Colorado State University safety and wildlife experts are reminding students, faculty and staff about how to safely interact with wildlife.
"There is the potential for negative interactions between fox and humans that could result in human injuries, the required removal of the animal from campus and the city limits, or possibly could end with lethal control of the animal," said Amanda Hardy, a graduate student who studies wildlife in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Biology at Colorado State. "Ultimately, how we interact with these animals may determine the fate of these foxes and our unique opportunity to coexist with and observe these animals on campus."
Wildlife often learn three basic responses to humans: avoidance, attraction and habituation.
If an animal is repeatedly exposed to stimuli that results in some type of negative outcome, the animal may learn to avoid those particular stimuli. For example, if an animal is harassed by humans, the animal will likely avoid humans, at least temporarily.
If an animal associates an activity or location with a positive outcome, such as food, the animal may be attracted to similar activities or locations. Bird feeders that attract birds and unsecured food waste that attracts black bears are examples of attraction.
Habituated wildlife includes animals that have learned to tolerate or ignore stimuli that offer no negative or positive outcomes. Elk that appear oblivious to hoards of visitors and camera-wielding photographers in national parks are habituated to such activities because they are repeatedly exposed to people.
People have reported several occasions when fox on campus pursuit or prey on squirrels, and foxes also have been seen raiding trash cans at night. In both situations, foxes may be attracted to campus for these food sources, natural and those left by humans, and may have developed tolerance to people, according to Crooks.
If foxes are fed by people, they may associate people with food rewards, Crooks said. An animal that receives food from people may aggressively approach people in search of food, potentially becoming a threat to human safety, even if a person has no food or has not enticed the animal in any way. Unfortunately, outcomes of such encounters may include injuries to people, the wild animal’s relocation or euthanasia. There is also a potential risk from transmission of diseases such as rabies to both humans and dogs.
"Ultimately, habituated foxes walk a fine line between tolerating our presence and activities on campus without getting into trouble by approaching people in anticipation of a handout," said Crooks. "If you like seeing these wild animals on campus, be aware that your behavior can help these animals walk that fine line of neutral tolerance."
The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Biology and the Colorado State University Police Department offer the following safety tips for interacting with foxes on campus:
– Foxes are wild animals; even if they appear to be tame or tolerant to humans, do not approach the animal – instead, give it wide berth to allow it to go where it needs to go.
-Do not feed the fox; feeding wild animals may teach the animal to seek out food from humans, which may result in aggressive behaviors and human injuries, and prompt action from wildlife managers to relocate or use lethal methods to control the animal.
-Discourage an approaching fox from coming any closer by making noise such as clapping or shouting. If an animal becomes complacent to humans, the probability of a person feeding the animal may be higher, and any such food reward may result in a tolerant fox becoming a beggar fox that may eventually become aggressive toward people.
-Secure trash to discourage foxes from foraging through it for food sources and to encourage their dependence on natural foods such as squirrels, rats, mice and other small mammal prey on campus.
For more information visit the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s website at: http://wildlife.state.co.us/WildlifeSpecies/LivingWithWildlife/Mammals/LivingWithRedFox.htm.