Deadly Skin Disease Threatens Endangered Kit Foxes in Bakersfield
A male San Joaquin kit fox with mange likely won't survive unless treated for the disease. (Tory Westall/Endangered Species Recovery Program, CSU Stanislaus)
The endangered San Joaquin kit fox has an unlikely home in California’s country music capital. No, these bushy-tailed creatures don’t hang out in the honky-tonks in Bakersfield, but they do find plenty of other places to make their dens. Every golf course in town has a family of kit foxes. Industrial parks and school campuses are also popular spots.
“Honestly, they’re all over Bakersfield,” says Alan Paradise, principal of North High School. He’s seen many a fox family peering out of dens near the school’s baseball field.
“You’ll know that it’s an active den when you see bones and wrappings around the outside," he says.
Food wrappings, that is. These small nocturnal foxes will eat junk food and they’ve been known to dumpster-dive. But they also find plenty of marmots, ground squirrels and insects.
Paradise says he sees them everywhere. “They seem to do pretty well in Bakersfield,” he says. “They like it here.”
In fact, they’ve been around for decades. As Bakersfield grew and encroached on their natural habitat, they adapted. Biologists estimate there could be as many as 400 foxes living here.
And since the drought, the Bakersfield kit foxes make up the most stable population of this endangered animal. The numbers are declining in wilder areas like the Carrizo Plain National Monument, where kit foxes are having trouble finding enough food.
Most locals take pride in the kit foxes, but sometimes there are conflicts, says California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Victoria Monroe. She educates people on how to coexist with a protected species that is curious and playful, but skittish around humans. Today, she’s fielding a question from a man who says his neighbor tampered with a kit fox den by shoveling dirt into the entrance.
Monroe checks the den, which is next to a driveway, and notices tiny paw prints in the sand. She says the kit fox has already started mending the hole.
“They’re notoriously intelligent,” Monroe says. “Their behavior is very plastic. And they can change their behaviors in response to human activity to exploit new environments and to really thrive.”
But now these urban foxes are facing a problem they can’t outwit -- a deadly and highly infectious skin disease called mange.
“Because this is such a high-density population, the disease is spreading pretty rapidly,” says Brian Cypher, associate director of the Endangered Species Recovery Program at CSU Stanislaus. “It could spread throughout the entire [urban] population and potentially kill them all.”
And because the drought has already caused a precipitous drop in the numbers of San Joaquin kit foxes out in the wild, this is especially bad news for an endangered animal.
Cypher says mange, which is caused by mites, has never been seen in kit foxes. It appears to affect only the foxes in Bakersfield, not in the wilder areas. “It seems like in the natural lands, the density is too low to carry the disease,” he says.
Diseased foxes lose their fur and scratch so much they get wounds on their skin. Cypher says dogs can usually survive mange, but it’s fatal for kit foxes unless it’s treated. If the mange goes untreated, the kit fox will likely die within a few months.
It’s an urgent situation, so Cypher and his team are trying to tackle the problem by trapping and treating as many kit foxes as possible. So far this year, they’ve treated about 50 kit foxes for mange.
“We’re not sure if we can stop it,” Cypher says. “We’re going to give it our best shot. We’re hoping that, if nothing else, we can protect pockets of foxes.”
Cypher and biologist Tory Westall set traps several nights a week and check them early in the mornings. They treat the foxes with a topical insecticide and then release them. If the fox is really sick, they’ll take it to a wildlife rehabilitation facility.
On this warm summer morning, Cypher and his team are checking traps in southeast Bakersfield.
“Nothing here,” says Westall. The traps at an elementary school are empty. The team then heads to a nearby industrial site. But again, no luck. They’re hoping to find one fox in particular -- a very sick one they've seen in the area.
“It’s probably around here, and for whatever reason, it doesn’t want to go into the traps,” says Westall. “We’ve put in a lot of nights here, and it usually only takes one.”
They’ve set up cameras to survey any sick animals in the area. They use cat food as bait.
“We also use a commercial lure called canine call,” Cypher says. “And it’s got all sorts of nasty stuff in it. Skunk glands, I’m not sure what all else. But the foxes just can’t resist it.”
Most mornings, the team has no trouble catching sick foxes.
Cypher says humans don’t need to worry about getting mange. Mites don’t like humans. And as long as dog owners take care of their pets by treating them for ticks and fleas, the dogs should be fine, too, Cypher says.
In fact, Cypher and his team are waiting for funding to try a new plan typically reserved for dogs: putting collars on the foxes that will kill the mites. And if that doesn’t work, they may try applying insecticides directly to the dens -- anything to protect these endangered San Joaquin kit foxes that have made a home in Bakersfield.