits are playing near a neighbor’s deck. Two wrestle, rolling and shoving into each other with their gray fur and black paws. The third (an apparent introvert) glances at them and decides to stay clear. She, or maybe he, sniffs at the ground and then retreats under the deck.
It’s a sweet 16-second scene, and I was glad that many of my neighbors found some joy in it, especially during this time when that’s harder to come by. But my family has seen foxes in our yard before, including one I wrote about after its mysterious death, so I didn’t give the sighting much thought or consider why I felt compelled to share a video with people I have never met on a site I rarely use.
I only started thinking more about that — and calling experts to discuss what is happening with wildlife in this region — after I saw another animal video uploaded on that same site a few days later. That one was titled “Beaver sighting” and showed a large animal swimming in Four Mile Run near a park in Arlington. That post also drew more than 175 responses and exuberant comments.
Across the world, there have been unexpected sightings of animals that are now venturing into new places as people stay inside to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus that has caused a global pandemic. Washington Post foreign correspondent Terrence McCoy wrote an article that captures some of the surprising sightings: boars in Barcelona, goats in Wales, a mountain lion napping in a tree above a normally busy street in Colorado.
Wild animals in the Washington region have no doubt also noticed quieter streets with fewer wheels on them to dodge. That has probably caused some to grow bolder and venture out farther than they might have otherwise.
But conversations with local wildlife experts point to other reasons people in this area might be seeing more wild animals than they have during past years — and those reasons have less to do with those animals than with us.
“People are out and about at times of the day they weren’t out before,” Jennifer Toussaint, the chief of animal control at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, says when I call her. “They were sitting in an office somewhere, so they didn’t notice that three deer come through their backyard at 11 o’clock each day.”
Animals spend years creating set paths that they follow to stay safe, she says. They probably haven’t changed their routines, but people have. And as a result, people are now getting to see what has always been happening around their neighborhoods.
They are also, as a result, helping to save animals.
Toussaint says animal control officers in Arlington have been able to successfully release animals and send additional ones into rehabilitation because people are finding them in distress sooner.
Several days ago, one animal control officer responded to a call about a raccoon stuck in a bag in a trash can. When the officer arrived, she removed the raccoon and discovered two baby raccoons had also been trapped.
Another call this month involved a fox kit that was found under a car with its head stuck in a peanut butter jar. The resident who found the fox put on thick gloves and removed the jar, Toussaint says. Toussaint checked the fox, gave him fluids and reunited him with his mom and dad, as foxes co-parent.
That call was received about 10:30 in the morning. Toussaint says if no one had been home at the time, and no one had seen that fox, he would have suffocated.
Bill McShea, a Smithsonian wildlife ecologist who uses camera traps to study animals in the area, describes the Washington region as rich with wild animals that are good at staying hidden.
“They just usually, except for the squirrels and rats, keep to themselves,” he says. “This is the chance to see who we are sharing the world with, and that is an upside to this whole thing.”
Another upside, he says, is that people are now paying attention in a way they weren’t before.
“We’re staring out and watching the woods and watching the birds,” he says. Before, he says, we were rushing past. “We were too busy to see it.”
That’s true. But what is happening now also goes beyond that. We aren’t just noticing animals more. We are also seeking out more to see. We are worrying about the humans in front of us and marveling at the creatures around us.
“Viewership of the webcams at the National Zoo is up about 1,000 percent,” says Brandie Smith, the zoo’s deputy director.
What that means is that millions of people across the world are clicking on the zoo’s webcams to watch elephants, pandas and naked mole rats go about their days.
“People need this right now,” Smith says. “I think in times of stress, people need moments of joy and beauty and awe.”
Just as watching the news can cause us to feel stressed, she says, watching animals releases hormones that can make us feel happier.
“You’re not imagining it,” she says. “You’re actually feeling better.”
On the zoo’s Facebook page are several videos of animals, along with the hashtag #NatZooZen.
One of those videos has received more than 9,000 likes and has been shared more than 3,000 times.
It shows a Madagascar hedgehog tenrec taking a dust bath. I’ll admit that I have watched it more times than the video of the foxes I posted on Nextdoor.
I might have also clicked on another after that.
And then another.
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