Recent media reports about a potential large exotic cat loose out in East Hampton created concern, interest, and conspiracy theories and the end of summer sensation.
But the truth was more of a common or resurgent explanation and, in my mind, just as interesting and exciting.
Follow-up articles were fortunate to include a picture of spoor (or a track) with a measuring stick next to it to give scale (alleged sightings of exotic animals usually lack sufficient evidence such as tracks) and clearly it was canine (dog-like) and correctly identified by State officials (and some of the public from the comments) as a potential fox. A fox? How boring! Well, not for me.
My group, the Wild Dog Foundation, a not-for-profit wildlife education group here on Long Island, who educates on fox, wolf, coyote and other wild canines, has spent the last 20 years investigating the decline and resurgence of Long Island's fox populations, and I agree with State officials and their response in the article that the fox population is rebounding — well, at least the red fox population.
You do have a remnant population of a second species of fox holding tenuously on the South Fork and parts of the Pine Barrens and Brookhaven National Laboratory property called the gray fox. Slightly smaller, gray in color (hence their name, though red foxes can be several varied colorations), and more feline-like, they are more habitat specific and less adaptable than reds, preferring more pristine environs then agro areas or spacious suburbs that reds thrive in.
This brings us to the explanation of why foxes may be a surprise for some and unrecognizable in split-second observations by the public. The red fox (of which we will talk about now) has held on in some pockets of Suffolk and Nassau Counties, such as State and County Parks, estate properties and South Shore beaches, but in the last 15 to 25 years, they experienced a trepidations decline due to several factors. Foremost, loss of habitat due to hyper development, diseases, such as canine distemper, parvovirus and mange, and killed on Long Island's roadways.
The disease factor was most insidious as my theory pertains to something that was initially a positive. In the late '80s and early '90s an increase of dogs in desperate need of loving homes were brought in from the south, sadly along with them came viral infections due to a lack of vaccination regimes from the southern states. Leptospirosis and canine distemper manifested itself on the landscape and in a stable raccoon population. This made it difficult for young foxes to survive along with parvo, which is devastating to pups.
Mange too, and it has maintained itself in parts of the North Fork. It is therefore an irony that recent accusations of some that foxes were transmitting mange to people's pet dogs, the reality being that dogs are being allowed to chase after foxes and interact through aggression thus contracting the skin affliction. My rehab friends have encountered numerous foxes with wounds on their backs from large dogs grabbing and shaking them.
The subsequent surviving populations are thriving and giving birth and recolonizing old haunts and being seen with regularity. I've documented them as far west as Queens and central Nassau, and it is a good thing. Their disappearance also coincided with an increase in Lyme Disease.
Their resurgence has the potential to lower the infection rates of Lyme Disease. You see, foxes prey on the white-footed mouse, which transmits the disease, and along with hawks, owls, raccoons and the potential of coyotes colonizing Long Island, a balance may be restored and these rodent borne diseases may dissipate. We need the predators in the environment, even in a diverse one as Long Island and the top predator-populations will never be so over abundant.
The public's tolerance is a key factor despite all the other obstacles foxes face. But as foxes may lower Lyme Disease and bats may lower the rates of West Nile Virus, should we have it any other way? Or allow us to dream about large exotic cats?
The Wild Dog Foundation gives free public talks to concerned communities.
Director of the Wild Dog Foundation
Editor's Note: For the last 20 years, Frank Vincenti, Director of the Wild Dog Foundation based in Mineola, has contributed to the conservation of African wild dogs in Botswana and South Africa, the Dhole in India, restoring the wolf back to New York State and currently talks to communities on how to co-exist with local coyotes and foxes. He works throughout the Tri-State area and has family ties to Shelter Island.