Wilder Things: Modern Life Among the Foxes and Coyotes

From London to Arlington, Investigating the Urban Wilderness

By  Aminatta Forna

I.
The Vixen

Every year for the 18 years we lived in our house in Waller Road the vixen used our garden to raise her cubs. We called her “the vixen,” though I suppose there must have been more than one vixen because the life of an urban fox is typically short. The week Simon, my husband, and I, moved in a neighbor told us about our resident fox and referred to her as “the vixen,” as if there had only ever been one. She’d had her den in our garden, but that would be the last year she did, for we had moved in with a dog, a lurcher, and lurchers are a hunting breed. We also tidied the garden, cut down the grass which grew to mid-thigh, pulled out the thicket of brambles and ivy and dismantled the rotting wooden shed, which I guessed had most likely sheltered her den. I saw her often, that first summer, crouching on the roof of the next door’s shed or in the long grass of their garden. She would watch me battling the long tap roots of the borage which had invaded our garden. When I turned away or went inside, she would dash across our garden, slipping through the gaps in the boards of the old fence.

In London, once darkness has fallen, the sight of a fox trotting along the road or pavement, leaping over a boundary fence, stealing between parked cars or clearing the low wall into someone’s front garden, is a common sight. While many foxes are naturally cautious, others are unfazed by the humans with whom they share the city. I have seen a fox waiting to cross a road in Piccadilly in the middle of the day. I have seen a fox trot past the guards outside Buckingham Palace. Countless times have I walked up the road on my way home from the tube station behind a fox as it weaves its way around the other commuters. Once I saw a man checking his phone for messages, a fox crouched on a wall inches above him. The fox could have stretched out its paw and patted him on the head.

Article continues after advertisement

As the winter months came our vixen began looking for a mate. If you have never heard the mating call of a fox, it is a lot like the sound of babies being murdered. I don’t remember what I was doing the first time I heard the cry, but I do remember that I stopped and crossed to the window, opened it and listened. Only when I had decided the sound was not human did I close it again. One night in Waller Road the screams seemed to be coming from below our bedroom window. Our bedroom faced the street. I looked out to see the vixen cornered in our front garden, just a few feet of ground enclosed by a high privet hedge. Beyond the hedge circled three adult male foxes. It looked as if, having gone out to find her new mate, our vixen was now faced with an embaras de riches. Simon ran downstairs opened the front door and shooed the males, but to little effect. One hid behind a car. Another jumped the wall into the front garden of a house opposite. The third trotted some way up the road and kept watch at a safe distance. Still, the vixen took advantage of the distraction, slipped from her hiding place and was gone.

 

“A fox in the city is nature’s act of resistance.”

 

In the middle of the third night of screaming I lay awake and thought: “Make your mind up, girl.” Her last mate must have died or been killed, probably by a car, as many urban foxes are, because foxes usually mate for life. A day or so later I saw a large fox dozing in the sun on top of the neighbor’s garden shed. A moment later the vixen jumped up and settled on her haunches next to him. He raised his head, she stretched out her neck, they touched noses and he reclined once more. The vixen had made her choice.

Article continues after advertisement

In the early spring we had the old fence replaced and so for a while the foxes were forced to skirt our garden. In summer the cubs appeared, three of them, I would see them playing on the lawn in our garden. They knew about the dog, and the sound of a window opening or a door knob turning would send them scattering. One day I found, behind a forsythia bush, a small gap in the new fence, as though someone had nudged aside one of the boards. Since then, over the years we have owned the house, I have always made sure the gap remains and is kept clear. It is the fox run.

One morning I found a whole fox brush, burnished and lush, upon the grass. I picked it up to carry into the house for closer inspection, spied a giant flea and dropped it again. The brush had been bitten off right where it would have connected to the fox’s body. It must have been a hell of a fight, with another fox I could only guess, because there were no dogs except mine. The most likely explanation is that a fox had trespassed on the vixen and her mate’s territory and this tail belonged to the presumptive loser.

Whenever I see the vixen or her cubs I stop whatever I am doing and I watch. I think unabashedly of love. I love them for their gift of wildness and for bringing it to the city, to me in my garden, for the determination with which they face the challenge of survival. For their beauty. I like the way they ruffle the surface of life in the city. A plastic bag floating on a still lake is the sullying fingerprint of man on nature. A fox in the city is nature’s act resistance.

A good many people disagree with me. The British tabloid newspapers for one. Foxes stand accused of many crimes: raiding rubbish bins, spreading disease, attacking small dogs and cats. Very occasionally a fox bites a child. Year on year there is a call from someone for a fox cull, which is met by equally vocal calls of opposition from fox lovers. So far there has never been a cull of London foxes. The truth is that a cull would never work. Trying to displace foxes is like trying to displace water, kill one and another will move into its territory.

“What bothers people about foxes is that they will not be controlled and humans are control junkies. We love a controlled environment and there is none more so than the city.”

The other truth is that foxes cause very little bother to the human inhabitants of the city and virtually no threat. They do not steal, because animals do not share our moral code, but they will take food from open dustbins. We all know, without needing to see statistical proof, that more children are bitten by dogs, cats, hamsters and each other, than by foxes. Foxes carry mange but the chances of transmitting mange to a pet are extremely slight; on the other hand, sarcoptic mange can devastate a fox population. The foxes leave turds on my lawn that my dog likes to rub her face into. Now that can be a nuisance, but nuisance is all.

What bothers people about foxes is that they will not be controlled and humans are control junkies. We love a controlled environment and there is none more so than the city. Here we are protected from the elements by concrete, brick, glass and steel. The streets are lit after dark so that we, the denizens of the city, do not trip or fall down holes should any holes alarmingly appear in the smoothed surfaces of the roads and walkways. Fresh water is piped into our homes, our waste is sluiced away. The great metropolises represent humanity’s domination over whatever in nature might cause us hurt or harm or discomfort. In Western nations we have lived this way so long we have become fearful of what is chaotic, the uncontrolled and uncontrollable. We do not care to be reminded that we are living beings, for that is to remember that we are vulnerable.

We tolerate animals only on our own terms. Mutualism is the existence in nature of a relationship that benefits both parties, the crocodile and the plover bird, for instance. The plover bird picks clean the teeth of the crocodile, who in turn does not snap its mouth shut. Dogs started out as wolves who entered a symbiotic relationship with man, helping to bring down big game in return for a place by the fire. Stephen Budiansky, author of The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication, argues that all our farm and food animals started out this way. But here is the fox, a creature that chooses to live close to humans but refuses subordination, has submitted neither to domestication nor taming, will not bend to anyone’s will. The urban fox possesses a seeming irreverence for both humans and our safe spaces. Those of us who find beauty in urban foxes do so for the same reason their presence provokes anger in so many, we admire and envy the foxes for their defiance, for choosing freedom over safety.

One day, walking with my lurchers—by then we had two—I saw a skinny, adolescent fox with an unconcerned air slip between the railings of the upper park. I paused a moment and waited until it was out of sight. Neither dog had spotted it. I was on crutches at the time, having broken my Achilles tendon. I moved slowly and I didn’t want to be pulled over by the younger, keener and more unruly dog who still walked on the lead. At the gate of the park I let her off and hobbled up the hill to a panorama of the city. Suddenly the fox appeared from behind a bush. In a moment, the younger dog was upon it. I can tend to a Darwinian view, but this was lunchtime and there were schoolchildren in the park, as well as parents with toddlers. The fox ran for its life, but even so the dog, faster and vastly taller, was over it in seconds, jaws agape, teeth inches from the back of the fox’s neck, waiting only for the right moment to close her jaws, to flip the fox over and crush its jugular. There’s a place in the park where the path narrows and then opens out onto a smaller section of park. The dog and the fox had nearly completed a loop of the smaller when the fox straightened its course, seeming to decide that its best hope lay in the open park. I positioned myself at a point in the path that bridged the two spaces and when the pair passed me, I hurled myself upon them. The dog lost its advantage, the fox made its escape.

All of this happened on the day in 2004 when the fox hunting ban passed through the British parliament. In the years that followed some people wondered whether the ban had encouraged a growth in the urban fox population, that all these extra foxes were making their way into the cities. This is certainly untrue. Foxes have been drawn to and living in cities like London for many decades.

Our house in Waller Road is in New Cross Gate in South East London. Like all the houses in the surrounding streets, it was built by the Haberdasher’s Guild towards the close of the 19th century. These large, Victorian houses with equally large back gardens were rented to its members. In those days it was a genteel neighborhood, but in the 1970s, after the Guild began selling off its housing stock, the area fell into decline, mirroring a general decline of South East London that began during the Second World War. Into the neglected gardens and from the railway sidings where they’d tended to live, moved the foxes.

A fox of London. Photo by John Freeman. A fox of London. Photo by John Freeman.

In the 1970s came the Southwark slum clearances: in place of the tiny and unsanitary terraced homes were built the tower blocks that now hover over the lower reaches of the Old Kent Road. The Old Kent Road (the cheapest property on British Monopoly boards) links South East London to the city and to Dover and the English channel. From a rural road with a few wayside inns in the 19th century, the Old Kent Road began to transform into an industrial center with tanneries and factories. In 1833, the Metropolitan Gasworks were built. The gasworks are disused now and the industrial lots have been turned into outlets for Carpetright, Carphone Warehouse, Pets at Home, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The smaller shops that line the road are mainly family-owned supermarkets and takeaways. On Friday and Saturday nights young people travel in from Kent for the London club scene. Often they stop for a takeaway on their way home, so by early morning the street sweepers are out, cleaning up the discarded boxes, the burger buns and chicken bones. But long before the street-sweepers arrive the foxes will have been, the rats and pigeons too. For them the city streets are an “all you can eat” buffet. Free food and easy accommodation are what brought the foxes into London. They are here because of us.

In London, in the first decade of the new century, we had snow during consecutive winters. These were my insomniac years. Our oldest lurcher was by then blind. In the early hours of one February morning I woke to discover it had snowed. I dressed, pulled on my boots and fetched the old dog from her bed. She loved the cold, was forever plunging into the freezing waters of the North Sea, preferred to take her walks in wind and rain. Outside the snow was radiant, reflecting the glow of the street lights. We headed uphill in the direction of the park. Though the snow reached the dog’s flanks, she moved unhesitatingly onward for the first time in months, sensing the stillness, the absence of traffic, people or other dogs. We were entirely alone, except for a fox walking up the hill ahead of us. It might have been our vixen, or some other fox with a nearby territory. She was walking up the center of the road. Once she turned and looked at us, and then again a little later she stopped, sat on her haunches and waited several seconds before setting off again. It looked for all the world as if she was assuring herself of our clumsy progress, the sleep-lorn woman and the blind dog. A naturalist would later tell me that when foxes do this they are checking to be sure that we pose no threat. Evidently, she decided we did not, for she did not hasten her pace or seek the cover of the shadows. She slipped between the railings of the park and next moment she was gone.

 

II.
An American Success Story

The first time I saw a coyote was in Death Valley in California on a road trip from Tucson to San Francisco in the early years of my marriage. We had come to live in the United States for a year while I was on a fellowship at Berkeley. Around a bend we came upon an animal standing in the middle of the road. My husband slowed and then stopped the car. The coyote was looking at us with an unruffled curiosity. She trotted around to the passenger side, cocked her head slightly and looked me dead in the eye. The behavior, which at first had struck us as odd (was she rabid?) seemed suddenly familiar: I recognized it from our dog back home. I said, “She’s begging!” Not wishing to encourage her, we drove on.

My second coyote encounter was while riding a horse in Wyoming months later. There came the sound of laughter: the high pitched and breathless hysterics of a gaggle of school children let loose with a canister of helium. The young woman leading our ride held up her hand and we halted. My horse’s ears twitched, the nervous roll of an eye. “Coyotes. Coming this way. Prepare to loose your horses.” Everyone dismounted, freed the reins and held onto our horses’ bridles. The coyote pack sounded like a big one, maybe two dozen. It’s hard, though, to tell with coyotes, the multiple notes of their calls might emanate from two or ten. Either way, if the horses bolted we were told it was better to let them go. They would head back to their stables, five or six miles down the mountain. We’d have to make our own way on foot. The calls grew louder and then faded. The horses settled. We remounted and moved on.

Many years later, in 2011 and 2013 I taught at William’s College in Williamstown, Western Massachusetts. Williamstown is small and surrounded by hills. The Taconic Ridge lies to the nort-west on the New York-Massachusetts border, Mount Greylock rises to the south-east, forming part of the Appalachian Trail which slips past to the east of Williamstown. There is a fluid beauty to the tree-covered landscape, shifting with the seasons, the most popular of which is fall, whose colors bring thousands of tourists. In nearby North Adams the abandoned warehouses and dilapidated homes give testament to the decline in the region’s industry, the mills that once produced lumber, grist, paper, and textiles. Today the wealthy who keep second homes in and around Williamstown are more likely to have made their money in the financial markets. They are attracted by the beauty of the town’s surrounds, the summer theatre festival, the Clark Art Institute, and Mass MoCa, which opened in an empty North Adams factory 1999.

As in many small towns in rural America, animal encounters are a way of life in Williamstown. One morning a report reached us that a bear had been seen outside the middle school gates. The bear was leaning against a car, as though waiting there for someone, got tired and decided to take the weight off his feet. One night, sitting on my back porch with friends from Sweden we saw an animal none of us recognized walking in the road. From Google we learned the creature was a fisher. On the outskirts of North Adams a moose had been spotted several times near the same crossroads. And on other days I found scats on my lawn that looked as though a dog had gorged itself upon a bowl of cherries. When I noticed similar scats in the grounds above the Clark Institute I consulted a wildlife tracking manual. The scats matched those of the coyote.

Stephen DeStefano is a wildlife biologist and author of Coyote at the Kitchen Door, a book I had come across while living in Williamstown. I discovered he lived a three-hour drive away towards Boston and arranged to meet him for lunch in the pretty, tourist town of Sheldon Falls one day in late November. When I arrived the sky was silver-grey, swollen with coming snow. DeStefano looks how you’d expect a man in his line of work to look: he wore a heavy beard and a baseball cap and drove a Toyota pickup. His field of expertise is known in the world of the wildlife biologist as animal-human co-existence, or sometimes animal-human conflict, depending on your take.

Stephen is a member of UMass Wildlife large animal response team, the person you call if you have a bear outside the school gates. In his book he gives an account of being called out by a farmer who had found a moose calf in his horse paddock. Stephen and his team tranquilize the animal with the intention of removing her to safety, only to attract a growing crowd of onlookers from a nearby town when a local news station broadcasts the story. In the book DeStefano chides himself for a faint impatience towards these well-meaning folk, a result of his frustration with certain public attitudes: “I worry about the concentration of people here in Massachusetts, the number of roads, the ceaseless encroachment of development, and maybe most of all the alarming nonchalance of many of the state’s residents toward the spread of the built environment.”

Of all North America’s large mammals the coyote produces the greatest range of emotions. To America’s original inhabitants the coyote is God’s Dog, a semi-divine creature, capable of assuming human form. Among certain Indigenous groups, the coyote is sometime Creator—who gifts humans fire and daylight and teaches them wisdom—and sometime Trickster, one who continually transgresses moral boundaries. To farmers past and present coyotes are a menace to livestock. To hikers and dog-walkers they are an unnerving and largely unwelcome presence. To town-dwellers the coyote is a threat to small children, the chief suspect behind missing cats and small dogs.

Coyotes originated on the prairies of the Great Plains and from Great Basin desert, Stephen explained over lunch. A couple of hundred years ago that was the only place you found them. But then something changed. The coyotes began to leave the plains, spreading north-west through Oregon and Washington State, east across Wyoming and Montana, the midwest and New England, all the way to the eastern seaboard. From dry plains to snow-covered mountains, from creosote bush to hemlock forests, from 100-plus degrees Fahrenheit to 5. I had seen evidence of coyotes in places along that very migratory arc. Coyotes are among the most adaptable and resilient creatures in North America—ever. Stephen calls them “an American success story.”

“They are wild creatures who are also wholly adapted to the suburban and urban environment,” said Stephen. “They eat everything and can live anywhere.” Desert coyote feed almost exclusively on small animals, voles and mice, but once coyotes left the desert and began the long march north and east they learned to make a meal of whatever was available, from windfall apples and soft fruit to roadkill. The scat I saw in my garden was likely of a coyote that had fed on “somebody’s late summer garden crop.”

In New England, when coyotes first began to be sighted, people thought they were wolves—not the great, gray wolf, which had long been extirpated from the state, but a smaller, fleeter wolf which they called variously a brush, timber or prairie wolf. Others claimed they were wild dogs. Those few who recognized them as coyotes thought they must have been brought in as pets and abandoned. In 1972 one of the beasts was shot and carted into town on a flatbed pickup. Too small for a wolf, too large for a coyote. A team from Hampshire College conducted a study on the carcasses of others hit by cars and concluded this was neither wolf nor dog nor coyote, but an entirely new species. They named it the New Hampshire Canid. More animals were captured and studied. Their paws did not sweat like those of coyotes, their snouts were longer and thinner, they stood taller at the shoulder, they did not form packs in the same way as wolves or hunt as wolves, yet their coats were more wolf gray than red, they seemed less afraid of humans than either coyotes or wolves. But the howl—the howl was the howl of a coyote. In the end (though different opinions continue to be debated) a conclusion was reached: the animals were coyotes that had somehow fast-tracked evolution. They called it the Eastern Coyote.

So what enabled the expansion in the coyote’s territory, facilitated their evolutionary leap forward? The answer is wolves, or more accurately, the absence thereof. From the earliest, pioneers to North America waged a ferocious war upon wolves. A.R Harding’s 1909 book, Wolf & Coyote Trapping (sub-titled: “An Up-to-date Wolf Hunter’s Guide, Giving the Most Successful Methods for Experienced ‘Wolfers’ for Hunting and Trapping These Animals, Also Gives their Habits in Detail”), was the wolfer’s bible and gives an account of the many ways in which wolves were brought to their deaths: they were shot, hunted, caught in steel-jawed leg traps and clubbed to death, poisoned with strychnine and cyanide.

The wolfers didn’t just kill wolves that threatened livestock, they enacted a genocide on the entire species. Harding hails the day of the wolf’s coming extermination and ascribes them human motivations: wolves are “cowardly, destructive, blood thirsty desperadoes.” In Of Wolves & Men, Barry Lopez details the way wolves were treated as outlaws and criminals, subjected to public torture and execution. Crowds gathered to watch a particular wolf die as agonizingly as possible: drawn and quartered, hanged and left to swing on the gibbet. Bounty hunting wolfers armed with strychnine and traps could take hundreds of animals in a season, and were treated as folk heroes (and were paid for every pair of ears they turned in). So successful was the destruction of the wolf that today, in most of America, wolves are protected—now, with typical human inconstancy, we revere that which we would have destroyed.

Into the void left by the wolf, in the landscape of both North America and the popular imagination, loped the coyote: swagman, scavenger, clown, killer, conjurer, shapeshifter, vagabond, thief.

Often, when a coyote pack moves through a territory they walk in single file: one coyote takes the lead, the second places its paw print in exactly the same spot as the leader, the coyote behind does the same and the coyote behind that one and so on. The pack moves with a single pulse such that it looks as if only one coyote has passed. I heard a story once about a pack of coyotes and a group of hunters. The hunters had been tracking the pack all through the day and into the dusk, until it was too dark to see and so they rested and the next day resumed the hunt at first light. This went on, the men alternately tracked and rested. On the fourth day they came across a second, older set of tracks and a short time later discovered a set of human footprints which they soon recognized as their own. One by one each man came to the same realization. They had been led in a circle over a wide terrain during which time the pack had gradually closed the distance between them. The coyotes were now directly behind the men.

An apocryphal story perhaps, but based on a deeper truth. Coyotes somehow survived the same treatment that killed the wolves. Gary Snyder once wrote of Native American coyote myths: “Coyote never dies, he gets killed plenty of times, but he always comes back to life.” Over recent decades coyote numbers have multiplied. Nowadays, coyotes are in the hills, in the fields, in the suburbs, where they den in railroad yards, under sheds, beneath the steps of abandoned houses, on the edges of parking lots; they are in cities too. Coyotes must count as one of the world’s most resilient species. Kill one coyote and another will take it place, kill many and coyotes will hyper-breed, more and bigger litters of pups to replace their lost numbers. In the battle between man and coyote, the coyote is winning.

In Massachusetts, the summer after we first met, Stephen and I reprised the conversation begun in Sheldon Falls. This time we were walking in the woodland around his house in New Salem. Stephen was calling the names of trees and plants while I made notes: White birch, paper birch, yellow birch, mountain laurel, Eastern hemlock, American chestnut. He stopped to explain how the chestnuts had been destroyed by blight decades before and now never grew past a few feet. Bracken fern, ostrich fern, sensitive fern, sarsaparilla, Indian cucumber. He bent and touched a cluster of Indian pipe, bowed and spectrally pale. Calls for a coyote cull, he told me, come mainly from suburban moms, pet owners and hunters. The question of whether to hunt predators continues to divide biologists, but, said Stephen and he stopped and turned to me, it’s the wrong question: “The key question is, do we have a real problem or do we just think we have a problem.”

The next week Stephen took me coyote calling. We left from his house in New Salem after dark. With us were Ki, married to Stephen and also a wildlife biologist, and Geoff, a BBC producer with whom I was making a radio documentary. We were headed for the Quabbin Reservoir, which provides drinking water for the whole of Boston and sits in a large tract of forested land. It is where Ki works managing biodiversity and a clean water supply.

Stephen had brought with him a predator caller, which some hunters use to lure their quarry. The caller contains recordings of prey animals in distress, injured birds say, or jackrabbits and the like. Some callers also contain recordings of the cries of lost or injured predator juveniles, coyote pups and mountain lion kittens, in the hope of luring the adult (you can make your own judgement about that). For our purposes we were only interested in the coyote howler, which is the sound of a pack, the yips and screams of their nighttime recitative. The equipment was new and Stephen fiddled with it for a minute or two. Geoff, looking for a place to balance his microphone, wound down the window. The night air was soft, warm, still. The total absence of ambient light made it impossible to see more than a few feet into the darkness. From the moment Stephen shut off the engine we seemed to have been enfolded into a dark hush.

Stephen opened his own window, held the equipment aloft and turned it on. First came a howl, then a series of barks and yips. When they finished we listened in silence. Nothing. Stephen pressed the button again and the caller played a different series of coyote sounds. We waited. The return call came some seconds later, and from far closer than I had imagined, they must have been watching us since our arrival. A single coyote howl, then another and another. A string of yips. On Geoff’s recording you can hear a small intake of breath from Kai and Stephen, who says: “That’s them!”

The last time I saw a coyote was three months ago. I was staying in a small cabin called Meadow House on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. That morning I rose early with the hope of sighting a coyote, though with insufficient conviction to bother to dress for the enterprise—I was still in my nightwear and carrying my first cup of tea. The coyote stood entirely still, watching me from behind a tangle of rose-hip, at such a distance that it could have been a tree stump or it might have been a small deer. I took a step forward, with my second step the animal retreated, and I caught the distinctive roll of a coyote. Coyotes inhabit most of the North American islands. In Whidbey they are thought to have trotted over Deception Pass Bridge when it was built in the 1930s, but the presence of coyotes on many islands, such as those off Cape Cod, cannot be accounted for. Did they swim?

The first time I saw coyotes on Whidbey I was outside in search of cell phone signal. I looked up, directly into the eyes of a coyote sitting in the meadow grass. The eyes were all I could see, the eyes and the outline of the ears, for the rest blended so perfectly with its background that it was impossible to say where the windblown grasses ended and the animal began. Neither of us blinked. I raised my phone to try to capture its image, and at the movement the coyote turned. Then I saw, emerging out of the grass in short, energetic bounds, one, two, three, four coyotes. Stephen DeStefano, when I wrote to him about my encounter, thought they were probably a family group, a mating pair with a couple of last year’s female pups. The males would have left to find their own territories by that time of the year: “It is one thing to see one, even close,” he wrote back. “But it is special to make that eye contact.” It had happened to him just two or three times, the last being the encounter at his house in New Salem, when a coyote swung out of the woods and snatched one of Stephen and Ki’s chickens while they were eating supper outdoors, one warm summer evening.

 

III.
Cheeverville

The good people of North Arlington, VA, love their lawns. I have never seen lawns like it, not even in Britain, famous for its lawns. The grass is brashly green and longer than the British keep theirs, so that they look like 1970s shag pile carpets. In Arlington most people eschew fences, hedges or other boundary markers; in fact, in many places there are ordinances forbidding the enclosing of front lawns in the interests of preserving a certain aesthetic. In the streets around where I live the houses are perched, each atop a manmade hillock of excavated earth, and one neighbor’s lawn rolls seamlessly into the next. From their drawing rooms the eye of the householder may roam across acres of uninterrupted green. If Capability Brown had been a suburban landscape designer such views would become his trademark.

The lawn of our first house in Arlington, when we moved here three years ago, was an exception to all this. The house was an old colonial and the yard was heavily shaded, as were the yards on either side. One of our neighbors grew hostas and ferns. We grew nothing. The lawns of the cul de sac below, by contrast, were lovely. A few deer used our garden as a passage through to the cul de sac. When I was out smoking on the stoop of our covered porch in the evenings a deer might emerge from the passage that ran down the side of the house and pass a few feet from me. Deer are not the dainty beasts they appear, they are quite heavy footed. Once when I was sitting out there in the dark, I heard an unfamiliar sound, a heavy dragging, quite unlike the regular hoof fall of a deer. I could see nothing through the darkness, only hear a hoarse breathing and again, this awful dragging sound as it grew louder. Whatever it was passed and I stood up to look after it into the street. It was an injured doe, and the sound was of her dragging one of her hind legs.

In the yard we had a trampoline for our son, and in the spring, as the weather grew warmer, a doe and her two new fawns would lie beneath it in the shade. Over time we all grew used to each other until it became possible for me to sit in companionable silence reading on the deck just a couple of dozen feet away. Arlington, like many counties in Virginia and in the D.C area—in fact, a good deal of suburban America—is overrun with deer. County administrations are in constant search of solutions.

One cold morning I rise from my bed at 2 am and drive an hour south-west of Arlington to Prince William County (population 402,000). The traffic on the I95 is mainly haulage vehicles, the few places that are open along the way cater to truck drivers. I am on my way to Locust Shade Park to meet a man called Purvis Dawson. Locust Shade Park is a pretty recreational ground with a boating pond, mini golf course, a little outdoor amphitheatre and an abundance of deer. Purvis is a former police chief, a job he retired from in 2012, and is now Chief Park Ranger for Prince William County where he is piloting a project to cull suburban deer. The program started this season, and this is one of the last shoots. I find Purvis waiting for me at the Park gates. We sit in the warmth of his ranger’s vehicle; while we wait for the hunters to arrive he tells me how all past efforts made to curb the suburban deer population—from planting contraceptives in their feed to bringing in sharpshooters—have failed. This latest attempt uses volunteer bowhunters (bows being less hazardous to the public than high velocity rifles). “There are more deer in Virginia today than in 1600,” says Purvis. And while householders are vexed by shrubbery and deer ticks, Purvis, who was once commander of animal services for Fairfax County, is more concerned about the damage to the environment by overgrazing and car accidents (one and a half million people drive their cars into a deer every year in the US).

The first pickup to arrive is driven by Jerry, leader of the Stafford Archers. Jerry is followed by Donny, David, Ronnie, Dwayne, Eric: a truck driver, two mechanics, and two IT specialists respectively. Jerry is a road engineer. I’m a little concerned they might be defensive around me, but everybody seems relaxed. They talk about recent hunts, how the first time out they saw 30 deer and took 10, how the deer learn fast, because last week they saw only three and took none. Most of the hunters have spent the last week positioning cameras around the park, trying to figure out where the deer bed and where they graze. Yesterday the men put up their stands, in which they will wait and watch until dawn has come and gone.

The men need to get to their stands. Nobody invites me to join and if they had, I would have said no. They’ve already told me their collective chances of taking any deer today are extremely slight; I’ve been deer hunting once before, and I know I lack the requisite patience and the circulatory efficiency to sit for several hours in the cold. Also, I’m hungry. Ronnie presses homemade venison jerky on me. He lives in Gum Springs in Alexandria and grew up with a father who hunted all the family’s meat. He feeds the people of Gum Springs with his bounty—the other hunters donate their share of the venison to homeless shelters. When I tell Ronnie about the deer around my house he offers to shoot them. All perfectly legal, he says, if I have a quarter acre. My garden is well placed because it lies adjacent to public land and though you can’t shoot deer on public land, you can track on it. “Make a deal with a few of the neighbors,” he says, grinning, trying to get a rise out of me.

In Arlington, in our first house, our neighbors took differing views of the deer. The hosta people, who actually lost a great many hostas to the appetites of the deer, had an easy come, easy go attitude. But the woman in the newly built house in the cul de sac below us reserved a special loathing for the deer. It infuriated her, the way they wandered from our yard into hers. She did not want them doing damage to her newly laid turf. Deer don’t much care to eat grass, except when it is young and succulent, which her’s certainly was. I feel certain she did not like our laxity in allowing the deer to use our trampoline as a sun shade. One day she asked us to build a fence between our garden and hers. We explained we were renting, that she would need to contact the householders—they declined, and so she hired contractors and erected a fence at the bottom of our garden at her own expense. But the deer just walked around it, so she sought permission from other neighbors and gradually extending the fence in both directions until she had put up, in all, perhaps seventy foot of fence.

Our second house in Arlington is on a street the kind of which I have never lived on before. I call it “Cheeverville,” after the stories of John Cheever. People here have swimming pools and some have horseshoe drives. And if you don’t have your own pool, there is Donaldson Run swimming pool, a members only neighborhood pool close to our house. In the summer, I see people walk down the street in bathing suits, wrapped in towels. A preponderance of Doric columns decorate the facades of the homes, as if the Parthenon has been dismantled and shipped here by the residents, whose average household income is over $200,000 a year.

“There is, for me, an arresting otherworldliness to the sight of suburban deer, it is as though they have stepped through some wrinkle in time.”

Our house (no columns, no pool, nor horseshoe) borders the 67-acre Potomac Overlook Regional Park. The park comprises one of the last remaining woodlands in an area that was once forest. In it are the remains of several Native American settlements, two of which date back to pre-historic times and one to the 19th or early 20th century. According to the National Park Services website, 40 years of contact with Europeans decimated the native populations of this part of Northern Virginia, most of whom died of disease brought by the foreigners, or from the ensuing wars. The survivors left to join other tribes. Today the population of Arlington is less than one percent Native American.

A four-lane freeway runs the length of the north side of the Park; on the other side is Donaldson Run swimming pool. At the top of the hill, near the entrance to the Park, you find a basketball court, a playground and tennis courts. Next to the tennis courts a stand of Ailanthus altissima, or Tree of Heaven, is being monitored by the park authorities. Tree of Heaven is an imported, invasive species, the bark and leaves of which produce a toxin that inhibits the growth of other species. There is also a small nature center, which my son loves to visit. Among the exhibits are stuffed animals: a threadbare black bear, a fox, a goose; a shop-soiled swan circles overhead. A small outdoor enclosure houses injured raptors, all of whom—a red-tailed hawk and several owls—were blinded when hit by a car. The rangers who run the center are young and enthusiastic. A young man called Casey tells me there are coyotes in the woods who’ve been caught on the park’s security cameras. Not long ago he found a dead coyote on the side of the freeway where it borders the park.

A few days after my conversation with Casey it snowed and in the early morning I took my son out to look for animal tracks. The trees cast wraithlike shadows, the scarlet of the cardinals startled against a monochrome snowscape. Along the length of a fallen tree we found the elongated paw prints, the inward turned toes of a coyote and a day later, in a hollow in the center of the park, many dozens more. Not long afterwards, one weekday at dusk, and for the first time, I heard the sound of coyotes calling. Coyotes will sometimes “pack up” (as naturalists say) and take down a deer, but coyotes are not pure carnivores in the way of wolves and with so much else on offer in suburbia can’t, on the whole, be bothered with the effort required of hunting deer.

Even sharing with the coyote the park is the only place the deer can call their own. Near the playground there is a board with a display “Changes in the Land through the Years.” It shows four black and white aerial images dated 1937, 1948, 1970 and 2000. In 1937 the area is largely woodland. Arrows point to Donaldson Farm and an orchard belonging to a Mrs. White. The freeway hasn’t been constructed yet, and the woods reach right up to the Potomac River. In 1948 the first development of houses is in the process of being built. The Donaldson’s Farm is gone. By 1970 there are hundreds of houses, they spread over two thirds of what twenty years before was woodland. The freeway, George Washington Parkway, has been built, and so has the swimming pool. Arlington is an inner ring suburb, it takes just minutes to drive into the District and its growth mirrors that of many American suburbs. Between 1940 and 1960, Arlington’s population tripled from 57,000 to 163,000, coinciding with the middle class exodus from D.C, a direct result of school desegregation. Arlington did everything to resist desegregation, but in 1970 the city’s battle with the federal legislative authorities culminated in black students being bused in by court order. In the 1970s Arlington fell into decline but rose again from 153,000 residents in 1980 to the 227,000 people who live here today. The last image on the board shows a new housing development in the bottom right hand corner of the frame. And there, on the end of a row of houses and next to the first trees, is the house where we live.

During the fall, from the window of the study where I am sitting now, I watched the deer come to feed on the acorns from the oak tree next to our lawn. The largest herd comprises some does and more than a half-dozen fawns. One day, as I walked my son to the school bus stop, we saw them on the lawn of the house upon which the schoolchildren often play as they wait for the bus. That day it looked as though our children had been turned, by a witch’s wand, into creatures of the forest. There is, for me, an arresting otherworldliness to the sight of suburban deer, it is as though they have stepped through some wrinkle in time. Yesterday a bachelor herd emerged from the woods, three huge, muscular bucks, each crowned with a pair of new antlers and wearing a heavy winter coat, like lords of Cawdor.

Just a few weeks ago, walking around the neighborhood, two women standing on the sidewalk ahead of me gestured and pointed to where several deer were emerging from a small stand of pines. A silver-haired couple, passing by, stopped at the sight of the deer but briefly. “Giant mice,” said the man. To which his wife replied: “They were here first!”

I remember the deer as they passed me while I sat on the stoop of our first house in Arlington. There was something spectral about their unhurried progress, their apparent obliviousness to my presence. I am reminded of a story I heard once about a legion of Roman centurions whose ghostly forms could sometimes be seen passing through the outer walls of a pub in a small Sussex town. The centurions, so the story goes, were marching along the route of an old Roman road which lay beneath the foundations of the public house.

The more I talked to people about the animals who live in our cities, the more I came across a particular stance which makes me uncomfortable. The people most exercised cite all the threats these creatures supposedly pose to us and to our safety, but no one has ever offered evidence of being so threatened themselves—they only tell me what they have read or heard. This compulsive detailing of often incorrect data strikes me as an effort, perhaps subconscious, to conceal and at the same time to justify what perhaps they do not even recognize in themselves. Listening to them, I grew increasingly convinced their rage had existed for a long time and I suspected they raged at other things in their lives, too. They hated the animals simply for being—for being in places these people thought they owned and the animals had no right to be.

What would happen to wildlife, I have often wondered, if by plague or alien attack the cities emptied of human life? In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman speculates that within 500 years, in a place like Arlington, the forest would have grown back the way it was, but with a few aluminum dishwasher parts and some stainless steel cookware buried in the undergrowth. But what of the animal life? My conversations with urban biologists suggest that coyotes and foxes would leave the cities—rats, raccoons, and pigeons, too. Those creatures are only here because we’re here. The deer, however, would not leave: this is their land and they would reclaim it, at least for as long as it took for the wolves to return. Gardens would grow fallow, borders cede to wild flowers, herds would gather on the overgrown lawns, rotted fences give way to erstwhile animal paths. And the injured doe, made anew, would walk the same tracks through the woods as deer have for hundreds of years.

The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.

Aminatta Forna
Aminatta Forna
Aminatta Forna is the author of a memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, and four novels. Her newest novel, Happiness, is out now from Grove Atlantic.





More Story
The Transcendent Humanity of the Worst Cruise I Have Ever Taken I come from a family of sailors and I inherited the idea that travel by boat is the best kind of travel. We, the family history...