Firefly had been exquisite. She is now a bedraggled little mess but we hope she will soon be exquisite again.
She was not her usual vibrant feisty self last month. She spent most of her time hiding in her box. We waited a couple of days to see if it was temporary but when we saw her shaking, that was it. Poor Wamaka had to go back outside. He wasn’t ready. He didn’t want to. He had adapted just fine to the attention and warmth and being in the center of things. He and Cucumber had reached an accommodation. He loved the meditations. He had fallen in love with Talkeetna who came in each day after Cucumber went back out. Not to mention the help being indoors in winter gave him physically. But there is only room for species that get along in our tiny living room and Firefly needed to come in to the warmth.
It soon became clear that something was very wrong, though we could see nothing obvious. We brought her to Don the vet. She was so sweet, letting this stranger handle her in a strange room and situation. He poked and prodded and lifted and listened and squeezed and looked in her mouth… and she just let him. He kept remarking on it.
Her temperature was normal. Her vital signs were normal. Her blood work was normal. We pointed out that her feet and face seemed swollen. As Don examined her face he was puzzled. He looked at it more closely. Then he shaved a patch of fur off her cheek. What we saw was horrible. Under that exquisite thick luxuriant fur coat was a thick oozing crust, with deep fissures and cracks. Wherever he looked, there it was. Her whole little body, under that luxurious coat, was covered with thick cracked crust. He had never seen anything like it. He suspected some sort of autoimmune problem. He didn’t know what to do for her.
He gave her antibiotics for the open wounds, took biopsies to send to the lab, gave us pain pills, and sent her home to wait for the lab results, which would take 10 days or so. A couple of days later, seeing her suffering so, I called again saying we have to do something to ease her… we just can’t wait. He mentioned that the next day he noticed little bite marks on his arms—that perhaps we should treat her for a mite infection while we waited, even though she was not scratching or showing any other typical symptoms. Desperate for her, I took her to Summer, another vet, for a second opinion and mentioned Don’s suspicion. She took a scraping of her skin, looked under the microscope- and there they were. Tons of little mites. Firefly had an overwhelming infestation. Summer, too, had never seen anything like it.
We treated her for the mites. She continued to look utterly miserable for the next several days. I kept telling her, “A couple more days and you’ll feel better.” It was as much for me as for her—for a couple of days she looked so miserable I was afraid I would wake up and find a limp little body. But gradually, she started to come back to life. As her skin began to heal from the inside out, her fur started to come out in clumps attached to quarter- inch thick pieces of crust. Every now and then she would give us quick little licks… so sweet. So expressive.
After two weeks we felt she was well enough to put her back out where she could get sunshine and exercise. She looked a mess but she was healing. On one visit, while Jean was petting her, he instinctively started to pull off some of the clumps, squeezing the dried crusts till they crumbled and then pulling them off, grooming her face, which she couldn’t reach. She stood there completely still, in ecstasy, for a very long time, closing her eyes in bliss.
It will be a while before she is back to her own gorgeous self but she is on her way.
As fur farm fox, Firefly would have been killed for her coat at about 7 months of age, somewhere around October or November when her coat was at its best. We noticed the problem in January. She still looked fine when we took pictures of her in December for our “Fox in a Box” Christmas card. Since the mites she had are not typical for our valley and none of our other animals ever had any problem, our best guess is that she must have brought them with her from the fur farm. For some reason, they became activated as her coat came into the unnatural fullness she was bred for and her immune system was not able to fight them off. My first thought when Don said autoimmune disease was inbreeding. Not only are the foxes bred for unnaturally thick fur, probably disturbing some of the genetics of their skin development, but this was a fur farm for silver foxes, a recessive trait requiring even more unnatural selection.
I am writing this story, and the following paragraphs, because my staff—Amanda, Marie, Skye—plus Allan, a visiting board member, all ganged up on me and demanded it. Sometimes I do what they ask.
The reason they were so adamant that I write this is because they felt it was a new angle on what we do to animals when breeding them for our own use. They are all totally in love with Firefly, watching her grow, and seeing how joyous and lovely she is, so her suffering disturbed them greatly. I discussed with them my own perspective—that fur farms seem particularly terrible—but in fact, it is not really that different from factory farming. It is the idea that we use and shape animals for our own purpose without regard to their well being that is the underlying problem—be it breeding puppies, factory farming, or any other life form we alter to suit ourselves without thought or respect for their being-ness. As soon as we started agriculture as a species, ideally we would have developed an ethical system to go along with it.
I was of two minds about whether to submit to my unruly, passionate, strong-minded staff. Is this the place to discuss these complex issues? You have come to expect tales that are evocative or joyous. Is it fair to send this type of discussion to you in our e-newsletter? We get enough negative news and there is much joy and beauty here to share. I would love to hear your thoughts.
At least I can leave you with this: some humans caused the suffering of Firefly and other humans alleviated it and gave her a chance to “speak” about who she is and who foxes are and can be. To show her capacity for utter sweetness and trust as she let Jean groom her while uttering little cries of delight. To imply that that level of sweetness might be there with all animals when there is no fear, no need to fight for survival, only trust.