When Foxes Attack

Curator's Note

As the video summary by Newsy shows, international news coverage followed the mauling of two nine-month old twins by a fox in the UK in June 2010. The fox is assumed to have entered the suburban home in East London via an open patio door, and, by the time it left, the twins had arm injuries with one child also injured on the face.

But why is this a news story (especially when far more people are killed and injured in the home by domestic animals than by wild ones), and what does it tell us about the complex ways in which animals such as foxes are understood by humans?

Running through the report is an assumption about space. That is, that the home is a private space, where we should be able to feel secure. That a fox can wander in and injure members of our family in such a protected area is deemed to be threatening, and undermines the urban/nature distinction which defines contemporary city living.

But the urban fox confuses such a distinction anyway, by its very existence. Do we think of the urban fox in the same way as a fox living in the countryside? How can humans come to terms with the other species that they co-exist with, even if urban living often proposes the myth that wild creatures are not in our domain?

And these news reports keep returning to the same word; ‘attack’. This term suggests some kind of deliberate motivation on the part of the fox, and implies an intention of harm. Did the fox ‘attack’ the twins, or merely injure them as it went about its activities? Fox experts are in disagreement over this, but the majority seem to see this as an extremely rare event, and most reject the idea that this was a motivated ‘attack’. So why is it that animal-human interactions, in which humans come off the worse, always seem to be categorised as ‘attacks’?


You ask so many provocative questions here, Brett.  Thanks for this.

Something that jumped out at me immediately is the way in which some of the reports can admit to the potential that this was a provoked attack, but then deny any blame for the children.  Note the headline from the image at 56 seconds: "Fantastic? No, Mr. Fox is a Vicious Pest."  The assumption being that if the kids did provoke the animal, it's because they innocently thought it was cute.  In any case, the villain is still external to the household.  Damn you, Wes Anderson!

The need to blame an external force seems to tie into the phrasing of it being an 'attack' or 'home invasion' or whatever term is being used.  There appears, in fact, to be a nested conception of safe-zones going on here: first, the city has no wild animals; second, if it does, the home is blameless.  (We might even expand this to include country as a third layer, if we wanted to get political.)  And this 'home as a violated safe zone' notion can't help but bring up limitless challenges from the Haraway angle.

Thanks for this piece, Brett, and a great synthesis of the issues involved with the coverage. I wonder how much our anthropomorphization of animals, not just in animation, but in nature shows and reality TV contribute to our "us" versus "them" reporting of nature-human interaction? The gendering of animals and their behavior seems to lead easily to our assumptions about motivation, which have always struck me as oddly narcissistic: they are just like us...until they're not.

And we are like animals, depending often on race. Take, for example, the contextualization of the 1989 sexual assault on the jogger in Central Park as "wilding," which I think proved to be a media-concocted racialization of the attack. The attack was not, for the media, heinous enough, and had to be heightened through reference to an allegedly inherent nature run amok. 

Thanks for finding this interesting artifact, Brett. I agree with the consensus here, but would add: humans seem to use an old double standard in interpreting animal encounters that result in human injury. 

Humans seem most fearful of animals whose actions we perceive to be most like our own. Animals that seem predatory or who enter without permission the spaces we make for ourselves are to be exterminated or 'disposed' of because a danger to human life. Yet, how many foxes are killed by drivers or by hunting parties in Britain each year who venture out into the rural places where foxes live? It is we who are the predators and invaders in many respects

I think Kimberley is right, these animals become carriers of cultural meaning as much as anything else. They provide ways for people to work through their feelings about violence or personal powerlessness.

This piece reminds me of the venerable "When Animals Attack" (WAA) TV series that showed people being bitten, kicked, stepped on and otherwise injured by everything from deer to crocodiles to elephants. I was reminded of this by Jeremy's note on the kids' role in the fox "attack." Most of the WAA series' clips show (to me) an animal in great distress, reacting out of fear against a human he or she perceives to be the actual aggressor, not an animal that necessarily has it out for people. Animals have long been "trapped in a place of endless misrecognition," as Mady Schutzman and others have noted. Do foxes similarly misinterpret our activities in their own way? Say, by seeing a house with an open door as an invitation rather than a danger?

For me, the most intriguing bit in the Newsy.com clip was the sensational Mail Online story, "Fantastic? No, Mr. Fox is Vicious Pest" that showed an apparently hissing, threatening fox with his/her mouth wide open--just ready to attack! OMG!

"If it bleeds, it leads," as the old news wisdom goes. Animals in the news are usually reduced to one of only a few types: pet, predator or pest.

This is a fascinating piece.  The story, and the discussion, invites one to consider dichotomies of inside/outside, domestic/wild, cooked/raw, urban/rural, and so on.  The fox is an interloper in domestic space (not unlike the rat in "Lady in the Tramp," for instance, whose vanquishing allows Tramp to claim his space in the domestic sphere).  It could be a parable about human encroachment on animal habitat, but instead it's framed as the opposite.  It strikes me that there are kinds of domestic companion animals that map onto the wild-raw sides of the dichtomies, like the "pit bull" terrier.  How would this story be different if it was about a pit bull?  Or a golden retriever?  And how does it compare to the early 2009 story about squirrels attacking visiting nurses: also a Telegraph classic?


Thanks for your comments everyone. I'd forgotten about the squirrel 'attacks', Holly, so thanks a lot for making that link. Like the fox, the squirrel is a confusing animal, as it lives in urban areas and is fluffy and cute, yet is also 'wild'; so should we be scared of it or not?

Kimberley - thanks for making the link to anthropomorphization. I'm still unsure about how I feel about that process - especially as some of the literature I've been reading recently worries about the much more common process of 'anthropo-denial', whereby humans reject any similarities between humans and other species at all, thereby maintaining the 'superiority' of our species. You're right that race and gender come into play in such stories too - though the reporting on this story seems to get confused as no-one knows if the fox was male or female, so gendered readings can't be placed on it.

Info on the reporting on any other animal attacks gratefully received!

I am curious how this plays into the current debate in Great Britain over fox hunting.  As someone who lives outside of Britain and does not closely follow this issue, it seems that this story must feed into the politics of this issue somehow, if nothing other than fodder for either side.  I am not saying there is a neccessary connection between the two incidents/issues ethically or environmentally; rather, that it is my impression that whenever foxes are portrayed in British media, it seems that the fox hunt certainly provides an important context.  Of course, others' mileage may vary...

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