To see the fiery coat of a Red Fox trotting across the beach in New Jersey is always a big surprise. It’s like seeing an actual fire on the beach; so unexpected and so out of place. Red Fox aren’t native to the eastern United States, let alone its coast and barrier islands, so they really do stand out as something special. The Red Fox we see down the shore today are mostly descendants of European Red Fox brought here by early settlers because our native Gray Fox were not as fun to hunt (because they “tree” themselves too quickly). The Europeans would lose a few of these imported Fox on those hunts, and so today we have some small populations of their Red Fox ancestors managing to eek out a life along the coast scavenging, supported by our agriculture, our trash, and oftentimes our direct handouts. Add to this the fact that Red Fox are shy and secretive, like to stroll the beach in silent darkness, preferring thick dune grasses and deep sand burrows, and it makes sense why seeing one is always such a thrill and one of those experiences we don’t soon forget. And boy, oh boy, are they cute.
Seeing a wild Piping Plover on the beach can be equally surprising. While not especially shy, Piping Plover are so perfectly adapted to life on the open beach, with such incredible camouflage, we are more likely to step on one than to actually see one. Yet to see one suddenly hop up from a small scrape in the sand and run across the beach, followed by four adorably fluffy, 2 inch tall babies is like spotting that single piece of perfectly weathered sea glass in a vast pile of shell debris. Add to this the fact that the native Piping Plover are all but extinct and it makes sense why seeing one in the wild is such a special, memorable experience.
And while it is always a surprise for us to see a Red Fox or a Piping Plover out on the beach, it must pale in comparison to how surprised these two creatures are to see each other. For their coexistence here is not natural.
It was only a few centuries ago when the first Dutch explorers pulled their boats up to the coast of New Jersey. They quickly named the site “Egg Harbor” because of the incredible abundance of beach nesting bird eggs found along the beaches and in the marsh. To this day, the name and the tribute to the region’s native animals and heritage remains as the more-accurate “Little Egg Harbor,” and the area from the Brigantine Natural Area to the Forsythe Refuge at Holgate surrounding it is one of the last remaining places that these once-abundant beach-nesting animals can still survive. And thanks to our efforts to keep a little coastal wilderness in the area and afford the Piping Plover some protection, the shy and reclusive Red Fox has found a seemingly perfect place to hide and make a home down the shore too. Well, perfect for the Red Fox anyway, as all of those tiny piles of local eggs which evolved over untold millennia to survive in places like Little Egg Harbor never anticipated the swift arrival of the Red Fox; and so any Fox lucky enough to survive the winter is treated to an enormous bounty during the spring nesting season of New Jersey’s native beach-nesting animals. The Piping Plover having no natural protection from the Fox, and the Fox having no natural predators in these habitats to hinder them, puts the Fox at an enormous, and importantly, artificially unnatural, advantage. A single Fox on the right beach can destroy an entire generation of Piping Plover in a few short weeks.
The same would be true for the Red Fox (and probably us too!) if some Europeans were to import a bunch of Grizzly Bears and Cougars on to one of our barrier islands today.
It was a bit over three hundred years ago when the Dutch discovered the magic of Egg Harbor, just over two hundred when the Red Fox first stepped off the European boats, and about a century and a half ago when, in the same generation, Darwin penned The Origin Of The Species and we began to settle the coast of New Jersey. It is interesting that just as Darwin was first promoting his theory of “natural selection” observed on far-away, remote islands in the Galapagos, much of the developed world was already starting to move well past it; into a new era of “artificial selection.”
We’ve always been powerful creatures. But once we began to truly leverage our power and dominion over nature through our technology, our ability to change the natural course of things began to outpace nature’s ability to adapt to those changes. Today, along the coast of New Jersey, there is no place left untouched or unexplored. Our barrier islands are practically paved end-to-end and shore-to-shore. The only uninhabited spaces remain so because of careful, thoughtful, legally enforced management. And the fates of the remaining wild animals found there are no longer really decided by slow-moving, natural, evolutionary forces. Like it or not, those fates are now chosen by us. There is no escaping it. For this is true even when we chose not to decide.
Managing species accidentally forced into conflict by us, like the Red Fox and the Piping Plover, is as delicate and difficult as it is important. There are no easy answers; and usually when we believe there are easy answers it is only because we don’t know, or choose not to know, all the facts, all of the history, and all of implications. It is understandable why we would want to avoid the conundrum altogether and just pick the animal we like best. But with our great power over nature comes great responsibility. This is especially true when it comes to a fragile habitat like the shore where most of the troubles caused are the result of our desires to use it for recreation and for profit, and where making the wrong choice could spoil something truly special, of unimaginable value to so many people.
The quickest and easiest way to sidestep the real issue is to take some version of the following stance: “Let nature take its course. Don’t disturb the balance of nature. Mother Nature takes care of herself.” I have fallen victim to this line of thinking for most of my life, lulled into complacency, and satisfied with its comfortable self-righteousness. The critical error here is that such thinking underestimates our own power, and misrepresents the actual causes and reasons for action. It ignores the fact the imbalance of Red Fox and Piping Plovers is no more natural than you or I setting fire to a forest. It is an unfortunate situation that was created, and is now sustained, by us. “Let Nature Take Its Course” presents the problem as if we are arbitrarily intervening in a perfectly natural situation, like saving a fish from the belly of a whale. But the reality and the context are entirely different. To intervene with the Fox & The Plover is not to disrupt nature, but to attempt to correct a series of previous, mostly unintentional, disruptions of the natural order caused by us. We would not be disrupting some “natural balance” as much as we’d be attempting to restore balance from an unintentional imbalance already caused by our enormous power. Many people would agree that it is bad to cut the leg off a healthy person, but good to amputate the leg of a wounded person if doing so would save them. In both cases you are taking some action, messing with the person, and a someone is losing a leg; but they are not the same at all.
The reality is that “Survival of the Fittest” does not apply anymore than it would if we dropped a Python in a Hamster cage. So we have hard decisions to make. The game of “Survival Of The Fittest” has already been won. The winner is us. The winners and losers of the lesser species are now only partially determined by biology and evolution; they are instead essentially determined by us. At least what gets to live on the beach along the coast of New Jersey is anyway. It is understandable why we will go through great lengths to attempt to believe this is not true. Yet still, we will be choosing. We can choose Fox. We can chose Piping Plovers. We can choose Rat. We can choose Crow. We could even choose Grizzly Bear if we really wanted to.
And of course, we can always chose to do nothing. Yet if we do, let’s have the courage and the integrity to be honest that what we are really choosing is the abdication of our responsibility as the most powerful creature on the planet, whose immense influence is so great it can overwhelm, and has overwhelmed, the natural order of things. Sometimes, we might not choose out of ignorance. Or we might not choose out of laziness. Yet we can fight against this by accepting that when we choose-not-to-choose then we have a double responsibility to learn everything we can about who wins and who loses when we abstain. The people who survey the wild animals found on the beach can tell you that currently, the winners are animals who thrive on our garbage and the losers are the local, native animals.
Humans have struggled for centuries to become Gods. Unfortunately, we are almost there. We are almost Mother Nature. We not only get to chose who lives and who dies. In many cases, we now have to.
Red Fox are really, really cute. They are magnificent. It is a tough call to trap them, to cull them, and to kill them. Just as it is with Deer in many suburban communities. The Piping Plover, on the other hand, are also really, really special. This is their only home. They are the shore’s heritage. The original locals. Every unique thing about them took untold generations of evolution to make them so perfectly part of our beaches that they are almost invisible to all but the most trained eyes. And importantly, it is not just a few individual animal lives at risk here. It is the fate of the entire species.
In the course of writing my stories, I’ve spent a lot of time with both species. I’ve had Red Fox paw at my blind trying to figure out what smells so good, and laughed with delight when they jumped because I giggled. I’ve had Piping Plover bring their chicks to me, apparently to babysit, while they ran off to take a bath. I love every animal I’ve ever encountered on the wild beach.
Given all of the above, I personally choose to help the Piping Plover. I mourn the loss of any of our Red Fox, yet I support the efforts of wildlife managers attempting to preserve the things that make our coast unique, and to restore some balance to the natural order. It is a painful choice. But all the options are when we’re honest about it. For if we chose to do nothing, we are choosing the fox, and the blood of the Piping Plover is just as much on our hands as the blood of a managed Red Fox would be.
I truly wish the Red Fox were actually part of a balanced coastal ecosystem as they are one of my favorite encounters on the beach. And I feel especially bad as I know they are much maligned on all sorts of habitats, not just ours.
I encourage everyone who reads this to stand up, learn everything you can, spend time with these animals, think deeply, be courageous, and choose wisely!
SEE UPDATE TO THIS: Faux Fox Fax
Thanks to Reader Comments!