Ebony, in: “I Go Free?”

(With apologies to Macca and Stevie)

This is a post I’ve had in mind to do for a few years but, for various reasons, have not created until now.


This beautiful creature is Ebony, one of a family group I got to know very well during the brief time I volunteered at a wildlife rehab centre north of Bowmanville in the spring of 2019. Besides fully enjoying the amazing opportunity I had to interact with them – and many other lovely animals as well – I also learned a great deal of things about foxes that were a total surprise to me. A prime example of this: one day, a friend of mine who absolutely adores foxes came to learn I was getting the chance to work closely with several of them, and she asked me if it were true that foxes “don’t smell that great?” I didn’t have an answer for her right away, so I told her I’d find out and let her know. Not too long after that, Ebony was neutered and had to spend a little recuperation time separated from the family, in a cage in the garage with the food prep area and other cages around him. My next shift I had to go into the space to get some food and, as I opened the door, I was slammed with an overwhelming smell. I realized right then that the specific odour of the rehab grounds that I always noticed upon getting out of my car on arrival (which I had to that point attributed to skunks that had passed through but not recently) was, in fact, emanating from the many foxes on site. A lot of pennies dropped that day, including why the Arctic fox exhibit at the zoo always smelled like a skunk had died nearby and never been taken away. It turns out it was the foxes themselves all along. Fascinating.

While Ebony was in the recovery “ward,” I also learned something else about them (or maybe it was just him): he made a cute kind of “gulping” sound from time to time. I imagine it would have had something to do with an increase in his stress level, as he wasn’t used to being alone, and the other side of the garage was filled with baby raccoons, who pretty much never shut up. Here’s a very short video where you can hear both Ebony and the babies pretty clearly; please have a listen, and I’ll explain why this was important later in the post.

Ebony checking me out on an early visit

One day during Ebony’s time in the garage, he made a bold daylight escape from his cage! My opinion is that he dragged a nearby blanket into his space which caught on the latch and pulled it open enough for him to get out. This opinion was not universally shared, but the facts remain: the cage he was in seemed to have a faulty lock so one of the animal care staff moved him to a different spot, from which he ironically escaped about an hour later. When this happened, an “all hands on deck” call went out from the head of the rehab, and all of who were there at the time dropped what we were doing and immediately went about trying to locate this young boy. A staffer and I were constructing an enclosure around a pool to contain quite a few orphaned goslings and cygnets while they grew big enough to be released. The call came through on her radio and she led me to the front of the main building, where several other people were assembled. After a very brief discussion, all of us headed off in the direction “where he ran the last time he escaped” (yikes!) and I followed them towards the enclosures at the southwest end of the property – one of which was where his family was located – and the woods beyond. After I had taken a few steps, however, I realized that it was pretty unnecessary to add yet another searcher to the throng in that area, so I turned back and headed in more easternly direction instead. I checked into a couple of thickets and an empty enclosure (which was shut, but nevertheless…) and was about to turn toward the woods at that end of the property when I noticed something very unusual.

Luigi, a New Guinea singing dog

Pretty much in the dead centre of all of the enclosures lived two wonderful New Guinea singing dogs, named Mario and Luigi. Every time anyone ventured near their space, whether to come in to feed and clean, or simply to pass by on the way to another animal, these two super-friendly bois would come to the fence nearest to the person coming by, wagging their tails and smiling and generally making happy-to-see-you noises. Not just most of the time. All of the time. So as I distractedly began to walk past their enclosure, I instinctively called them by name to say hi. It took me a couple of seconds before I realized they had not come over to see me, but in fact were at the far end of the enclosure, looking off along the path which led to the east. This was so unusual that I immediately realized something more interesting than me must have distracted them off in that direction, and it was no leap whatsoever to come to the conclusion that Ebony must have run by at some point and disappeared up the path. I went around to the other side of their enclosure and looked in the direction they were looking; I didn’t see Ebony, but one glance back at their faces (still not acknowledging me for more than a second at a time) told me all I needed to know.

I began to walk eastward, past the other enclosures and animals, and was approaching the portables when a very new volunteer came towards me quite quickly, asking if we were looking for any foxes (she did not have access to a radio and was unaware of the situation). When I explained what was happening, she told me that she had been doing some work on the far side of the portable and the farmer from across the road (who clearly was used to this sort of thing) had approached her to tell her that he had observed a fox heading for his property. He asked if we had any escapees, and she said she would go and find out. I thanked her, asked her to find the others (who were quite a long way away at this point, in the opposite direction), and to let them know where Ebony likely was. Then I walked up to the road to talk to the farmer.

For a short break in the story, please enjoy this video of Mario and Luigi greeting me on a rainy day when I entered their enclosure to clean up their bowls and detritus. You can easily see why not receiving a greeting from them would be very strange.

Ebony after recovery from neutering

When I reached the road, I saw the farmer talking to someone in a pickup who had come to do some work on his property. I excused my interruption, and asked about Ebony. He said that it had actually been his dog, Lady, who had seen the fox… and then he suggested that I let her lead me to him! I looked down to the side of him and saw a very eager gal who appeared to be some sort of herder (or a cross), gazing at me with a wagging tail and obviously looking forward to showing me her find. I followed her onto the property (the farmer mentioned they had seen Ebony near an array of solar panels) and let her lead me where she wished, When we reached the array, she paused, but Ebony clearly wasn’t there. She looked up at me, so I prompted her to “show me the fox, Lady, where’s the fox?” She wagged more fiercely and began to head toward the back area of the house, which had a very small barn-like structure attached. She aimed straight for an open door which looked to me as if it led into the kitchen or a similar area, and I hesitated to follow her into a private dwelling. While I was standing there contemplating my next move, with Lady looking at me from the other side of the doorway, wondering what was taking me so long, I suddenly heard a familiar sound. I listened to it carefully and realized it was that same gulping sound that Ebony had been making in the garage! (Afterward I told people about this sound and not a single other volunteer or staff member had any idea what I was talking about. Obviously I was meant to be the one to search the farm.) I then moved much closer to the doorway and realized that it didn’t lead into the house at all, but rather the small barn behind it, and that the sound was clearly coming from in there. I walked through and let my eyes adjust to the dim light, but it only took a few seconds to isolate the gulping noise and find Ebony crouching in some straw beneath an open staircase. I knelt down to comfort him for a few moments, and then several people showed up at the door as well from the rehab centre. One of them brough me a blanket to wrap around Ebony, but in addition to the surgery recovery he also had a gash on his head from one of his brothers attacking him just before the operation; it was relatively minor, but I really didn’t want to hurt him more with the blanket pressing on in, so ultimately I decided not to use it. He very calmly allowed me to just scoop him up in my arms and carry him out of the barn, where I handed him off to one of the people who had driven over, so they could get him back to his home as quickly as possible. I walked back with a few of the staffers, who all were suitably impressed with the details of my story. One in particular sticks with me, as she was very fond of Ebony and had tears in her eyes as she thanked me for finding him.

Ebony’s handsome Papa, Jet

There was some (unnecessary, in my opinion) fallout from this event, but I don’t wish to elaborate and ruin the feel-good aspect of it for everyone. Next time I saw Ebony alone (on my next shift), he was quite clearly happy to see me; when I leaned in to change his water dish, he gave me the one and only kiss I have ever received from a fox to this day, right on my cheek. I guess he could just as easily have bitten me; I processed this later and was much more careful from then on, but I’ll never forget that moment. As for the dogs – Mario, Luigi, and Lady – I grabbed some yummy treats from the food locker and handed them out to all three, along with some rubs and soft words for each of them. I would never have found Ebony alone. None of us would have.

This all worked out for me (and Ebony) because I followed quite a few credos that day. Always use all the tools available to you to solve a difficult problem, whether you think they’re helpful or not. Always pay attention to what the animals are trying to tell you. And learn, learn, learn every single day, such as what noise a caged fox makes, or how to follow your instincts. It seemed pretty easy and obvious to me to read those specific clues that day, but then I’ve spent a lot of time observing the animals at the zoo and made a lot of ethological notes that have helped me immensely in leading tours and in my photography. Take the time, if you have it, to do the same. You will be more richly rewarded than you could ever have imagined.

I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed remembering it and putting it down on paper.