in the full moonlight of autumn at the hour when I was born
you no longer go out like a flame at the sight of me
you are still warmer than the moonlight gleaming on you
even now you are unharmed even now perfect
as you have always been now when your light paws are running
on the breathless night on the bridge with one end I remember you
— from the poem “Vixen”, by W. S. Merwin
Miss Ember, our last remaining red fox, has left us, only a few weeks after the passing of her sister, Miss Devon, in July – both to the collection of complications and complaints to which we refer as “old age”. Old age brings with it a storm of issues, from hormonal imbalances to loss of organ function, and as at age fourteen the girls got less and less able to cope with living outdoors in the heat we brought them into the Observation Building to enjoy the benefits of civilization and air conditioning, as well as the services of personal medical attendants. For a while Ember responded well to our supported nursing and her blood values improved, giving us hope that we were staving off renal failure. Several times volunteer Karen stayed overnight with Ember in order to monitor her. When the temperature was not too hot, Ember got to go out on walks or spend a night out in the fox habitat. When she was indoors, she pottered around, looking out windows, choosing to sleep on a heating pad or the cool floor depending on what she wanted. People brought her treats, including mice, pimentos, and mice in pimentos. People sang to her. She had a lovely last couple of months, full of affection and high-value munchies.
Unfortunately Ember’s condition deteriorated significantly the second week of September. She was not able to pee normally and our efforts to express her bladder were unsuccessful. The only way to keep her bladder from getting dangerously distended was to drain it with a needle. At this point it was clear that while we could keep Ember alive a while longer, it was at the cost of a significant loss of comfort for her and with no hope of recovery for her in the future. Sadly, we decided it was time for the final mercy we can give our animal friends when their bodies fail them. Dr. Becker came out and gently put Ember into her last sleep on the evening of September 12. The next time I see the streak of fire from a shooting star, I’ll think of her, our own little streak of fire.
Ember came to live with us along with her (foster) sister, Devon, in spring of 2000, as a tiny ball of dark brown fluff with a little white poof on the end of her tail. Less than a quarter the size of wolf pups of that age, the girls presented problems Wolf Park hadn’t seen before; notably, they could almost fit inside the human baby bottles we used for the wolves. We purchased kitten feeding bottles at the pet store and spent an exciting couple of hours in the office carefully adjusting them. The UPS delivery driver was quite surprised to be handed a bottle when he entered and asked to test the flow rate. The fox kits (all parts included) were so tiny and quiet that for a while it was safe to have a television in the nursery, and the girls got to watch “Yellow Submarine” while balanced on the stomach of a snoozing puppy mom.
The girls never really knew what to do with their housemates, Basil and Corey (both males, both sterilized). Basil had grown up around humans and courted like the dandelion fluff he was, getting overexcited and overstimulated and having to run around the enclosure in circles to calm down. Corey had grown up around the stately older female fox Angel (now deceased), and at least had the vague idea that courtship in the fox world had little to do with sitting on the head of one’s intended. He and Ember, the two red phase foxes, paired up, inasmuch as foxes do. They slept within a few feet of each other while apparently studiously ignoring each other, coming together occasionally to groom. Corey sometimes brought Ember gifts of food, feeling perhaps that that was the sort of thing you do when you are a young male fox who knows a young female fox, but the relationship apparently ended there. (Of course, in late February, when interns were out watching the wolves during wolf breeding season, fox breeding season was going on as well – and we heard lots of yelling and screaming coming from the fox enclosure. The lights were not on in the enclosure at the time, so we never saw exactly what was happening. Neither Corey nor Ember ever told us what they were up to, and when daylight came they were politely, possibly affectionately, ignoring each other again….)
The girls were always fond of snacks, and would spend time “trading” tidbits. An intern would arrive with food, and each girl would take treats until she could no longer fit anything more in her tummy, at which point she would take just one more piece of food, run off with it, and cache it somewhere safe in the enclosure. Her sister would observe this behavior and, after caching her own piece, run to the other’s piece and dig it up, while, on the other end of the enclosure, her sister did the same thing with her piece. Of course she would have no room for this piece, either, and would cache it…then run to the other girl’s newly-cached treat, dig it up, cache it…they could trade treats in this way for a considerable amount of time.
Where Basil was a crazy ball of squeeing fluff, Corey was a somewhat awkward and shy gentleman, and Devon was a powerful personality, Ember was a graceful and quiet lady. She was never one for high-intensity social interactions with humans; with patience, interns could feel the end of her muzzle touch them as she took treats or, possibly, trade a chin scratch for a lick. She kept her distance from groups of visiting campers and photographers but allowed them to enjoy her presence, sometimes sneaking around behind them for a sniff or settling just in front of them to remind them that, right now, they were somewhat less interesting than her left leg. She was a great reminder that, no matter how carefully one raises a wild animal, they remain just that: wild. They have their own goals and desires, and it is ultimately their choice whether to associate with us or not. We are flattered that she chose to associate with us.
Good bye Ember. We will never forget you.