Gray Fox in Strawberry Canyon and a Mother Fox’s Wisdom


Yesterday, I headed up Centennial Road along Strawberry Canyon to take some more lichen and moss photographs. As I was walking along the trail by the road, I looked down in into the canyon and saw something seemed out of place on the big branch of a fallen tree.

Here’s what I saw:

(Note: you can click on any image to get a very large one you can download if you wish.)

At first, I couldn’t tell what kind of animal might be sleeping there. It certainly was a fairly large animal, but all I could see was a ball of fur. So, I called out, and it lifted up its head to listen. It was a gray fox!

I was really excited! This was my first fox sighting since I had moved West, and my first large predator sighting in the Berkeley Hills. In the East, the red fox is dominant, and I had seen a number of those in my time there, but never a gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus).  The fox never stood up so I could see more of it, but here’s a close-up of it looking up when I made a noise:

Not a red fox

This beautiful animal is easily distinguishable from the red fox, which is indeed quite reddish and has those characteristic “black stockings” on its feet.

A tree-climbing fox!

One of the things that surprised me about the gray fox was how high in the fallen tree it was, and how inaccessible it was. How the heck did it get up there? When I did some research, I came upon this fact at Wikipedia:

“The gray fox’s ability to climb trees is shared only with the Asian raccoon dog among canids. Its strong, hooked claws allow it to scramble up trees to escape predators such as the domestic dog or the coyote, or to reach tree-bound or arboreal food sources. It descends primarily by jumping from branch to branch, or by descending slowly backwards as a house cat.”

So, that explained it! The gray fox is a tree climber! I had no idea any fox could climb a tree. I watched the fox for about 10 minutes, and it seemed hunkered down for a good sleep. (The gray fox is mainly nocturnal though it’s also out at dawn or dusk.)

A Berkeley mountain-man hippie

As I was watching the fox, along came a fellow which I could only describe as a Berkeley “character.” He was dressed like a mountain-man hippie, with long hair in a ponytail and a big beard. As he approached, I asked him if he wanted to see a fox, and of course, he said yes. (I now wished I’d taken the fellow’s picture, as you’ll soon understand.)

As he admired the fox, he told me about encounters he’d had with foxes and how much he admired them. Then he said, “You want to hear a really great fox story? It’s a true one; it happened to an old girlfriend of mine.”

He sat down like he was an old friend and went on to tell his remarkable story.  The man was clearly a natural-born storyteller, but the way he  told his story had the ring of truth. As best as I can remember, here’s what he said:

A true story about a wise mother fox

“It happened in Colorado, up in the mountains where my girlfriend lived. One day she went out to her back porch, and she saw a gray fox standing, holding up a hurt leg. The fox didn’t run away when she saw it, even though it was close, but sat there, expectant like.”

“After the fox and my girlfriend sized each other up for a while, the fox then stood up, and turned to limp away. But it stopped and looked over its shoulder as if to say, ‘Well, are you coming?’

“So, my girl friend got her coat, and followed. The foxes leg was badly hurt, but it could still outpace my girl friend through the scrub brush. But each time she fell behind the fox would stop and patiently wait for her to catch up. As soon as she caught up, the fox moved on.”

A surprise in the woods

“To her surprise, the fox led her directly to a litter of fox kits, three of them. It was a mother fox, and the wounded fox had led her right to her den. The fox sat down at some distance, and watched, as if to say, ‘Well, there they are! I’m hurt and I want you to take them back with you and take care of them.'”

“The fox watched intently while my girl friend gathered up the kits and then followed her back to house. My girlfriend made a place for them near her house, where they’d be safe. The mother fox seemed satisfied, and then again, she looked at my girlfriend and seemed to say, “Well, can’t you see that they’re hungry? I haven’t been able hunt.”

“My girlfriend went inside and got some milk, which she gave to the pups. And then she got some meat, and threw it to the mother, who gobbled it down. After a while, the mother fox came over to the kits, and with a sigh, lay down with them.”

A refuge for a wounded mother fox

“And that’s the way it went. For 3 months, my girlfriend fed the fox while its leg mended, and soon, the mother was strong enough to give her own milk again. My girlfriend played with the kits everyday, and the mother never minded, although she always kept her distance.”

“The thee kits grew up fast, got teeth, and started to forage around themselves, though they always welcomed food from my girlfriend. And then one day, it was clear that the mother fox was going to leave. Although she trusted my girlfriend, she was obviously nervous being near humans.”

“One morning, my girlfriend came out, and the mother and kits were gone. She cried, and really missed them, but she knew that the wise mother had done the right thing.”

A final goodbye and thank-you

“Months later, in the late fall, with the first early snow, my girlfriend was out hiking, and suddenly, she saw a fox. Was it her fox? She stopped, and watched as the fox came to her—with a slight limp! It was the mother fox!  The fox came very close, and for  a long time, she  just sat there and looked into my girlfriend’s eyes, which were filled with tears. She said she felt the fox was thanking her. And then, the fox turned tail, and trotted off, with the slight limp from the old injury.”

“My girlfriend never saw the mother fox again, but did see other foxes from time to time, and she wondered if any of them were the kits grown up. Actually, she was glad the kits had ‘gone wild’ and were wary of humans. That was the safest thing for them so near to humans with guns. But to this day, she has a special love for foxes, and often thinks of the wise mother fox who came to her for help.”

“And that, my friend, is a true story. There’s more to animals than meets the eyes, eh?”

I agreed that indeed there is, and said good-bye to my mountain-man hippie storyteller.  I watched him lumber off, amazed at how often people can amaze you with their hidden depths.  Then, I turned and watched the gray fox sleeping for a while longer, thinking about the wise injured mother fox.

From all I know about animals, and from my own experiences with wounded animals over the years, I bet it happened just as my storyteller said. With that happy thought, and with a big love for my storyteller, for that sleeping fox, and for all the creatures in the canyon, I headed up the trail and into the hills.

A postscript: If this story of the mother fox moved you, you might also enjoy another true story of some amazing animals at my Metta Refuge blog.  The post is called The Compassion of the Swans.  You can read it here:


13 responses »

  1. Pingback: The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills-Part 2 | The Nature of Berkeley

  2. love love love this. I spotted 2 gray foxes in Berkeley just 2 nights ago: in Claremont Canyon/Rockridge. One was heading into someone’s yard. Another was crossing the street. They are amazing creatures. I’m so glad to see their resurgence. Deer and wild turkey are also prevalent in the neighborhood, too.

  3. Pingback: The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills-Part 2 « Berkeley, Naturally!

  4. My great-grandfather was a much sought after fox hunter back in the times when the Icelanders still lived in turf huts and had little to eat. The poor foxes had little to eat too and it frequently went after the few lambs who’d survived the cold summers, which in return was a threat to the human food chain. And so the farmers called for my great-grandfather to hunt for a specific fox.

    His tale has been captured in a book I read once in a while because it reveals to me an uncommon relationship between the hunter with his prey. He spent many days and nights hovering in the snow and icy wind waiting for the fox to appear and never shot it before he had not received the fox’s ‘approval’.

    He said there was a very clear communication between himself and the fox and that when the fox was ‘ready’ it unquestionably told him so and then, and only then did he pull the trigger. For the fox to be ‘ready’ sometimes took days in which my great-grandfather followed it patiently over the highlands.

    Every time I read how the fox stood still gazing into my great-grandfathers eyes and how in this moment nothing existed but the communication between the two, the fox’s offering and my great-grandfather’s honoring its life and death, moves me.

    I am no hunter, and I don’t eat meat mainly because I disapprove of the ways we keep and then kill our breeding animal. I cannot possibly support an industry so far removed from any kind of harmony with itself and its surrounding…

    It seems there is thoughtless killing and thoughtful transformation from one form into another and there is a great difference between the two.

    Sorry Steve for my rambles here on your pages but since reading your fox’s story my great-grandfather has been knocking on my door with his version 🙂 I think he now again can return to his day’s work 🙂


    • Hey Snædís! Just wanted to let you know I hadn’t forgotten your post and comment here, but have been happily busy with the holidays, family, and the like. I definitely have some thoughts to share on your reply, and hope to get back to you before too long.
      All the best,

    • Hey Jan! I know how you feel, dear friend. We all have to grow and learn, and all of us human beings have acts we deeply regret. We all need redemption and space and time to change for the better.

      You have a dear heart now, that’s what matters, and your wonderful journal of the reefs of Madang shows it, both in the photography and how you write about the reef and its creatures. Thanks for stopping by.


  5. That made me start to cry, Steve. I don’t know which story is sweeter–this one or the one about the swans. It made me think of how Cleo (my “triplegic” pigeon) looked at me the day I found her on the sidewalk. She knew just how helpless she was in case I planned to hurt her, but there was a kind of trust, or at least resignation, in her eyes. Whatever it was was much more than sheer “animal fear” or pain. She still looks at me sometimes with such knowing, and makes her needs so clear–just like the mother fox.

    I envy you for living in Berkeley! I went to college in Portland, and loved getting down to S.F. for spring breaks. Such a beautiful city, with such a great (hate this word, but…) “vibe.” Of course, you’re not getting this magical snowstorm that Michael and I are being treated to!

    Thanks for another beautiful story.


    • OK, now you got me all teary telling me about your dear Cleo! Glad I could share this; the light comes from the most unusual places sometimes…a lot of people might have found the storyteller a bit….”formidable.” 🙂 But he had this huge heart, and so must have his dear girlfriend. Not everyone can “hear” what an animal is saying; so much comes in body language.

      Yes, I feel very blessed here in Berkeley and SF is wonderful. The Bay Area is so beautiful–and (compared to NE) warm! After 33 years of NE winters, and Boston Nor’easters, I’m happy to let others have that excitement. (Though, I have to admit, I’ll always love a big snowstorm.)

      Thanks again for your “thanks.’ With best wishes, Steve

  6. Thanks, Snædís! I was blown away by both the gray fox and the stranger’s story. Glad I had a way to share it.


    (I see you know have a Permalink attached to your name…that’s cool…that something WordPress can do as an option?)

  7. Pingback: The wisdom of a fox and the compassion of a woman « Metta Refuge

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