A fox in the bullpen
Posted May 20, 2013
The Bulls’ head groundskeeper, Scott Strickland, figured he had a stray cat on his hands. What else would explain the paw prints rounding the bases? What other creature could be pulling up the blue whisker base-anchor plugs and dragging them into center field night after night?
Strickland initially thought someone was playing a practical joke, but the paw prints convinced him his park had been infiltrated by a feline with a love of the national pastime.
Signs of the cat’s occupation first appeared in October and continued on through the winter without anyone ever laying eyes on the trespasser. Then, in late February, Strickland discovered that his cat wasn’t a cat at all.
Duke University’s baseball team uses the Bulls’ park in early spring. The night before their season started, a member of the team’s coaching staff took Strickland aside, pointed over to the Budweiser picnic area and said, “You know you got a fox in here?” Sure enough, Strickland saw a small, gray quadruped roaming the stands. He might have mistaken it for a dog but for the animal’s distinctly shaped head. He had a fox all right.
Now, there’s a certain charm in the idea of a fox living in a baseball stadium, but not everyone welcomes the notion of sharing space with a wild creature. Very likely there are legal ramifications to offering a fox hospitality in your park for any length of time.
Nonetheless Strickland waited for more than a week before calling Animal Control. He suspected the fox was living in the batter’s eye, the bushes on the hill behind centerfield. That area was closed off, and so for a brief period Strickland was happy to let his uninvited guest stay put. What finally moved him to call the authorities was the fox’s habit of digging holes in the field, which no self-respecting groundskeeper can tolerate. Worse, the fox had started to deposit droppings near the pitcher’s mound. The fox, sad to say, was becoming problematic.
Strickland called Animal Control, but Animal Control doesn’t have a permit to trap foxes. Fortunately, Clegg’s Termite and Pest Control, a venerable Durham institution and Bulls sponsor, was up for the job, staffed as it is with a licensed wildlife officer, Philip Clegg II.
The bushes that Strickland suspected the fox of living in are thick and dense, a perfect place for a notoriously private creature to camp out. On a Thursday night Mr. Clegg set a trap nearby with cat food, gravy and his secret weapon, Twizzlers. The next day, landscapers putting down mulch reported they’d sighted two foxes in the bushes; neither of them had found their way into the trap.
Mr. Clegg was called back. When he managed to scare one fox out of hiding, it tore past its would-be captors, hair standing on end as it escaped down the row fronting right field. In spite of its excellent speed, the fox was eventually cornered and taken into custody.
The second fox remained a rumor. By the Bulls’ opening night, April 8th, it still hadn’t been caught, and Strickland was starting to wonder if the landscaping guys had been mistaken. But after the postgame fireworks, the fox was found in the trap, most likely startled from its hiding place by the noise of a hundred exploding bombettes and mortar booms. The Twizzlers, it should be noted, had been eaten.
No one knows for sure where the foxes came from. The ballpark edges N.C. Highway 147, and on the other side of the highway, the city gives way to the sort of wooded neighborhoods a fox might make a home in. It’s no longer uncommon to see foxes in urban areas, and you can imagine how one might be drawn to a baseball stadium, with its mice and grubs, popcorn and cotton candy, and its relative safety from predators. Or perhaps it was love. That there were two foxes suggests they might have been mates; foxes tend to be solitary creatures when not in family-planning mode.
In that brief interlude between their discovery and their ultimate disposal to a farm in north Durham, the foxes were fodder for a lot of good stories. Strickland says he misses the stories, and misses seeing people’s reactions to the foxes themselves. If he could guarantee the foxes wouldn’t hurt anyone, it might have been fun to let them stay. They probably wouldn’t have done any harm – as with most animals, they’re as scared of us as we are of them – but how do you explain that to a stadium full of people? You don’t. You let the foxes go.
And you keep an eye peeled, because you never know. One of these days they might just come back.