Red foxes have slyly found a way to survive on New Jersey’s barrier islands by scavenging food scraps, hunting rodents and stealing bait from unsuspecting fishermen.
The one that Ray Zaleski found in his Ocean City backyard this spring even has an affinity for peanuts.
“He would put his paw on top of the shell and then eat the nut,” said Zaleski, of 55th Street, who named this particular fox Peanut.
Most people don’t expect to find wildlife at the shore other than gulls, jellyfish and the occasional dolphin. But wild animals do find their way onto an island, and have swam, crossed during low tides and even crossed over on bridges.
When they’re spotted on the barrier islands, they can cause a sensation.
A deer that made its way onto Absecon Island last year created a frenzy in Margate and Ventnor, and there was a backlash after Atlantic City police officers shot and killed what many believe to have been the same deer.
There was also a brief controversy in Avalon last year because the borough was trapping skunks and moving them off the island due to resident complaints — something the state forbids.
Red foxes caused a stir of their own this year in Ocean City when residents started noticing them more often. The Humane Society of Ocean City received more than 40 calls about foxes in the past three months.
“The problem was that some people in town started feeding them, and then they became more domesticated and started to be less afraid of people,” Executive Director Bill Hollingsworth said.
Foxes are virtually harmless to humans. They usually weigh between 8 and 15 pounds, hunt from dusk to dawn, and travel alone rather than in packs.
They can pose a threat, though, if infected with a disease such as rabies, which can be fatal to people and pets. About 140 rabid foxes have been found in the state since 1989, including 14 in Atlantic County, 12 in Ocean County and two each in Cape May and Cumberland counties, according to the state Department of Health and Senior Services.
If a fox is healthy, though, the state does not allow animal control officers to simply trap them and move them. The state does have a limited fox and coyote hunting season that extends from September to March, and more than 3,500 red foxes were killed during the 2010-11 season, the most since 1989, according to the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.
None of the cases reported in Ocean City this year has involved rabies. Hollingsworth said they were all more or less regarding the animals as nuisances.
“There’s really nothing to worry about,” Hollingsworth said. “You sort of want them because they do take care of the rodent population.”
However, foxes have been a concern for those people who monitor endangered birds, such as piping plovers.
Todd Pover, beach nesting bird project manager for the Division of Fish and Wildlife, said all it takes is one fox to damage a colony of birds.
“Foxes have been a pretty strong limiting factor on success,” he said. “They can eat the eggs, they can eat the chicks, sometimes even the adults.”
Pover said foxes have made it on to all of the state’s barrier islands at this point, even Little Beach, which sits between Brigantine and Long Beach Island and is the state’s only barrier island that’s unconnected to the mainland.
In Ocean City, Hollingsworth said, foxes have been seen scampering across the island’s bridges. He said he also suspects that wildlife often wanders across the Intracoastal Waterway near 52nd Street from Upper Township, particularly during low tides.
After one low tide this past winter, he said he noticed a spike in opossums, raccoons and squirrels, and even a couple of deer were spotted on the island.
He started receiving repeated calls about foxes around the beginning of March, which was about the same time that Zaleski noticed the fox drinking water in his backyard.
He said the animal was young and unafraid of people. It even seemed to be friendly with his Shih Tzu, Beamer.
“He got to be so friendly, one day he took a peanut right out of my hand,” he said.
Later, he noticed the fox was injured right above its paw, and he suspected that someone tried to catch it with a leg trap. Hollingsworth later came and took the young fox to an animal rehabilitator.
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