The foxes are at it again.

It’s hard to believe something that doesn’t come from the fifth planet of Arcturus could make such a strange assortment of noises. Rattling, choking, yipping, barking, whining, screeching — It’s like my family at dinner when I was fifteen.

I suppose the fox in the Aesop’s “sour grapes” fable must have been a gray fox, while Brer Fox from the Uncle Remus stories, obsessed as he was with devouring Brer Rabbit, must have been a red fox.

Apart from the nocturnal squabbling, they’re elegant things, foxes: dainty legs, fluffy tails, intelligent little faces. The ones I see around here are mostly gray foxes, more properly known as Urocyon cinereoargenteus (as opposed to the larger red foxes, Vulpes vulpes) — although the scientific name seems a bit overwhelming for such a delicate beast. They eat just about anything, from voles and small rabbits to seeds and large insects; they especially enjoy fruit, which distinguishes them somewhat from the red fox, which is more consistently carnivorous.

The females of both species are called vixens, male foxes are called — well, foxes, and the young are called kits or cubs.

In our language and culture, the fox appears in a wide variety of roles:

  • A fox is a beautiful woman, while a vixen is a woman who is both attractive and unscrupulous.
  • Librarians, book collectors and art curators refer to something being foxed when it has developed yellow or brown stains.
  • The fox is synonymous with cleverness — someone who has been tricked by someone smarter and more devious is said to have been “outfoxed”.
  • To fox a shoe is to repair or cover the upper with a separate piece of leather, possibly to conceal damage or to hide cheap materials.
  • “Fox” is a common surname, usually originating with a family or individual with red hair, or a devious nature, or both. Names such as Voss, Foss, Reynard, Volpe and Zorro all are names meaning “fox” in various European cultures.
  • While the coyote is the archetypal trickster in many Native American traditions (Navajo and Hopi, for instance), in many others (such as Ponca and Algonquin) he plays the part of the “straight man” to the fox, falling victim again and again to his cousin’s sharper wit.
  • In Korean folklore there is a story of the Fox Empress, a fox whose mate is killed by one of a pair of brothers after the foxes play a practical joke on the boys. The vixen goes to China and becomes the Empress, expressly for the purpose of luring the boys into a situation where she can kill them: one of them realizes just in time that the Empress’ gloves are concealing paws rather than hands and kills her first: despite the failure of her plot, you have to admire an animal that can put together a scheme like that.
  • In Babylonian/Sumerian myths, it’s the fox who goes and fetches the earth goddess Ninhursag when the fertility god Enlil is dying and needs her help; but in Finnish folklore when the virgin Aino drowns herself (rather than marry the ancient Vainamoinen) and a messenger must be chosen to carry the news to her mother, the fox is rejected as untrustworthy: she would eat the chickens and the ducks.
  • The most prominent fox in Greek myth is the gigantic Teumessian fox, sent by the gods to punish the city of Thebes. The Teumessian fox was fated never to be caught, but was eventually laid low by the use of a magical dog names Laelaps, who was fated to catch everything he chased: faced with this clash of unalterable destinies, frustrated Zeus simply turned both beasts to stone.

I go could on and on (I usually do) but I think you get the point: the fox is one of those totemic animals, like the lion, the eagle, and the wolf, that play a very large role in myth and culture all over the world. Wherever foxes occur they are hunted, poisoned, fenced out, or driven away, yet they appear again and again in religious texts from the epic of Gilgamesh to the Bible, and the fox in all our languages almost always represents intelligence and ingenuity. Like my hero Bugs Bunny, the fox is the anti-hero who prevails not because of his great size or strength but because he’s smarter than his enemies. We revere the lion for his size and strength, but smart money is always on the fox to win when the story gets complicated.

The male African lion spends 20 hours a day napping. Three of the remaining four hours he spends milling around aimlessly, peeing, defecating, fighting, or mating. The rest of the time is used for eating food that he is unable to provide for himself: male lions are too bulky and slow to run down prey, and too showy to sneak up on it. Females do all the hunting, and males simply take food from them, or scavenge off the kills of smaller predators. The fox may be small, but at least he’s capable of bringing home the bacon.

I like foxes, for much the same reasons I like Bugs Bunny: for me, it’s all about the underdog, the mouthy smart guy who succeeds against bigger and meaner enemies by relying on his brains. This is a role model that we’ve moved away from in modern culture, turning instead to Rambo and Thor, the American Eagle, the Russian Bear, the Asian Tiger, the triumph of brawn over guile — of plowing straight ahead, guns blazing, teeth bared, claws out — over invention and skill.

There don’t seem to be any winners or losers any more: all that matters is scoring the points. Roaring the loudest, having the biggest mane, even stealing the most food: these are the things we seem to value, the things we reward with our attention, our loyalty, our money, our vote. Yet, for all that noise, the world doesn’t feel like a better place. War, poverty, hunger, disease, ignorance — none of these problems have collapsed, quaking in fear, before the lion, the bear, the tiger; in fact, they seem to be making a comeback, slipping in under the claws and fangs. I can’t help but think we may just be doing it wrong.

Maybe it’s time for the lion to go catch up on his beauty sleep, and let the foxes run things for while.

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