In many indigenous cultures, the fox is considered a spirit guide that helps shamans and spiritual seekers find their way
Photo by Wenda Atkin from Buckhor, Ontario
I recently fell in love with foxes. It wasn’t just their good looks that attracted me—though it’s hard to find a fox that isn’t stunning or adorable. It was the fox’s behavioral complexity and charisma that drew me in. I had always been more of a wolf person, as I have a deep appreciation of the wolf’s loyalty to the pack, cooperative social strategies and communal howling. But once I started learning about foxes and how they move through the world—and our imaginations—the wolf’s wily little cousin won me over.
Often described as the most catlike canid, foxes seem to defy categorization. Like cats, they usually hunt alone, stalking and pouncing on their prey in a distinctly feline style. They have catlike eyes with vertical pupils that help them see in low light, and long, sensitive whiskers. One species, the gray fox, even has semi-retractable claws that enable it to climb trees. But foxes, with their small social groups, dominance hierarchies and omnivorous diets, are true canids. In fact, they are the most widespread wild canid in the world. Fiercely adaptable, they live in fields, forests, mountains, deserts, tundras, and even urban environments.
Foxes are also incredibly opportunistic, and will eat just about anything. Consummate omnivores—rivaled perhaps only by people—foxes are happy to dine on small mammals, birds (including chickens), reptiles, frogs, eggs, insects, fish, mollusks, fruits, vegetables, fungi, carrion and even human trash, when available.
Since ancient times, people have admired the fox for its ingenuity, cunning and slyness, and for good reasons. Sometimes, when pursued by hounds during a foxhunt, the fox will double back on its own trail to confound the hounds. Other times, the fox might confuse the hounds by leaping onto a sheep to pick up its scent. When the fox is the one doing the hunting, it relies on all sorts of tricks to catch a meal. It will squeak like a rat or bleat like a lamb in order to lure its unsuspecting dinner. It will play dead in an attempt to draw a crow or other carrion-eater close enough to pounce on. It will even use its tail to brush away its footprints in the snow. Foxes are deliberate, deceitful when necessary, and demonstrate incredible forethought, which is where we get the expressions, “sly as a fox,” “cunning as a fox,” and “to outfox.”
Often seen at “threshold times,” like dawn and dusk, and in areas where wild and cultivated environments transition into one another, foxes came to be associated with boundary zones and the magic of liminal spaces. They seem to find secret pathways, slipping through impenetrable thickets of brush and taking underground shortcuts that appear to defy spatial logic. This may be why, in many indigenous cultures, the fox is considered a spirit guide that helps shamans and spiritual seekers find their way.
According to the old stories, foxes can shape-shift into other animals and even humans, sometimes assuming the form of an irresistible seducer or seductress. They play trickster roles in hundreds of folktales, from Aesop’s Fables in ancient Greece and the Reynard stories of medieval Europe, to the Kitsune tales in Japan, and the Br’er Fox lore of the American South. In many of these stories, the fox outsmarts less wily animals and people, and has great fun at the expense of others. But not all folktale foxes are naughty; some are kindhearted and use their cleverness to help lost people find their way or to assist those struggling with a difficult situation.
Symbolically, the fox has a lot to offer our imaginations. Because it lives in the boundaries between cat and dog, day and night, wild and cultivated, trickster and helper, the fox reminds us that things are not always black and white, and sometimes there is more than one correct answer to a question. The creative and flexible fox warns us that we cannot be too stuck in our ways if we want to succeed. We need to know when to move on and adapt, and how to make the best use of whatever resources we have.
To think like a fox, we need to figure out when we cannot outrun the hounds and when we should try to confuse them instead. At times, the fox advises us to blend in, be quiet, and if necessary, vanish—or at least create the illusion of vanishing. Other times, the dashingly handsome or breathtakingly beautiful fox whispers, “throw caution to the wind and run
with me to the hen house—dinner will
And perhaps most importantly, as we start a new year full of potential, the bushy-tailed trickster reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.