California's San Joaquin Valley is home to a special subspecies of kit fox. Small even by kit fox standards, highly secretive, and one of the most endangered animals in California, the San Joaquin kit fox has gone from a species spotted throughout the hot and dry valley to one that is found mostly only along the fringes. Over the last century, the species' home has been converted from open, arid semi-dessert to ranches and farmland, complete with housing developments and strip malls. Now there are only an estimated 7,000 individuals left, making every new litter of kits vitally important.
Donald Quintana, a wildlife conservation photographer, scoped out a pair of foxes who had six kits this season. He spent many hours over the last five weeks with the family, watching the kits grow, play and learn the ropes of fox life. His images tell the story of daily life for these youngsters and prod the soft spot we all have for adorable baby animals — and whose success we can't help but root for.
A family of endangered San Joaquin kit foxes enjoys the shade of a tree near their den site.
Like many species of wildlife, including other fox species, the San Joaquin kit fox is losing its habitat to human development and agriculture. Even the arid habitat of California's San Joaquin Valley has been converted to houses and farmland since the 1930s, requiring the kit foxes to adapt. And like many other fox species, they have figured out ways to coexist in urban areas.
"In this day and age, finding a kit fox den out in the wilds can be very challenging," says Quintana. "Being that the San Joaquin kit fox is losing its natural habitat and moving into urban areas, it wasn’t too difficult to find a den in an urban environment. For the most part they are utilizing golf courses, parks and school campuses. Since they are endangered, their den areas will be taped off and signs restricting access to the den sites are in place in order to protect them."
It is lucky that some members of the species are adapting to their altered environment and even providing humans with a few benefits at the same time. Though it may seem strange at first to have an endangered carnivore — or any predator — as a neighbor, the San Joaquin kit foxes are yet another example of how urban carnivores can be incredibly helpful.
"Having reliable habitat for dens is crucial for their survival. It seems as though the kit foxes are taking matters into their own hands by moving into urban environments, adapting and setting up homes. They are the perfect urban carnivores if you ask me," says Quintana. "They eat rodents, insects, and other pests; they are too small to harass your pets; and being quiet and nocturnal, you don’t really even know they are there. There have been no instances where kit foxes have attacked people, and interaction with them can be considered a positive experience. Personally from watching this den, I know this to be true."
Hey, so, where's lunch? A San Joaquin fox kit taps its parent on the back for a little attention.
Quintana witnessed the family members as they went about their daily business, including feeding, grooming and playing.
"I think the highlight of observing them is watching them grow and seeing that they are healthy, playful and just so darn cute. The parents are amazing caretakers, and it seems that when they were at a very young age, the parents would take turns watching them. The father was just as much a part of the parenting as the mother. Learning about their behavior is always such a wonderful aspect of being there photographing them."
Even though the San Joaquin kit fox is a federally listed endangered species and a California threatened species, that doesn't mean it is safe from harm. A little rope around the den area does not protect individuals from the many dangers they face, both from natural predators and weather conditions to the many human-introduced dangers like ingesting poisons left out for rodents and cars on highways. Even fast food has become a problem as these urban dwellers scavenge leftovers near trash cans — and fast food raises their cholesterol levels in the same way it raises ours. Luckily, there are conservationists who are working hard to protect the few individuals left.
"There are some amazing plans in effect for helping to preserve and protect the San Joaquin kit fox," notes Quintana, "one being the Metropolitan Bakersfield Habitat Conservation Plan, which allows developers to pay a fee for each acre of land that they develop. The fees are then used to manage and purchase non-urban natural habitat for the kit foxes to utilize."
Mmmmm ... your breath smells like gopher. Two kits from the San Joaquin kit fox family take in the scent of their sibling.
Quintana recommends the book "Urban Carnivores: Ecology Conflict and Conservation" for learning more about this species. "Chapter 5 was written by biologist Brian Cypher and has some amazing information about San Joaquin kit foxes and their plight.""For the most part, they do seem to be adapting very well to the urban environment. But, their struggle for survival is still a huge uphill battle."
Two siblings from the San Joaquin kit fox litter wrestle together.
Two San Joaquin kit fox siblings strike up a game of leap frog.
The siblings from the kit fox family play a game of keep-away with a few sycamore leaves.
Say uncle!! San Joaquin kit fox siblings wrestle together, learning important skills for later in life.
Taking care of a family of eight in the city is exhausting!! One parent from the San Joaquin kit fox family indulges in a big yawn and stretch.
A parent and baby San Joaquin kit fox share a moment together.
As an endangered species, the newest generation of San Joaquin kit foxes holds a special status — their success means the success of the species.
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