What do you know about losing a pet?

Mercifully little, I’m pleased to say. Nonetheless, as I sit and write this my mind drifts back to the events of Thursday 6th November 2003, and the surprise that I recall feeling upon going to the window to investigate the quacking of our two pet call ducks. For those of you who are familiar with the nine standardized and half-dozen or more non-standardized types of call duck listed by the British Wildfowl Association in 1999, one was a “grey” or “mallard” and the other was a “bibbed” duck.

Anyhow, looking out of my dining room window I saw the bibbed duck, named Flick, lying almost motionless on the netting of our fishpond, pinned down by an adolescent fox. I shot through the kitchen and flew out of the back door shouting at the top of my lungs. I had hoped that shouting at the fox would cause it to drop the duck and flee. I was partially correct. The fox did indeed flee; but to my increasing despair took its quarry with it. We had a fence and gazebo-type structure separating our garden roughly in half; “a ha” thought I as I chased the fox up the garden, “It’ll have to drop the duck to get under the fence”. Wrong again! The fox slipped neatly under the fence, a gap of only some 12.5 cm (5 in), with the duck still clasped firmly in its jaws. It then went around our shed and over the back garden wall, with me in hot pursuit screaming for all I was worth.

Flick (brown) and Flash (grey) inspecting while we were doing a partial water change in the fish pond. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Where I used to live, the gardens of each row of houses backed on to each other, with a narrow gap of about 60 cm (about 2ft) separating the two opposing gardens. This area was overgrown with brambles, along side discarded glass, bricks, paving slabs and the odd tree interspersed for good measure. It was along this rugged ‘alleyway’ that the fox took our duck. I screeched in a manner very unbecoming of a man, and the fox dropped the duck into a small crevice under some scaffolding poles. Looking desperately, I spotted Flick floundering in this pit and chirping in a quiet and rhythmic manner, a sign that this misadventure was stressing him out.

Had I been thinking clearly I would’ve gone back into the house, got the telescopic loppers and hacked my way through the undergrowth something akin to an explorer in dense jungle. I was concerned, however, that the fox may return in my absence, and no way was I was going to just leave Flick there to die from his injuries. So I hauled myself, rather ungracefully it must be said, on to the wall and down into the undergrowth. I clambered across broken bricks and paving slabs, being reasonably careful to avoid the glass. Squeezing through the bifurcated trunk of a small tree I found myself entangled in branches and bramble. All this time I was talking at Flick, trying to reassure him.

I broke free of the brambles and carefully lifted the scaffolding poles off him. Picking him up, and holding him close to my chest I began my travels back to the familiarity of our garden, talking to him all the way. We made it back to the garden where there was space and light to give Flick a quick check over; he was bleeding quite badly from a wound on his chest. I tore a handkerchief from the washing line as I scurried past and used it to cover his head – a tip I learnt many years ago from Animal Hospital to reduce stress in animals. I locked Flick in his hutch and raced in doors to phone the vet.

Flick was examined by our local vet, who found a cut about 3cm (about 1.5 in) long and about 2cm (1 in) deep on his chest. The fox’s teeth had cut clean through his skin and into his pectoralis (breast) muscle. Fortunately, it had not punctured his lung or he would’ve died almost immediately. We left him at the vet, returning a couple of hours later to pick up our newly sewn-up duck. Upon collecting him we were told that they found and sewed up not one but four puncture wounds, all about the same size and depth; one from each of the fox's canines. We put him in his hutch, and he was confined for about a week.

The first night was tense and it was with serious trepidation that we looked in the hutch the following morning – to our relief we found Flick still in the land of the living. It was quite likely that the trauma of the situation could have killed him that night. We hoped that Flick would make a satisfactory recovery over the next fortnight and we did everything within our power to aid his recuperation. Sadly, upon our return to the vet a week later, Flick had to be put to sleep – he hadn’t eaten anything over that week and was shaking and chattering quietly. The vet considered that he might have received a brain injury during the incident.

Flash with his new "friend" Storm, shortly after Flick was put to sleep. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

In the long run, I suppose it would’ve been sensible to let the fox take Flick; but, at the time, I wasn’t thinking clearly and acted on impulse. Immediately after we lost Flick, his “brother” (Flash) seemed distressed and became aggressive. Shortly after Flick’s departure we got Flash a new companion (Storm) and the two followed each other around like they were chained together. Although Flash was still aggressive towards my Mum (and, it seemed, women in general), he did improve and seemed a much happier duck with some company. We also made some alterations to our garden, giving us more control over where the ducks were allowed to wander. We saw no sight or sound of the fox after that incident, despite hearing that a family down our street lost a rabbit a few weeks after Flick was euthanised.

So, did this change my perception of foxes? Do I hate foxes? Do I see them now as nothing but duck-stealing vermin? No, not at all. As a rational person, I see that the fox was only doing what it has evolved to do: feed itself and its family. However painful the situation was for Flick and our family, both emotionally and physically (and I had the scars and rashes on my hands, arms, shoulders and face for several days after the “daring rescue”), I can’t blame the fox. I will concede that, at the time, I thought foxes were only active from dusk until dawn, and I was gob-smacked that this attack happened at 1.30pm in the afternoon. (The irony of it being lunchtime is not completely lost on me.) As the saying goes, though: you learn something new every day.

In the end, I have no universal (“God-given”, if you prefer) right to keep ducks free-range in my garden and somehow expect the local predators to know they’re mine and leave them alone. Foxes are programmed to hunt and this they do with great efficacy, whether it’s livestock or wildlife. Granted, sometimes it goes awry and we humans see what looks like a massacre in the fox’s wake; but the behaviour is understandable, whether we choose to try and understand it or not (see QA). If I want to keep prey animals in my garden, it’s my responsibility to suitably protect them (see Deterring Foxes). No fox carries keys or a blow-torch, so if they break into my hutch it’s my fault, not theirs. In the case of poor Flick, I failed. This is not a mistake I will make again.

Intriguingly, none of my family blamed the fox either, and I found this almost as refreshing as those people who suffer terrible mutilation at the jaws of a shark and then campaign for the protection of these magnificent fish. Getting scratched and stung whilst attempting to rescue a small duck from the dinner table of a fox is one thing; but being hauled from the water by a lifeguard and waking up in the hospital missing an appendage must be harrowing. Moreover, for these people to maintain the opinion that “well, the shark was just doing what it supposed to be doing and our two worlds just, kinda collided” is a type of clarity and fortitude that I could only hope to possess.