Last week, Wildlife Rescue in Chattanooga received a call from a Suddy Daisy woman who spotted what she thought was a silver fox scratching at her back door, trying to get in.
“This is clearly not a normal thing for a fox to do,” said Juniper Russo, CEO of the group, known as For Fox Sake.
Russo said the animal – a non-native arctic fox – had been acquired by someone in the area as a pet.
The fox, dubbed by rehab specialists Cooper, didn’t have a microchip, so Russo posted photos of the fox on social media to see if she could track down its legal owner.
The post eventually reached Cooper’s newest owner, who said the fox was acquired from a friend who was neglecting the animal.
Cooper’s caretaker built a chicken wire enclosure to use as a short-term home for the fox, who escaped and made his way into the yard of a neighbor, who called For Fox Sake.
The interim ranger agreed with Russo that moving Cooper to a reserve was in the interest of the fox, and Russo was able to find a long-term home for Cooper at the Exotic Pit Wonderland, a Knoxville wildlife facility.
“We work so closely together, because we get calls so often about exotic pets, and there’s a lot of overlap between what we two do,” Russo said by phone from Exotic Pet Wonderland.
Any captive-bred wildlife—even if it’s native to the area—can’t be legally rehabilitated and released into the wild in Tennessee, so Russo often turns to Exotic Pet Wonderland when looking for long-term homes for captive-bred wildlife, she said. .
It’s not uncommon for people who buy a fox as a pet to later decide they are unable to take care of the animal, and Exotic Pet Wonderland founder Lynsey Hembrey said in a phone interview that she took seven such foxes as a private owner before she started the sanctuary in 2019.
“The need was too great for you to do that as an individual,” said Hembree, who now lives more than 30 foxes on the sanctuary. “There are more people getting these animals every year, and most of the time, they don’t know what to do with them. Every year, there are more and more give up.”
Russo said For Fox Sake also gets about 30 calls a year from people who have “kidnapped” young wild foxes to keep as pets before realizing that keeping foxes is more difficult than they thought.
She said animals that were not bred in captivity can continue to live in For Fox Sake and serve as educational animals, be placed in a zoo, or rehabilitated and released into the wild if they are still very young.
Most of the foxes in Exotic Pet Wonderland are polar foxes, which Hembree said are legal to own in Tennessee without a permit. She said native species, including red and gray foxes, require a permit, and permits are easy to obtain.
She said she’s working with officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to find ways to reduce the growing number of pet foxes that need new homes once owners realize they lack the resources to care for them.
“We have always said that almost all the foxes that people buy in the spring, when they are born, will not see the next spring with their owner,” Hembrey said, adding the average lifespan of the foxes in which they live. The sanctuary after the surrender of its owners is 212 days. “It’s a huge, growing problem for an animal that is much more difficult to care for than a dog or a cat, or even a small exotic animal. There is a lot that goes into their care.”
What dominates most fox owners, Rousseau said, is the scent of the animals.
“Both arctic foxes and red foxes stink in the high sky, and there is no possible way to get rid of the smell,” she said.
Foxes have glands that produce a strong musky smell, and their urine smells like musky, Russo said.
“When they are kept indoors, they tend to identify everything they think is theirs, including the owner’s bed and rugs,” she said.
Russo said that foxes can become more aggressive when they reach puberty and are often not as lovable as their owners would like.
“It wasn’t their fault,” she said. “It’s just a wild animal that isn’t really equipped to live in a human home and be treated like a cat or a dog.”
Contact Emily Crisman at email@example.com or 423-757-6508.