BOOKS: Arctic Fox: Life At The Top Of The World

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2009:

Arctic Fox: Life At The Top Of The World
by Garry Hamilton, with photographs by Norbert Rosing
Firefly Books (P.O. Box 1338, Ellicot Station, Buffalo, NY
14205), 2006. 239 pages, hardcover, illustrated. $39.95.

To be familiar with foxes and then meet an Arctic fox is to
be profoundly surprised. Most foxes, even raised in captivity for
generations, are shy and nervous, reluctant to be seen except when
a red fox is attempting to decoy a perceived threat away from a vixen
and kits. Then, brazen though the red fox will act for a moment,
he will vanish just as soon as his family is safe.
An Arctic fox will walk right up with two questions in her
eyes. First, do you have something to eat? If not, can you play?
Arctic foxes love to play peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek, chase games,
and even tug-of-war–but they will be off in a flash if they capture
anything they think might be edible.
Most closely related to the swift foxes of the U.S. west,
Arctic foxes are among the fastest of mammals, and among the
widest-ranging, sometimes meandering thousands of miles from
wherever scientists managed to tag them.
Able to withstand the coldest temperatures of any mammal,
Arctic foxes have been seen just 37 miles from the North Pole, where
even polar bears are not known to venture. Arctic foxes do not
amicably share food with siblings, even as kits, but otherwise seem
cheerful and sociable, if only to find a chance to steal edibles.
In November 2006 I noted in reviewing The World of the Polar
Bear by photographer Norbert Rosing that, “As well as capturing
almost every aspect of wild polar bear life, Norbert Rosing provides
many memorable shots of the creatures who share their habitat,
especially Arctic foxes, who along with ravens are polar bears’
frequent sidekicks. Rosing even caught one Arctic fox in the act of
nipping at a polar bear’s heels– perhaps, Rosing speculated, to
urge the bear to go hunt a seal for both of them. The bear shows no
sign of inclination to harm the fox.”

Fewer Rosing photos appear in Arctic Fox: Life At The Top Of
The World, but author Garry Hamilton provides substantially more
text. Though the format is that of a coffee table book, I found it
a page-turner.
Much like their distant coyote kin, Arctic foxes have
endured intensive hunting and trapping with scant harm to their
population, rapidly recovering to the carrying capacity of their
harsh habitat. Seen as pests and quite cruelty treated by early
Arctic explorer Wilhelm Stellar and his marooned crew in 1741,
Arctic foxes were pets and rat-catchers for several British
expeditions, including the doomed crew of the Franklin in 1848.
Arctic fox fur came into vogue among Parisian prostitutes
circa 1870, Hamilton recounts, but was not worn much by other women
until after World War I. Then fox fur of all kinds came into style.
The traditional Inuit culture collapsed as Inuit quit subsistence
hunting to trap foxes–but after World War II, fox farming
supplanted trapping as the chief source of fox fur. Eventually fox
fur fell out of fashion. Inuit raised during and after the fox fur
boom found they could no longer live as their forebears had.
Iceland from the 13th century until late in the 20th century
tried to extirpate Arctic foxes as purported threats to sheep.
Icelandic fox biologist Pall Hertsteinsson, hired circa 1980 to head
the fox eradication program, instead demonstrated through studies
that even if Arctic foxes hunted sheep in ancient times, they no
longer do, and in 1994 won the repeal of bounties on foxes. The
Icelandic fox population has since increased tenfold.
Though Arctic foxes are no longer persecuted, either for
pelts or as predators, they are now particularly challenged by
global warming. Polar bears are the iconic endangered species most
at risk from the retreating Arctic ice pack, but Arctic foxes share
the same habitat. Just as polar bears are superbly adapted to ice
and ocean, but not to compete with grizzlies on dry land, Arctic
foxes tend to be rapidly driven out by larger red foxes wherever
their territories meet.
Unfortunately, Hamilton writes on pages 158-159,
“Researchers know little about what kind of toll rabies takes on
arctic foxes. On the one hand, there is evidence that rabies may at
times be present in as much as 75% of a given population. But the
presence of the virus doesn’t always lead to death or even disease,
so what percentage of the population suffers during an outbreak
remains unknown.”
Authenticated rabies in any species is so close to invariably
fatal that the rare possible nonfatal exposures reported in widely
separated studies are generally believed to have other explanations,
such as sampling or testing errors. The incubation time for rabies
in most species may vary from two weeks to 90 days, depending on the
infection site, and occasionally is longer. Clinical experiments on
Arctic foxes found incubation times ranging from eight days to six
Questioned about his claims concerning rabies, Hamilton sent
three studies, none either demonstrating or asserting that Arctic
foxes are immune carriers of rabies. One noted that testing the
remains of 619 Arctic foxes who were killed as suspected rabid
between 1971 and 1998 found that 307 actually were rabid. Among 99
Arctic foxes trapped for a later study, five were rabid.

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