Pat’s Wildways: Treats at the ARK

By Pat Foster-Turley

Anyone who knows me by now knows that I love animals, especially members of the order Carnivora, i.e., cats, dogs, otters, and, now, foxes. The ARK in Hilliard is now collaborating with SaveAFox to give nearly 70 red foxes a new home where they will at last be able to touch the ground, and dig, and play with toys and have lots of other experiences they never had in small wire cages where they were kept on a fur farm in Minnesota.

Geralt (reddish) and Pepper (speckled grey) spent their life on a Minnesota fur farm and now can dig holes in the ground to their heart’s content.

Housing this many foxes in different groups is a massive undertaking, but Jonathan Howard of the ARK recently accepted the challenge. He already has prepared enclosures for 32 of them, and about 40 more are expected soon. These foxes have beautiful coats—bred for their pelts that were expected to become clothing for people. After their restricted life in small cages, they are mostly timid, afraid of their new digs, and are just now beginning to trust Jonathan and his group of volunteers. Of course, I had to see them!

Felony the otter figures out how to tackle a live blue crab.

So, one day last week, I stopped at Lofton Creek Seafood to buy live blue crabs for the ARK otters, then stopped at Aldi’s for dog treat meat-like sticks. Since foxes are canids like dogs, I thought maybe the foxes would like these too.

Jonathan and I had fun distributing these treats to his charges. First, we gave the live crabs to the three otters in his care. They don’t get live crabs often and haven’t yet learned how to disable the claws before messing with them. Well, they learned this day. After a few squeals when a crab claw attached to their paw, they all then made quick work of them, crunching through the hard shells with their strong jaws and happily consuming the innards. It was a fun day in the otter pens!

Geralt (reddish) and Pepper (speckled grey) spent their life on a Minnesota fur farm and now can dig holes in the ground to their heart’s content.

Then, on to the foxes. So far, the new foxes are kept in family groups in a number of chain link pens on natural dirt and grass. These beautiful animals are now in a happier place. Although their paws have flattened, and they walk on their heels due to their life on wire mesh, they are starting to recover a natural gait, and it didn’t take these newcomers long to dig in, literally. Their pens are now full of holes they have constructed, like their counterparts would do in the wild. With fencing eight feet deep in the ground, they won’t escape and can dig to their heart’s content. Since I am an official volunteer with Jonathan and have filled in all release forms, he let me enter one of the pens. The foxes tentatively approached me, sniffed the treats, and then kept coming back for more. The treats were a success! I can’t wait to come back with more for them.

Nutie, the nutria, enjoys a dog treat.

And, of course, I had to visit Nutie, the nutria, again. Whenever I visit the ARK I always enter his pen to scratch his back. He chortles at me and then rolls over so I can scratch his belly. Nutie, a super-sized rodent, is a smart critter with lots of different vocalizations and, aside from the otters, of course, is my favorite animal at the ARK. This time, I had a dog treat with me. “Would Nutie like it?” “Who knows, give it a try.” Nutria are vegetarians, but that didn’t stop him. I handed him a beef stick, and he eagerly grasped it in his flexible paws and set to work chewing on it like a cigar. How fun. Nutie was so involved in this unexpected treat that he didn’t even notice when I left his pen. Okay, Nutie, next time I’m bringing more for you too.

But the bobcats were another story entirely. Sure, they are felids, not canids, but who knows? I thought they might like dog treats, too. Well, they did, in their own way. I pushed a beef stick through their chain link pen, and one of the pair took it in his mouth, then dropped it on the ground, sniffed it, and peed on it. His mate came over and sniffed the spot, too, and when I finally left, they were both rolling on it in ecstasy, it looked like. I’ve heard that big cats like the smell of Calvin Klein Obsession. Maybe I can find some and try it next time!

The bobcats enjoyed a dog treat in their own way.

Behavioral enrichment, like live prey and special smells, is important to the mental well-being of captive animals. Jonathan always thanks me when I arrive with treats, but really, I always thank him more for the opportunity. It’s a win-win for all of us and for the animals especially.

If you want to help Jonathan in his mission to give a good life to once-mistreated animals, contact him through the website above or check out the Ark Wildlife Care and Sanctuary Facebook group. I’m sure you can find your own way to give him support too. These foxes are an expensive and massive undertaking, and Jonathan can use all the help he can get!

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D. is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]