Friendship between a woman and a fox leads to transformation in 'Fox & I'

Fox & I: An Uncommon Friendship, by Catherine Raven
Fox & I: An Uncommon Friendship, by Catherine Raven
Spiegel & Grau

In an isolated mountain valley in Montana, Catherine Raven and a wild red fox meet, take each other's measure, and gradually become friends.

This summary of Raven's nature memoir may seem to hint at a simple story. On the contrary, “Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship” is a multi-layered exploration of a world in which humans honor rather than dominate nature.

The very antithesis of a fox-taming tale, “Fox & I” tells us that, nearly wherever we live, we are surrounded by wild animals who make thoughtful decisions and experience joys and sorrows on their own terms. This fox, called Fox by Raven, made a considered choice to relax outside Raven's house and share his trails with her.

“Fox & I” takes us out of a relentless focus on the human-built world in ways that invite compassion for nature. The book is described as enabling readers to experience animals in a new and marvelous way. But there are times when Raven decides that an animal, person, or practice isn't worthy of her admiration — and compassion becomes thin on the ground.

Raven's friendship with Fox takes on extra meaning given her life history. As she describes it: "A long time ago, I had arrived at the prudent and logical conclusion that when your own parents don't want you, no one else will. So I had been living a solitary life." And later adds: "I might have a week without seeing another person, but contact with a slug was all I needed to keep from feeling alone."

After holding park-ranger jobs in national parks and earning her PhD in biology, Raven bought and built on land in the high-altitude desert of Montana, close enough to drive into Yellowstone National Park to teach field courses there. Fox, a runty yearling, showed up one afternoon and riveted his gaze on a fly probing a scab on Raven's knee. "Stopping within a length of my arm, he rolled his eyes to meet mine... I'm not sure I expected anyone to have such kind eyes, but certainly not him," she writes.

Raven conceived a plan to prolong Fox's attention, pulling a small rock out of her pocket, then some seeds and feathers. It worked. Fox became a regular visitor. Raven read to Fox, too; fans of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's “The Little Prince” will find extra enjoyment in these pages.

Initially, Raven worried whether it was wrong to interact in such ways with a wild animal. When she next went to Yellowstone to teach, that unease multiplied. "My students did not believe that humans and wild animals shared personality traits," she writes. They could conceive only of Raven's making Fox her research subject; he could be a data point — but not her friend. Faced with this narrow thinking, Raven lied (her word) to her students. She left their views largely unchallenged, and told them Fox would surely be gone by the time the course concluded and she returned home. In fact, she enjoyed Fox's distinct personality, and she had been driving home each night to check on him.

Isn't it the responsibility of teachers to introduce students to fresh ideas, and to grapple alongside them with uncertainties? Raven seemed to think that animal-behavior scientists inevitably decry as bad anthropomorphism any attempt to acknowledge animal emotion, so that she has to defy science to honor Fox. Yet works by animal behaviorists like Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal, Carl Safina, and Marc Bekoff have for a long time now described the expression of emotions by animals in detail; my work does too. A world of science sits at the ready to support Raven's belief in Fox's expressions of a complex self.

That complexity emerges compellingly in the narrative as Fox matures, fathers kits, and expresses his caring for Raven's friendship more and more directly. Fox sometimes stands looking in the windows for Raven, while avoiding other humans who come near. The two mammals play games together, including an adaptation of the game "chicken" in which Raven and Fox rush at each other and see who yields first. Raven never won. She had previously protected Fox from the chase of domestic dogs — but now, she writes, "The game leveled the power in our relationship; I lost some, and he gained some."

At one point, thinking Fox was dead — though soon to discover he wasn't — Raven visits his den and finds "a wonderland of natural art objects, funnily arranged as if to be aesthetically pleasing." These objects range from a snakeskin to an elk scapula. This archaeology of the other-than-human world is exciting to read.

But in some parts of the book, harsh certainties dominate where some nuances would be welcome. Raven is taken with "unboxed" animals, the ones we humans don't confine or leash or, worst of all, "own." (She's unbothered by zoos, though.)

Raven creates a binary. "When you spend time with your pets, they become more like you. When I spent time with Fox, I became more like him," she writes. But a relationship with a domestic cat or dog can be beautifully — and mutually — transformative, as well as loving.

Of her own hunting, Raven writes: "I shot that mule deer in the dawn following a full moon ... I sliced the buck from sternum to pelvis, yanking out the lungs with two bare hands." Whatever my personal feelings about hunting are, I don't make the mistake of confusing subsistence hunting of the type she does with recreational trophy hunting. But I do question the way in which she valorizes Fox's hunting and demonizes that of feral cats. By her own descriptions, both animals' hunting methods cause violence to their prey. For Raven, though, Fox's hunting is natural and the cat's is morally repulsive because cats are recent arrivals, unnatural to the landscape. Rather than expressing frustration at humans who have caused cats to become feral, she expresses her hatred (her word again) for the cats. While Fox merits the pronoun he, a feral cat is relegated to the pronoun it; she describes one hunting cat as "a putrid mass of fur and rotting claws."

Raven dislikes magpies, too, at least sometimes. For that matter, she dislikes a lot of scientists, and harking back to her college days she describes "Gibbous-bellied professors with lips like duck beaks" who "scuttled around a courtyard muttering nonsense."

Whether this scornful tone adds to or detracts from the book's message will be an intriguing point of discussion for readers.

What happens in the end with Fox, I won't reveal here. It's enough to say that Fox profoundly changed Raven's sensibilities and her very life; she opens up about him to her students, and makes major life decisions — and enjoys non-solitary activities in ways that flow directly from Fox's gifts to her.

Though at a remove, Fox's exuberance for life left his emotional mark on me, too. Through conservation policies, we should offer to wildlife as much protection as we can muster from the human push to build on, and consume on, all the land in sight.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist emerita at William & Mary. Her seventh book, “Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild,” was published in March. Find her on Twitter @bjkingape

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