Last spring, when wildlife photographer Benjamin Olson got a tip that there was an urban red fox den not too far from his home, he knew it was an opportunity to document something special. So, he threw on a ghillie suit (a camouflage get-up that makes you look like Swamp Thing), grabbed his camera and headed out the door.
The fox den was situated on a small hillside just 20 feet wide. Red foxes are well-known for being adaptable and wily, and making use of a small patch of green space situated between a warehouse and a moving truck company to raise an entire family is just another day in the life of Vulpes vulpes.
Olson gained permission from the moving truck company to photograph the den site and he spent the next six weeks documenting the life of an urban fox family.
Have you ever been curious about the urban foxes in your neighborhood? (Photo: Benjamin Olson)
"The first morning I photographed the den, I discovered there were four kits. As the sun began to rise, the kits became active. I watched them wrestle, play with trash, sleep, and crawl under the fence into the moving truck lot. There were two dens, a primary and a secondary. I always set up near the secondary den to avoid leaving scent near the main den where the mother frequented."
Fortunately, the foxes weren't the only ones who didn't mind Olson staking out the den. The enthusiasm Olson felt was shared by the employees of the moving truck company.
"All of the employees at the moving company were elated to have the den right on their property. Most of the movers became curious in what I was doing, and loved to hear more about my experiences with them. Each morning, many of the moving employees would come inspect the den to see if the foxes were out."
The relationship with one of the businesses near the fox den didn't start off quite so smoothly, though. And understandably so when you think about what Olson was wearing on most days.
"During one of my first mornings at the den, I had parked in a neighboring trailer hitch business's parking lot. It was closer and allowed me to approach the den with more stealth. I didn't notice the person, but one of the assistant managers arrived early that morning, watched me put my ghille suit on and disappear. Unknowingly, he called the police and about 20 minutes after I laid down I noticed two police cars patrolling the moving truck company lot (coming within 30 feet of me) and driving towards my car. I didn't think much of it at the time, so I laid still to avoid disturbing the foxes.
"A few days later, I walked away from the den around noon, with only the bottom portion of the ghille suit on and was curiously questioned what I was filming by one of the hitch company employees. He was beyond ecstatic and unaware of the cute foxes. The following day, the general manager approached me as I was getting ready to go shoot and told me the whole story of how his assistant manager called the cops on me, and that they were indeed looking for me, but couldn't find me. I apologized to the manager, and he thought the whole situation was hilarious. Because of this, more people were able to enjoy watching the fox kits. Thank goodness I talked to that employee on his lunch break, or the cops may have shown up again!"
The suit works well, even with the foxes. It is meant to make a photographer disappear because it is only when a subject doesn't realize (or forgets) someone is there that a photographer can finally capture natural behavior. When that happens, the best images are captured.
"One of my most profound moments with the kits is when they approached me laying on the ground in my ghille suit. I kept shooting until they passed my lens' minimum focusing distance. I remained still and the two kits came within 5 feet, completely unaware of my presence. After about 5 minutes of them being within 10 feet of me, they returned to their littermates and began to wrestle some more."
"At times, I would wait hours for the kits to leave the primary den and make way toward me and the secondary den. They would follow the fence line, meandering through the litter. On multiple occasions, after the kits left the secondary den, I would get up and explore closer, noticing trash everywhere, mousetraps with dead mice in them; it was amazing that they were still alive."
Unfortunately, living with the trash we leave all around is part of the danger of being an animal in an urban setting. Foxes and other animals have been known to get trapped in bits of plastic and need help from humans to escape. Getting trapped isn't even the most significant danger.
Even more dangerous is consuming prey that has been contaminated by rodenticide.
"I assume the vixen went to the surrounding parks and neighborhoods to hunt, and on occasion, took advantage of the human dwellers and grabbed what she could from them, including mousetraps with dead mice in them. Couldn't have gotten and easier meal! Unfortunately, this also means that she would take dead animals that had died from rodent poison as well."
Rodenticide is a poison that can work its way up the food chain, affecting not only the rodents it is intended to kill but everything that preys on those rodents. This happens both to animals living in urban areas as well as those living deep in national forests. Everything from foxes to coyotes, from bobcats to mountain lions, from hawks to owls have been found with varying levels of rodenticide in their system. And usually the death is slow and painful. This is sadly one of the dangers so many animals face when living so near humans.
"The trash was everywhere as you can tell, but I never saw the kits play with it. However, I know that they did, because the area around the den, and inside then den would accumulate different pieces of garbage as the days went on. Bottles full of liquid would be moved 20 feet from their original location."
Olson didn't want to stick with just showing the foxes via telephoto lens. Using a camera trap with a wide-angle lens is an excellent way to get up-close photos without disturbing an animal. Motion sensors trigger the camera's shutter, so photographers can take photos from a distance or when they aren't in the area at all.
"I set up two camera traps, one outside the den camouflaged and without a flash, and the other at the section of fence where they crawled under to get into the parking lot. I used flash on the second camera trap, since most of the activity occurred at night."
Olson was careful with his camera traps for his subjects' benefit, and luckily these urban foxes have a fairly high tolerance for novel objects and odd noises. He tried setting up a camera outside the den that was camouflaged and didn't utilize any flashes. The foxes paid no attention to it whatsoever. So Olson decided to set up another.
"Once I discovered they were crawling under the fence, I decided it was time to put the whole system into action, flashes and all. Initially, they were intrigued by it and the flashes, often approaching it and walking straight up to it. The had no negative reactions to it; they continued their nightly ritual of crawling under the fences to access the two den sites on the property. I was elated once they got used to it, because it allowed me to capture images of them interacting with the fence and not the camera. I had it out there for two weeks with no alteration in their behavior."
" In the end, the kits grew up and dispersed. Unfortunately, one of them was hit by a vehicle trying to cross a busy road. To this day, it has been one of the more profound portfolios I've created, both on a personal and professional level."
One thing that Olson became particularly aware of during his time with the foxes is the number of small changes we can make in our own habits that can be a big benefit to the wildlife that lives in our cities.
"Every little action we have, even though small, has a detrimental impact on our surrounding wildlife. The smallest pieces of litter accumulate and impact the spaces we don't frequent, such as this den site. Doing simple things such as picking up litter, not letting the garbage overflow from your cans and get distributed by wind or critters, picking up things that fall from your vehicles as you get in and out, and just thinking about how everything you do has an opposite and equal reaction. In this case, not treating the outdoors like a trash can."