The Black Coyotes of the South

Four hundred years ago, the forests of the Southeast came alive every night with the howls of red wolves. These beautiful creatures often carried the melanistic gene, which gave them jet-black fur. Researchers believe this was because it provided an advantage when hunting in dark, densely wooded areas during the night.

Mass deforestation, hunting, and trapping drove the red wolf to near-extinction. But, beginning in the 1950s, coyotes spread east, filling the gaps that their vanishing cousins had left in our hurting ecosystem. Today, coyotes are common throughout the Southeast, and red wolves are effectively extinct in the wild. But we can still see the legacy of the red wolf in our wild coyote populations. Due to genetic influence from the red wolf, coyotes in the Southeast are not only more likely to be black, but also to be larger and to hunt in packs.

Kids and Wildlife Don’t Mix

The most heart-stopping calls I receive start like this: “My kids were playing outside and…”

Children are innocent and kind-hearted. When they see an animal that appears to be sick or hurt, their nature guides them to want to help. Unfortunately for both children and animals, this can go very, very badly. In the worst cases, children who have tried to rescue wild animals have developed rabies and died. While this is rare, it is a horrific risk that occurs any time a child handles a wild mammal.

Much, much more often, the family of the child is left subjecting the child to a series of expensive, painful post-exposure rabies shots, and the animal must be euthanized for testing. Bites from a wild animal can also be extremely painful or disfiguring, or can cause deep infections.

If you have children, please take a moment to remind them that they should never pet or handle a wild animal, and should tell an adult immediately if they find one that appears to need help.

Raccoon Torpor: It’s not rabies!

Healthy raccoons can be active in the daytime during any time of the year. But as night temperatures fall, you’re more likely to see a raccoon coming out during daylight hours. Raccoons enter a hibernation-like state during winter known as torpor. During this time, they sleep much more often, but will come out on warm days to look for food, while spending nights cuddled up in warm dens with their families. An otherwise healthy-looking raccoon is extremely unlikely to have rabies, even if you see it coming out during the day.

Hit an Animal? See if it survived.

This summer, I took several calls from people who had seen an animal lift its head or weakly stand up, after several of lying beside the road after being hit by traffic. In all of these cases, the animal had to be euthanized, although it likely could have been saved if it had help sooner.

If you hit an animal while driving, please don’t immediately assume that the animal is dead. It can’t hurt to pull over and check to see if it is still alive. If it is— or if you see baby animals nearby— please call a wildlife rehabilitator. We can’t always save animals hit by cars, but even in the worst case scenarios, we can at least help give them a peaceful end.

Foxes: Not a Danger to Kids or Pets

An adult fox weighs, on average, five to twenty pounds— the same size range as a domestic cat. Foxes eat small, easy prey like mice, rats, voles, moles, and rabbits. A fox will never attempt to prey on another carnivore, especially one that is larger than itself. Essentially all cases of non-rabid foxes “attacking” cats, dogs, and humans have occurred when the fox was cornered and acting in fear and self-defense.

It’s a good idea to keep your pets indoors and in secure, fenced areas for their general safety, and to discourage children from ever approaching wild animals. But a wild fox in your neighborhood is not a threat, and does not need to be trapped or killed.

Don’t Relocate Raccoons!

In nearly all cases, a raccoon that has gotten too familiar with a human home— hanging out on the deck or moving into the attic, for example— will leave after after the home owners use humane harassment techniques to scare them away.

You can try loud music, bright or flashing lights, stomping or clapping, strong odors such as ammonia or peppermint oil, or bitter-tasting repellents like Bittrex. You should also bring all pet food inside and install a lock on your trash can. It may take the raccoon a few days, particularly if it is a mother with babies, but it will almost definitely leave.

Relocating a raccoon is bad news. Relocated raccoons find themselves in unfamiliar territories already occupied by others— often bigger, more aggressive rivals. A nursing mom unknowingly moved without her babies will leave behind a litter of starving kits. Relocation of raccoons can also spread diseases like distemper and rabies, which is why moving them is illegal in Tennessee. And it doesn’t work, either: as long as your home looks hospitable to raccoons, another will simply move in to take the place of its relocated cousin.

Please don’t harm animals unnecessarily. Give them a chance to leave on their own.

Why We Can’t Have Volunteers

I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people local to Chattanooga who would like to visit or help with the animals at For Fox Sake. I appreciate every offer for help, from the bottom of my heart. I run For Fox Sake as a one-man operation, and wish it was possible to have an extra hand. But here’s why that’s not possible:

Tennessee state law is strict— for good reason— about the handling of “rabies vector species,” animals that are statistically more likely to have rabies. I chose to specialize in rescuing rabies vectors because there are very few rehabbers in Tennessee who are able to help these beautiful, sensitive animals.

Rabies is uncommon and every animal at For Fox Sake is vaccinated for rabies immediately. However, as a precaution, the state of Tennessee forbids wild rabies vector species from being exhibited, used as education animals, or handled by unauthorized personnel. This regulation exists not just to protect humans, but also to protect animals from being unnecessarily euthanized and to protect rehabilitators from being sued if someone gets bitten.

The other reason I can’t exhibit wildlife or have volunteers is more personal: For Fox Sake isn’t a stand-alone business, but a facility built, literally, in my backyard. Although I have cameras and a security system, I don’t feel comfortable inviting strangers into my home, especially at night, when the animals I care for are most active (and most in need of care).

I appreciate every single person who supports For Fox Sake, and the dedication of people who have offered to volunteer, but unfortunately, the only way to see the animals in my care is through photos, and the only way to personally help them is through donations.

Vaccinate Your Pets to Save Wildlife

I usually share photos of only a fraction of the animals I’m called to assist— the few that actually get brought into rehabilitation. The other animals I help are never “rescued” per se, but instead, mercifully euthanized because it’s the only way to assist them. This five-month-old male is one of the animals I’ve helped with canine distemper virus, a highly contagious infection that raccoons originally contracted from domestic dogs.

Raccoons, skunks, and foxes are among the most common wild victims of distemper. When this infection hits, the animal becomes congested and weak. It loses its appetite and grows confused. Soon, the “zombie” stage sets in as the infection invades the critter’s nervous system, causing it to stumble, stagger, and wander around aimlessly in the daytime, seeming unaware of its surroundings. Most, including this one, develop a haunting green glow in their eyes that becomes more intense as they near death.

Distemper is a horrible way for an animal to die and is extremely contagious, so most rehabilitators have a policy of euthanizing any animal that has it. And many states— including Tennessee— require euthanasia of wild animals with distemper because the infection looks similar to rabies. Because this condition is raging through wildlife populations in our area, most of the calls I receive right now end tragically, with a heartbreaking but necessary euthanasia.

The reason I’m sharing this is because, if you’re a pet owner, you can help! Wild animals continue to contract canine distemper not just from each other, but from domestic dogs. It’s extremely rare for a fully vaccinated adult dog to catch distemper, because there are highly effective vaccines that prevent it. You can do your part to protect wildlife by making sure your pet gets all boosters recommended by his veterinarian. Not only will immunization protect wild animals, but it will also help ensure that your own pup won’t contract this deadly disease.

Please do your part to help prevent this suffering, for the sake of your pets and your wild neighbors.

The Endangered Red Wolf

Few animals are as controversial as the red wolf. Conservationists have attempted several times to reintroduce these beautiful, majestic, ecologically important animals back into parts of their native range, but misconceptions and fear— as well as coyote interbreeding and disease— have stalled progress in their recovery.

Eliminating the red wolf did nothing to protect humans or livestock. In any ecosystem where wolves naturally exist, nature finds a way to fill the gaps. Areas without wolves become filled with coyotes. If coyotes were eliminated, feral dogs— which are much more dangerous— would take their place. Driving an animal to extinction can’t solve the basic challenges of coexistence with nature.

Red wolves continue to desperately need protection. Some methods that could promote coexistence include turbofladry, a nonlethal electrical fence method used widely overseas, and livestock compensation programs to help farmers recover losses that occur as a result of wild wolves.

“Do You Just Save Raccoons?”

You might have noticed that most recent photos of animals at For Fox Sake are raccoons. But trash pandas are, by no means, the only kind of animal I assist!

My facility is licensed to rehabilitate Tennessee’s “rabies vector species”: raccoons, grey foxes, red foxes, striped skunks, and Eastern spotted skunks. All of these animals typically breed in spring. Although I have heard rehabilitators in other states say they are occasionally still getting orphaned skunks and foxes, I believe Hamilton County’s foxes and skunks are all nearly grown at this point, whereas many raccoons this year had second litters born in fall.

Skunks and foxes also simply aren’t as common as raccoons in areas where people are likely to notice the ones that need help. And, tragically, Eastern spotted skunks have become so rare that they are presumed extinct in this region of Tennessee.

Although legal restrictions prevent me from accepting bats or coyotes for rehabilitation, I can also do on-site field rescues for bats (such as helping one that is stuck in a net) and can transport sick and injured coyotes for humane euthanasia. I also know a network of other local rehabbers who specialize in raptors, songbirds, opossums, rabbits, deer, squirrels, and reptiles, and can help you get in touch with a person who can assist your specific needs.