The Thrill is Gone, or what to do about Peppie, the Problem Fox

Peppie_the_foxPhotographers of differing skill levels, from occasional snapshotters to internationally known professionals, stalk icons. That should contribute to the proof that there’s a least 1001 ways of seeing the same thing. The more difficult quest is not as much for adding another image to our collections, as it is to see, and to show, the subject from a different perspective, or, to use the cliché, in a new light. On Prince Edward Island the most frequently hunted icons include lighthouses, particularly the one at Covehead, sandstone cliffs and stone formations such as Elephant Rock and Teacup Rock. Some photographers can’t pass the fishing village of French River without stopping and pointing their camera out the window. Some get out and stand by the road’s edge. They go to the wharf at Malpeque because of the way the boats tie up there–bows pointing out towards their lenses.  Province House is on the list, as are a multitude of farms and fields and lupins and heritage roads in autumn. And fox.

sylvester_foxBack in 2009, when John Sylvester’s work was published in Wild Island, he didn’t see a fox every day and he had to be patient. Especially patient in waiting for the instant when the fox leapt—a predation technique naturalists call mousing. In 2009 that was an unusual photo defining another sort of ‘decisive moment.’

Last year Dylan Roberts entered the Annual PEI Photo Club Show with “Playful Leap”—a quick shot of a silver grey fox jumping by the cannons at Victoria Park. Dylan was more lucky than patient. Sally Cole quoted Dylan in her June 10, 2017 article in the Guardian, “`I managed to snap a picture,’ says the Charlottetown resident, who won first place in the nature category for ‘Playful Leap.’”

dylan_roberts_fox

photo by Sally Cole, The Guardian

“`I was changing my (settings) when the fox started jumping, so I ended up shooting the picture from my chest. I knew that if I looked in the viewfinder I would never get it in time. I was hoping that I’d have one and, when I got home, there it was,’ says Roberts with a smile.”

Foxes are ubiquitous on the Island now. And so are images of them. Hundreds are posted on social media by folks with fox dens under their garden sheds. When the kits are born in the spring, the number of images posted increases seemingly by a factor of 10.  I know of one photographer who has given his backyard foxes names and who documents their lives like an unbridled grandparent. The animals are so ubiquitous that Riverview, New Brunswick, nature photographer Brittany Crossman comes here to shoot them. The CBC news captured the truth of the matter in the lead to its article: “Friendly P.E.I. foxes featured on National Geographic site — New Brunswick photographer finds Island foxes less shy and easier to photograph” (Shane Ross, CBC News Posted: Jan 01, 2017) The problems of climate change exist elsewhere, while nature is genial on the gentle Island.

Foxes have become so commonplace, there’s no need to hunt them. My wife and I walk the trails at Robinsons Island several times each week. This summer, two young foxes were often seen lazing about the parking lot—a parking lot usually crowded with vehicles coming and going carrying nature lovers and tourists who were taking advantage of Canada 150 free park passes. I suspect that some of the visitors fed the foxes because the foxes became nuisances. They followed the hikers. Then the Parks Canada vans and trucks were often seen in the parking lot with the uniformed folks scratching their heads.

problem_fox_II

“What are you going to do about them?” I asked one staffer.

“We’re going to get rid of them,” he said.

“How?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. Had he been reluctant to tell me an ugly truth? Or was he without an answer?

Well, they started by putting up a sandwich board warning us in both official languages not to feed the wildlife. It sported a picture of a fox in case we needed a hint.  A week or so later, the signage increased. Posters were taped to the garbage bin and tacked to the posts. It wasn’t unusual to see lots of people toting cameras, crouched in front of the foxes in the parking lot. The animals seemed to have learned how to pose.

I thought about writing speculative fiction about Parks Canada deploying “tame” foxes in a pilot study to increase tourist traffic. One of the tamed foxes was named Peppie. He was the extravert—a real poser. His sister was a tad more camera shy. So much so, she didn’t earn a nickname.

My article would have quoted animal handler, Jamie Earnscliff, a UPEI biology graduate and former employee of the provincial government when the department was known as Fish and Wildlife. But Jamie said that because this was a pilot study, he really couldn’t say anything publicly.
problem_fox

The CBC ran an article in which Paul Giroux warned the public about feeding the foxes. “`They need to be respected’: Parks Canada reminds visitors not to feed animals–Reports of an aggressive fox prompted the reminder” (CBC News, August 5, 2017) My article would have included what another staffer whose name must be withheld said off-the-record about the experiment and how it might be extended to other national parks. “Our numbers are definitely up,” she said. “We’ve never seen traffic like this before in Brackley. The trouble is we don’t know how much of it is due to open park passes this year, or the renovations made to the trail system here at Robinsons Island, or the pilot study with the foxes.” She shrugged her shoulders. “There are just too many variables,” she continued. “Four, if you factor in the weather, but that’s a stretch.”

When I pressed her about expansion of the experiment, she said possibilities existed for introducing tamed foxes at Cavendish West and Greenwich. “What about other animals?” I asked.

“You mean the pet bears at Banff? You didn’t hear anything about that from me.” She gave me a stare, then smiled. “They’d have to be black bears. Grizzlies are too unpredictable, too dangerous. And the costs. Forget it.”

“But it’s on the books.” I said hoping for confirmation.

She shook her head.“You didn’t hear nothin’.”

“So, if Parks Canada sees record numbers, we shouldn’t be surprised to see prices of tickets and passes go up next year.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were doubled,” but don’t quote me on that. Don’t quote me on anything.” She gave me a frown and a pause long enough to let the frown register. “Why doesn’t anyone ask about the work we’re doing with the forests here? Haven’t they seen the cutting and the clearing and the planting? We’re bringing back the original Acadian forest.”

“You mean like the MacPhail Woods Project that started 20 years ago?” I realized my mistake as soon as the words were out of my mouth—words that didn’t make her any happier.

“Shit. I shouldn’t be talkin’ to you at all. We’re done.”

As I said, I’d have to say my piece was speculative fiction.  A week later, a much bigger sign went up. I honestly don’t know if things got out of hand, or if this was phase three of the study.  Some days the lot was so full, people were parked along both sides of the road along the cause way.

Back in the days when John Sylvester was rewarded for his patience, I had wanted to take a decent image of an Island Red Fox, but I’m not an icon-stalker. Let the opportunities come to me. But it was rare then that I saw a fox, and rarer still when I had a camera with me when I saw the animal. The foxes that did present themselves were wary and skittish. They hadn’t learned to pose and they didn’t stick around. As a photographer, you had to be patient and quick, and I was neither. I have to confess, I had wanted to take that different image, that different point of view to contribute to an expanding vision and countless ways of seeing the animal. I had wanted to capture an image of a fox as strong as the one imprinted on my memory one pre-Sylvester winter.

A clear, blue-sky day in January or February when the snow-covered fields seemed to radiate light. We were living in Darnley near the north shore in an old two-story farmhouse. The only upstairs window facing north was in my son’s bedroom. It was the only window in the house from which we could see the ocean. In the early afternoon, I went upstairs and happened to look out. I saw a large red fox, coming down slowly along the fence and the tree line, then approach the field beside the house. Blue sky above the thin, deeper blue line of the ocean, a red fox against pristine snow. The image framed by the window was stunning in the simplicity of its composition. Time slowed long enough to register as a moment. I was alone, as I had to be, because moments like this don’t happen when you’re not alone.  How much does the strength of such a moment, such a vision, lie in the fact that it is unshareable, unlike a painting or a photograph.

Now, when fox photos are as common as construction sites and roadway flagmen in July, I’m not so interested. Pedestrian should replace ubiquitous as the descriptor. So what does it mean when I drive out to Robinsons Island, park in the lot, and there’s Peppie the problem fox posing in front of the car? What does it mean when the fox is in my face?  I’ve learned to carry a camera most of the time, and there was only one thing preventing me from shooting Peppie from the driver’s seat. Dirt on the windshield. I grabbed the camera and got out of the car. Peppie didn’t move. I was alone, as I had to be. This is so not right, I thought to myself. “Hurry up,” Peppie seemed to say. “Because, you’re so boring, I’m going to lie down and go to sleep.”

I took a shot. Definitely not an iconic image; Tourism PEI wouldn’t want it. Think of it as a “revenge” image. A failed revenge image. What’s become of nature conservation? This is so not right. Like setting up beach umbrellas in times of tsunamis.

I remember a story I’d heard from the wife of a moose hunter. Every fall her husband, Todd and three of his buddies went to a hunting lodge in Newfoundland. They spent big bucks to an outfitter to get in by float plane. The idea was that they’d have five days to hunt, which was really five days of guy-time together in the woods. They wanted to bag a moose, but the animal was really an excuse to take time off, to get away and to enjoy each other’s company. One year they invited Jimmy. Jimmy wasn’t an experienced hunter and he’d probably never held a high-powered rifle before. Jimmy was also a very early riser. They flew in to the lodge site, carried in their gear and supplies, settled in and Jimmy was given rudimentary instruction in the handling of a bolt-action 30-06. The next morning Jimmy was the first one up, and as the mist was rising from the surface of the lake, he saw the moose through the picture window. If the lodge could have been said to have had a front lawn, that’s where the moose was standing.  Less than 15 meters from the front porch. Jimmy grabbed a rifle, checked to make sure a cartridge was in the chamber, just as he had been taught, stepped out onto the porch and shot the moose. The shot woke the others who scrambled out of their beds. They came down and looked out at the dead animal, steam now rising from the carcass. “Jeezus, Jimmy,” said one of them. “Fuck,” said another. “What,” said Jimmy, rubbing his shoulder. “Does this mean the holiday is over? Shit, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

Is the holiday over? Is that the meaning of the fox? One night Peppie the Problem Fox came to me in a dream—the kind of dream that replays itself over and over as though it’s trying to get it right and push on through to resolution—a borderline nightmare. The first time Peppie spoke, he said, “People have lost their totems.” He spoke without words being uttered—a fox language that surrounded the animal and emanated from it, like an energy. During another recycling of the dream, he said, “Who are you to call me the problem?”

Summer is officially over and the number of park visitors is declining. With intimations of cold weather, there are times when the parking lot at Robinsons Island is empty. And Peppie is not always to be seen. Yesterday, as I returned to the lot having completed my walk, I saw him sitting on the road at the entrance. An approaching SUV had stopped beside him, and the driver had lowered his window and was leaning out taking photos of the animal with his phone.  Peppie was sitting on my side of the yellow line and fortunately there was enough room for me to drive around him. He looked at the driver of the SUV, and then he looked at me. He wasn’t about to move.

Last night he returned in a dream and in fox language he said, “It’s time to wake up. I’m here. People notice but they’re not noticing. They see but they don’t see. Not like in the time of the ancestors.” As far as I can recall it, this dream was not cyclical, just a fragment among a collection of seemingly unrelated images from elsewhere. He returned. “Don’t you think it’s time to wake up?”

6 am. It was, and I did. But I don’t think that’s what Peppie meant.