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Wednesday, Aug 10 2016

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He initially counted five pups in the most recent litter, about two months ago, but one is missing, and so is their mother.

"Mama hasn't been around since last week, so there's more work for Gray, the father" Leikam says. He hopes we can spot the whole family today.

The first stop on our half-mile loop is a thicket around a bend in the generous trail. This is where, seven years ago, Bill Leikam the amateur birder became Bill "Fox Guy" Leikam when the Bullock's Oriole he had been following led him here.

"There was a fox sitting right there," Leikam remembers, pointing to a spot in the trail. "I was able to approach within 20 feet, even taking pictures. I still didn't believe in it when it left, though."

So he came back the next day, and the next, and the next day after that, rolling out a stump from the brush so he could sit and watch the foxes — and becoming, as Charles Darwin put it, "a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions."

The first sign of the pups, fitting with their urban habitat, is a white van barreling toward us, with a county worker waving his iPhone out the window.

"The pups are playing on the pile again," the man tells Leikam, showing the pictures. Although he was middle-aged with slicked black hair and some wicked wrap-around sunglasses, he sounded as giddy as a 12-year-old.

Leikam thanks the city worker for the tip. We leave the dirt road and cut through a grove of eucalyptus, the roar of trucks getting louder and my belief that wildlife could be anywhere near quickly fading. Yellowstone wolves would be miles from this kind of urban din.

But there they are: four pups, rolling on top of dirt mounds in broad daylight. No scopes necessary, but they seem too clear and too close to be real. They eye us warily for a few seconds but then send more yawns than attention our way for the 10 minutes that Leikam takes his pictures. No sign of the father or mother, but he assures me their ever-stalwart father, Gray, is nearby. It reminds me of the point a Yellowstone ranger had made about mountain lions: The reason we don't see mountain lions is because they see us first.

We stand and observe, the four urban fox pups frolicking less than 20 feet away, a far cry from the 200-yard buffer visitors are expected to give the wild wolves in the Lamar Valley. Since Gray foxes are the only canines with the ability to climb trees, the biggest pup, the alpha, practices climbing on the slippery bark of a eucalyptus limb while the younger brothers yip below in admiration, jealousy, or both. We stay quiet, mostly, but also discuss what Silicon Valley pups and Lamar Valley wolves could mean to the world.

One argument Leikam makes for maintaining a natural corridor is that, without it, the fox could go the way of the raccoon, a species Santa Cruz wildlife biologist Tanya Diamond dubbed the "mafia of the natural world."

I agree. I once met three raccoons in San Francisco's Sunset District on the wrong side of midnight. They didn't budge, and when the leader reared up on its hind legs and hissed, I resisted the urge to drop my wallet and run.

Although continued funding for natural corridors and overall connectivity are challenges for both Leikam and Y2Y, changing perceptions is even bigger. As long as the bulk of humanity believes that ground is better off covered by concrete, or that the sea is OK as a large toilet, or that the air is too invisible to really worry about, science becomes moot, and even money loses its power.

In the Bay Area, at least, a rejuvenated fox population comes without the anxieties of a human population boom: The foxes are not coming for our jobs, they will not raise our rents, they will not add road rage to Highway 101, and they won't even be that one extra annoying person in line at our favorite breakfast spot.

"It's really about having compassion for these fellow creatures," Leikam says. "A lot of people hear the word 'wild' and equate that with 'danger.' Gray foxes are skittish and will run for cover before they will ever attack."

The pups suddenly turn toward the eucalyptus grove, ears up and alert. Three dive into the brush, and we follow at distance. What we find is confirmation of a behavior Leikam has long suspected but never witnessed.

Gray, a larger and more handsome version of his pups, is back with a tree squirrel in his mouth. When Gray drops the kill, the the alpha pup grabs the squirrel and growls if any of his siblings comes close. While he feeds on the squirrel, the others wait patiently.

"That's why he's the biggest. He gets the food first, and most of it," Leikam says.

We continue on the trail that becomes a wider dirt road running north to Redwood City and Facebook — where Leikam helped elevate the foxes to rock star status on the tech giant's campus — and Moffett Field to the south. A dump that was recently capped rises along the road. Leikam says El Niño rains wore a hole through the earthen cap, opening up a several-hundred-foot drop into a world of human waste more frightening than anything we've discussed. Plans for a trail will run on top of the capped dump and will most likely bring more traffic to this area.

One recent challenge to this fragile fox ecosystem was the 2014 proposal of a large aerobic digester, which would suck up 10 acres, including the den we just left. Santa Clara County shelved the project because it couldn't nail down the exact cost. But because the digester was part of a voter-passed measure, it could be tried again.


About The Author

Tom Molanphy


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