The Foxcatcher

The Oystercatcher & The Fox

I have discovered my new beach passion and recreational pastime. This year I am going to apprentice to learn the fine art of trapping Fox & Mink to become a local, licensed sport trapper. I wonder how many people will be excited for me when I share the big news.

I doubt very many.

It’s insanely curious how a massive community and economy like the Jersey Shore, whose primary recreational activity is (to put it colorfully for impact) maiming and killing fish, would be so incredibly squeamish about trapping Red Fox. Yet apparently we are. I wonder how different things would be if our fish looked like our dogs.

Don’t misread that. I love fishing. What I’m not comfortable with is the logical and philosophical inconsistency where fishing is celebrated and hunting/trapping is demonized. They are extremely similar pastimes.

Even more so, hunting and trapping, just like fishing, are a big part of the Shore’s heritage. The old masters of the Bay like Pete McLain would happily shoot and kill a few Black Ducks in the morning, help a few endangered Osprey in the afternoon, fish for a bit, then go down to Wildlife Drive and admire the same Black Ducks he shot and killed in the morning… only this time shooting them with his camera and giggling at their antics. While today some might see that as a contradiction, it just might be the opposite: a really centered and holistic view of what’s going on around here, what it means to be a human creature, and where each type of animal fits into the local ecosystem. Whatever it might be, Pete clearly saw a difference between an endangered animal who needs our help and one who could afford to be enjoyed by us for sport.

Sadly, trapping is a dying coastal sport. And at the same time, a very simplistic, often self-righteous, sometimes misguided, call-to-arms to protect the Red Fox has swept the Shore. It is certainly an easy, comfortable point of view. I envy those who can hold it strongly. But it is only easy when we don’t see, or choose not to see, the whole picture. We’re the only predator of the Red Fox left around here and, having lost our taste for fur, and our patience for difficult hobbies like trapping, now have no one left but State wildlife managers to try to control the population. And the truth is, many of them hate trapping Red Fox more than anyone.

The end result is that the Shore is now absolutely overrun by Red Fox. Check your Instagram if you are not seeing them yourself.

The trouble with all of this? It’s a total bloodbath out there on the beach this season.

The official numbers won’t be in for a while, but our beloved, local American Oystercatchers appear to be paying an enormous price for all of this. They are being absolutely decimated by Red Fox and it won’t be a surprise if some important habitats in New Jersey have a 100% failure rate this season due to Red Fox predation. It is certainly sad to watch this unfolding. What’s even sadder is how few people even see it, or know it’s happening. We are now entering the point in the season where our poor Oystercatchers, having lost several nests already to Red Fox, are throwing in the towel and giving up.

It reminds me very much of what has happened in NYC over the past decade. One, once great, historic, local business after the next closing its doors under the pressure of Wall Street and tax-policy subsidized mega-corporations. Slowly but surely, the blood of a place runs dry and nothing is left but the same stuff you can find everywhere else. Pavement, mega-chain stores, and animals who thrive primarily by eating garbage.

At least in Barnegat Light we can watch Mama Fox strut down 20th street bringing bags of our trash to her babies at High Bar, or see the family on the front beach trying to find that one bag of Doritos (TM) someone left behind. At least we can pretend that the Shore is still some kind of natural wonder, even if the creatures we’re admiring not only have no history or purpose here, lead unnecessarily difficult lives with no real future here, yet are all the while destroying the ones who do.

And in much of the state, no one is even enjoying the Red Fox at all. They don’t even see them. Instead they are just slowly noticing how lifeless the beach is becoming, and feeling the reality that our natural heritage is slipping away.

Before I went deep under cover as a beach bum into the world of conservation, I felt the same way many people do: “Just leave them alone. Let nature take care of itself.”  So I’m sympathetic to the mindset.

What I’ve learned is that things are far more complex than that; our choices are much more difficult and complicated, and the stakes are much higher. It was so easy to advocate for the Red Fox when I didn’t see the Oystercatcher dying off, and when I didn’t understand what a true tragedy that is. When we chose who gets to live, we are implicitly chosing who gets to die. This is what I’ve learned. Sometimes I wish I never did. It was simpler then.

Clearly and plainly, it is an absolute bloodbath this season. So we must choose our opinions wisely. Whenever we advocate for the Red Fox, we must make sure we say confidently that we understand our local, endangered and threatened animals like the American Oystercatcher will be decimated, and that we are comfortable with that decision. We should also be absolutely sure we are comfortable with eradicating the rare animals who are unique to this place in favor of an animal who has plenty of options and would actually be much happier somewhere else. We must know our natural history of the Shore, its ecology, and the biology of the animals who were born of this place. The end game for Red Fox on barrier islands is starvation and car strikes for them, and extinction for the local, native animals who make the Shore unique.

A bloodbath born of ignorance and turning a blind eye is 1000 times more shameful than one which occurs by a careful consideration of the realities, the possible outcomes, and the future we’d like to create for the Shore.

The good news is that we can easily help restore the imbalance we created here. All it takes is a few of us to get back to our roots and revive the art of trapping down the Shore. And who knows? With the fishing as awful as it’s been recently, maybe a few more folks will join me and trade their rods & reels in for a few old fashioned Fox traps.

And let it be known: once I’m licensed, I’m for hire. I’ll charge like a million dollars per Fox, but I’m for hire.

For I too will be an endangered and threatened coastal species. I too will be an animal who people love to hate. I too will be an underdog of the beach.

I’ll be… a Foxcatcher.