A Slightly Swifter Fox
Breaking news, the Swift fox population of South Dakota is no longer endangered.
At least that was breaking news back in 2001 when they were removed from consideration. As a boy, I had committed to memory the endangered species list because I couldn’t keep up with baseball statistics. From the Florida Panther to the Burying beetle, I committed to memory their ranges and numbers and looked for opportunities to educate my elders on their plight.
The swift fox stood out because of its underdog status. It is the smallest wild dog on the canine totem pole. Coming in at under five pounds, they are half the size of my wife’s house cat. I’ve caught fish bigger than a swift fox.
Due to their size, they are subject to bullying and depredation by their larger kin. Coyotes will take every opportunity to dig out and destroy a den. One of the worst sounds I’ve ever heard was a fox attempting to draw a coyote away from her pups. Whenever the coyote’s head would enter the den, she would rush in to bite him from behind. But it was the sound of her cries that drew me to the drama.
I was also drawn to the size of their ears in relation to their bodies. On the playgrounds of my youth, I was compared to Mickey Mouse and a VW with its doors open, I was late to appreciate the majestic size of the ears I had inherited. The Swift Fox has enormous ears in relation to its size and I subconsciously took them under my wing.
This weekend, I was driving the debate team east to the state tournament in Mitchell. The only swift fox I had ever seen had crossed the road just past the Wasta bridge on I-90. I always mention it to my students as we pass by. But it had been twenty years since I had seen another.
The team did Spearfish proud and repeated as state champions. We were singing our way back across the state in celebration when the second Swift fox of my life darted in front of my headlights at mile marker 122, not ten miles from where I had seen its relative decades before.
The swift fox breeding season runs from late February to the early part of March. If I had been aware, I would have perhaps been more watchful. The first fox easily evaded the tires of our suburban, but the second was in danger.
My middle-school Driver’s Ed instructor, Mr. Sullivan drilled into my head that you should never swerve to avoid a collision with wildlife. The seven singers under my care were unaware of the lightning fast calculus that crossed through my mind as I recognized in a split instant the threatened species of my youth and contemplated jerking on that steering wheel.
I imagined it was a male in pursuit of a female. We’ll never know, the pounding of passing semi’s will leave little left behind for such a determination. The kids heard the slight sound of the impact that I tried to deny but the second half of our team in a trailing vehicle confirmed that the fox hadn’t made it.
It was the right decision. No small animal’s life is worth risking the safety of children. A little research later proved that the species is on the mend and has returned to 40% of their range. I felt blessed to have seen them again after so many years.
But I wish I’d been going a tad slower or he, a little swifter.