The Navy isn’t normally thought of as an animal rescue shelter, but on San Clemente Island, the Navy’s largest live fire training area in the continental United States, efforts were made to house an abandoned fox pup, giving it the chance for a future as an ambassador for its breed.
Nicknamed Garth, the infant pup was found rolled up helpless and parentless on the side of the road and was promptly rescued. The fox pup would not have survived in the wild because of its lack of survival skills and age. This is why wildlife biologists working for the Navy took it into their hands to care for him.
“At his age, he should not have been on his own by himself. So after consulting with our veterinarian and other senior staff members, we decided to put him back out in a cage for the night with some food and water,” said Daniel Biteman, who works for the Institute for Wildlife Studies as a Navy wildlife biologist. “We placed three trail cameras around him, to take video clips when motion triggered. We returned the next morning and checked the video clips and did not find that the parents returned for him. We again checked at noon that day with the same findings,” Biteman said.
Melissa A. Booker, who also is a Navy wildlife biologist on San Clemente Island, said that it is normal for parents to return for their pups, but after 23 hours with no findings during the surveillance, they knew that the fox pup had probably been abandoned and he was brought in to be cared for and raised.
The Navy’s wildlife biologists on San Clemente Island noted that Garth was a little more than the size of a hand when he first arrived and weighed 460 grams. After a few months of care, the fox pup’s size tripled to 1.6 kilograms and he acquired a playful personality.
“He has really taken to people and constantly wants to be played with. He has a number of toys, little tennis balls, and a stuffed rabbit he likes to throw around. If he sees us walking near his pen and we don’t immediately stop to play with him, he makes a little whooping call noise and looks up at us with these big cute eyes,” said Biteman.
The island fox species eats insects, rodents, fruits and plants. Biteman said Garth plays with the crickets he is fed until they don’t move anymore and then eats them. In addition to the crickets, now that he is bigger, a new staple has been added to his meals, which are mice. He doesn’t understand the mice are for eating and doesn’t know how to kill them so he plays with them instead.
“I’m surprised how gentle he is. It is entertaining to watch him play. He will go underneath a sheet lining in his cage until we pull him out. He likes to put both his paws in his water dish and splash around like a little kid and he makes quite a mess,” said Biteman.
Biteman said Garth has also become acrobatic to the point that he has watched some impressive back flips in his cage. The fox pup is also sly in that he chases Biteman’s hand around to play and then lowers himself to pretend he is taking the hand as prey.
“He is adding the playful element to his predatory technique when playing with my hand. The interesting thing is that he wags his tail which is kind of funny because a wild fox would not do that,” said Biteman.
One of the ways that the Navy has executed its mission to protect the natural and cultural resources on San Clemente Island is by working closely with the Santa Barbara Zoo. The Navy has established a relationship where animals like Garth who were not good candidates to be released back into their native environment would be able to go to the zoo. This allows the Navy to continue to foster relationships with California communities.
“We transferred other foxes to the zoo back in the late 90’s and that population has gotten a lot older now with only a few left in captivity, which is why we are re-initiating this effort to let a few more foxes go back so the zoo can maintain and exhibit them,” said Booker.
“The Santa Barbara Zoo is incredibly thrilled to continue partnering with the Navy to conserve the Channel Island Fox,” said Sheri Horiszny, Santa Barbara Zoo Director of Animal Programs.
The San Clemente Island fox, a “state protected” species, is the largest mammal native to the San Clemente Island. Because of the Navy’s efforts, there are more than a thousand foxes on the island today.
“The Navy has done a very good job of managing the fox species, it’s important for people to understand that and have an appreciation for this fox which is the smallest of the foxes that only is found here in California on our Channel Islands,” said Booker.
The Santa Barbara Zoo is the best place for Garth, now that he has turned three months old because it already has a Channel Island fox enclosure. The zoo’s other outreach fox just passed away a few months ago so Garth will be the replacement. Booker said the zoo also has an outreach and education program that will use Garth as the ambassador of this breed of endangered fox to help educate people. Garth’s ability to educate the community while at the zoo extends the Navy’s efforts and provides the public with insight unavailable any other way. Researchers at the zoo can also use Garth to study the habits and behaviors of this rare fox that are smaller than a house cat and yet bouncy and good-natured like a puppy.
“I constantly get the question are island foxes more like cats or dogs,” said Biteman “I’ve watched him do behaviors that I’ve seen cats do before and he is dog like in some of his play and tackle mannerisms. They are the size of a cat, but after watching him and his behavior, I think they are their own category of species,” Biteman said.
A ceremonial Navy sendoff was given for the fox pup where the officer-in-charge of San Clemente Island, Cmdr. Walter Glenn said that Garth had been a great addition and now will be moving on to bigger and better things.
“Do us proud, be a good ambassador,” said Glenn.
“I am very happy Garth will have a new home with the Santa Barbara Zoo, I am also excited for the zoo for taking him in as their new ambassador,” said Capt. Yancy Lindsey, Commanding Officer, Naval Base Coronado.
Biteman was the main biologist who raised Garth and said he is working on negotiating visitation rights with the zoo and hopes to be allowed to see him.
“I’m looking forward to seeing his new home and seeing where he going to go. I’m going to miss this little guy, I hope he remembers me,” said Biteman.
“I think he will be a joy for everyone who gets to meet him,” said Booker.
Booker said that Garth had been kept isolated the entire time he was cared for by the Navy, but there is hope that in the future there will be a little girl fox in a similar predicament to be the first fox to interact with him and hopefully make some little Garths. The Santa Barbara Zoo renamed Garth to Beauregard and isn’t the only one continuing to partner with the Navy to conserve the Channel Island fox. Two abandoned female fox pups, Ruby and Roxy, were transferred to the California Living Museum in Bakersfield, CA, where they continue to live together and, like Beau, help people appreciate the island fox. ¦