Photography In The National Parks: Fox Kits In Yellowstone National Park, Shooting Nature And Broken Hearts
I had not planned to stop at the fox den that day, but there was something about the intensity of the shooters who were already on scene that made me stop. Full attention and cameras were focused just west of the den, in an area that had been closed by rangers.
Without rushing, I grabbed the camera and the tripod and went down on the firing line where 30 to 40 other photographers already stood, arriving just in time for the badger to join a fox kit in its den. The second kit ran up the hill, but our attention was on the vixen and we never saw where the youngster hid.
The first time that I realized that photographing an animal meant that a relationship - an attachment - had formed in my mind and heart was when I saw a woman proudly displaying the big horn ram she had killed in the Thompson Falls, Montana, area. I had spent much time with those rams, watching their personalities and distinguishing one from the other.
"This doesn't seem right," I told a friend. "I photograph an animal and someone kills it the next week. Not sure that I can do this..."
The fox den, with its two kits, at the Yellowstone Picnic area was nearly a photographer's dream come true. Parking, bathroom and wildlife, all in one neat little package. Many photographers made the choice to forget about the bears, wolves and other animals in favor of shooting the little fox family.
I remember thinking to myself that the availability of the fox den was a gift that could go away at any moment and so it should not be taken for granted. But this was an ending that myself and other photographers never saw coming.
Photographing the foxes was difficult, despite the luxury of restroom nearby, because the light was hardly ever perfect, it rained a lot and time and patience were required. Also, because of the way rangers had closed off the area, about 50 yards from the den, there were very few clear views of the entire den area that did not have grass, sagebrush and trail signs in the way.
Some photographers arrived before dawn each morning and saved their spot while the rest of us tried to make do with the views that we could find. At times the cameras were set up five deep and more than 100 people would be trying to capture the lives of the foxes.
Long days were spent standing, waiting, and wishing for certain shots. My ultimate wish would have been a family portrait on a log that ran in front of the den, but I was happy to get portraits of the two kits with each parent. Actually, I felt blessed by the opportunity to watch the family day after day, despite wind, rain and hot sun. All shots were a gift, though, as time wore on and backup drives filled, it was easier to pick and choose the photos.
The fox family had no set routine that we could set our clocks by, and so it was always a crap shoot when making a decision on how best to use precious time in Yellowstone.
Dad, quite the productive hunter, always showed up at the den with a mouthful of rodent, or other prey, and would only stay long enough to stash the goods before taking off again.
Though, there were times when he would show up and mom would be gone and so he would stash the vole or squirrel, catch his breath, and then go to both holes of their den and tell the kits to come out and play. Out of each hole a kit would bound, happy to see dad (or mom) and to be set free in the small world around their home. In the beginning the kits were timid about venturing far, but as the days wore on they wandered a little further out. There was a bent tree that they would run part way up, and then jump off, right before the scene would have made for a great image. I wanted the kits running together up the tree, but the image never materialized.
We rarely saw mother and father together, not until those final days, because mom would often disappear up the hill for hours at a time, leaving us, the fox paparazzi to babysit. More than a few of us fancied ourselves the protectors of the kits and felt certain that nothing would happen while we were in charge. After a few days mom began spending more time at the den and the pups were able to play for longer periods of time.
At other times we stood and stared at the den, ready to aim and shoot when the action began. Hours would go by and some photographers would come and go while others stayed, fearful of missing the perfect shot.
Life went on and the kits grew bigger. Mom, or dad, would give the youngsters a rodent to chew on, but more often than not, the kits tossed it into the air or played tug-a-war. I never saw them actually take a bite of the food that their parents offered them, but also only saw one short attempt, by one of the kits, to nurse. The young foxes appeared to be well-fed and more interested in playing and loving on their parents, than anything else.
More than once, the Yellowstone Picnic area thief, the raven, flew in and grabbed the prey that the kits left lying around. That is one big raven!
After a week or so it was easier to feel confidant that the fox scene would bring many more photo ops and I was eager to watch the kits grow.
But, one day the badger came to pay a visit.
Mom fought the badger as it made its way towards the den and down inside of the hole where one of the kits were. On the firing line, we watched and waited while mom ran back and forth to each hole, often sticking her head in and coming out with a mouth full of fur.
What happened to the kit? We all wondered. We watched in breathless silence.
Nearby a herd of big horns watched also, as if sitting in a stadium and watching a game.
Eventually, the kit came out of the hole closest to the tree and acted as if it had been down in the basement playing with its friend, the badger. The foxes seemed to have a large store of food stashed away and we theorized that perhaps it was the dead rodents that saved the kit that time. At one point mama fox dug down in the the den and came out with a brown tail from some furry creature, which she tossed aside.
Then the bighorns were moving closer and the kit was hovering around mom and the den, though it did get brave at one point and try to chase the sheep away. Successful with one yearling lamb, the kit tried to run off the most curious of the ewes before it walked on top of their den, but the sheep stomped her foot and the youngster was smart enough to run back towards mom.
There they sat, kit close to mom and the sheep watching from just a few feet away.
And, then the badger came out of the second hole and the fight was on once again. No one saw the kit head for the hill and we worried about it for some time afterwards, until both kits were seen again. The vixen and the badger went at it and I saw the fox wrap her jaws around the badger's head more than once, but her frail body was no match for the stout weight and sharp teeth of the other's low-lying body.
Neither backed down. The badger had more than one chance to leave, but it would turn right around and head back towards the den, fighting mom the whole way. I worried for the female fox and her ability to thwart off such a vicious and determined creature, but she held her own, which wasn't enough to keep the badger out of the den.
After maybe a minute of intense action the badger was back in the den and the exhausted vixen was either keeping vigil or running back and forth between the two entrances, trying to figure out how to get the intruder out of her home. And the sheep were getting closer, with one ewe actually stepping onto the den and sniffing down into the hole before trying to advance closer to mom. But, the vixen was successful in getting the sheep to back off, even though it was just a few feet.
The female fox had enough going on with the badger and the kits and I found myself wishing that the sheep would just get out of her way. And, then, the raven appeared. Sheep, kits, badger and raven - where was dad? The raven dove in and took off with the tail, landing in a nearby tree to dine on its stolen meal.
More and more spectators arrived and everyone was worried about the kits. With lenses trained towards the den we waited and speculated about the events. And, then it began to rain, which drove away several people, while many of us grabbed rain gear and decided to wait. I wanted to know that the kits were safe and also wanted to see dad come back and kick butt against the badger.
But, darkness neared and we were forced to leave and let events unfold without us.
The following day mom and dad had moved the kits into a new den, not far from the old one. The relief to find the kits okay and dad on the scene was felt all around the badger den that day. Dad hovered over the hole, not doing much until mom came down and snarled at him. We all seemed to have gotten the impression that she was telling him to get that thing out of their home. Dad took to digging furiously, eventually coming out with some brown, furry creature with webbed paws, which he set aside for future dining for him and the raven. Mom ran back and forth between the two dens and the kits were seen playing on top of the hill.
Because of other obligations, I had to leave and that was the last time I saw the kits alive.
The following day, while photographers looked on and while the fox parents were off together, the badger climbed out of the original den and into the new one on the top of the hill where the kits were. There was no second hole to this new den and no way out for the kits. Silence fell as people watched, all but certain that the kits would be gone.
Many of us held out hope, right along with the fox parents, that the kits had been able to hide from the badger or that it would have no interest in harming them. We watched and waited. The parents continued to sleep at the den site, waiting for the badger to come out. One day, two days, three days - the badger was seen running back into the den. I watched as the vixen appeared with dinner that evening, which she stashed before continuing her vigil over the gravesite of her children. Hope dwindled, but many of us wanted to know the end of the story. There was a rumor that the parents had been seen taking the kits away shortly before the badger's intrusion but, given that both parents were sleeping at the den, few held out much hope that they had escaped.
Finally, the badger left the den and dad was able to go down and dig up what remained of his children. One by one he brought the body parts out of their death chamber and he and the vixen rolled over them, capturing the scent of their youngsters one last time. The dad went a little crazy, running around in circles for a minute, while mom watched, and then the two of them disappeared over the hill together.
Badgers became the hated species of Yellowstone, an opinion or feeling held by most who had spent much of the past nine days with the foxes.
Once the rangers finally took the signs down from around the fox dens, I felt the need to walk up the hill and say goodbye. On the ground, close to the den, were two small tails with their little white button ends. I stared at them, and even had an urge to take the tails for my own, but ultimately said a short prayer and left them for others to see, when they walked the hill to say their final words.
The story of the fox kits ended and my heart broke. Life is so precious and fleeting and there are no guarantees that tomorrow will come in our lives, or while watching and photographing the wildlife in our national parks, and so every moment counts. The fox parents continue to stay in the vicinity of the two dens and have been seen running and playing together. Life goes on and perhaps there is next year…
And, now the badgers have cute little babies and face dangers of their own, like crossing the road.