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Animal Behavior

A fox, a cougar, and a funeral

Foxes and other animals grieve the loss of others


I'm incredibly fortunate to live among wild animals, but living in nature can have its downside, especially when confronting such majestic beasts as cougars or black bears.

I've had some close encounters with cougars, almost falling over a huge male as I walked backwards to warn some neighbors of his presence. I met another cougar more recently, and discovered much about nature, although I've been studying coyotes and other animals for many years. There's just so much we don't know.

I was driving up my road late one evening when I saw a large tan animal trotting towards my car. Thinking it was my neighbor's German shepherd, Lolo, I stopped and opened my door to say hello, only to hear Lolo barking behind me. I was face to face with a male cougar. He stared at me, seemed to shrug his shoulders, and walked off. I slammed the car door shut and went home with all my senses on fire.

The next morning my neighbor said Lolo had found a fox carcass so I went to look at it. The fox, a formerly healthy male, had clearly been killed by the cougar (I'll spare you the gory details) but his body was intact and partially covered with branches, dirt, and some of the fox's own fur. It looked as if the cougar had tried to cover his prey. I checked the carcass the next morning and it was still partially covered and unchanged from the day before.

Two days l later I headed out at first light to hike with my companion, Jethro. I wanted no more surprises; I looked down the road and saw a small red female fox trying to cover the carcass. I was fascinated for she was deliberately orienting her body so that when she kicked debris with her hind legs it would cover her friend, perhaps her mate. She'd kick dirt, stop, look at the carcass, and intentionally kick again. I observed this ritual for a short while.

A few hours later, I saw that the carcass was now fully buried. I uncovered it and saw that it had been decapitated and partially eaten. No one to whom I have spoken, naturalists and professional biologists alike, has ever seen a red fox bury another red fox. I don't know if the female fox was intentionally trying to bury her friend, but there's no reason to assume that she wasn't. Perhaps she was grieving and I was observing a fox funeral.

I have no doubt that foxes and other animals have rich and deep emotional lives. Back in 1947 a naturalist on the East Coast saw a male fox lick his mate as she lay dead, and the male also protected his mate quite vigorously. Perhaps he too was showing respect for a dead friend. I was lucky to have this series of encounters for nature doesn't hold court at our convenience. Much happens in the complex lives of our animal kin to which we're not privy, but when we're fortunate to see animals at work, how splendid it is.


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