You are walking down a lonely alley at night when you see a large animal sniffing around the wheelie bins.
It has a long snout, sharp teeth and a bushy tail, and when it sees you it stops, paw in mid-air, and gives you a hungry stare. Is it a fox or a dog? The question is, which would make you more likely to turn back and take another path?
I certainly know which I'd be more scared of, and it's not the feral beast. Having over the years been kept at bay, nipped, chased or bitten by a string of farm dogs, strays and lap-loving pooches, I treat all dogs with caution. By contrast, the foxes I have encountered, whether in the countryside or in the city, have been excessively eager to avoid getting closer, usually slinking off before I could get a better look.
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Yet to listen to the hysteria about city foxes, you'd be forgiven for thinking they pose as big a threat to human life as starving Siberian wolves. The news that a four-week-old baby in Bromley was recently dragged from its cot by a fox, which bit off its finger, was sobering. Predictably, however, this extremely rare event has lit a fresh match under an old prejudice. In the wake of this attack some are calling for a cull of 10,000 foxes in London and its suburbs. Since it's estimated there are about 33,000 urban foxes across the whole UK, this is not so much a cull as an elimination.
But the issue here is not of arithmetic. Nor is this a defence of urban foxes, even though their presence is largely of our own making, thanks in part to the easy pickings we leave lying around, but largely because our concrete sprawl is constantly encroaching on their natural habitat. No, my gripe is not about fox-haters but about dog-lovers. I find it hard to understand why people are so quick to demand drastic action to prevent foxes causing harm, yet painfully slow to take steps against so-called domestic dogs that, in Britain every year, severely bite and even kill people.
To my knowledge, despite a handful of incidents in which a fox has entered a house or garden and bitten a human, none has inflicted life-threatening wounds. But I don't need to remind anyone how frequently a family dog goes feral and maims or savages someone – usually a child – to death.
As a nation, the British are blind in their devotion to dogs. "He won't hurt you," is the mantra of owners, rushing across the park to wrench an over-eager animal off a terrified toddler, or to help brush down an elderly walker who's been knocked off their feet. But the truth is, dogs do hurt people, and often. Indeed, that's what their original purpose was, as hunters, watch dogs and guardians.
In this far tamer age, house-trained pets, being unaware of canine history, do not realise they are meant to be quiet and affectionate, rather than fierce and useful. So when the postman comes up the path, or puts his fingers through the letterbox, they are merely acting on ancient territorial instinct when they sink their teeth into his leg, or give him an unsolicited manicure. As they are when a new baby is brought home and, feeling ignored, they snap in frustration at this annoying, wriggling stranger. Or as when a child pulls its tail or pokes a finger in their eye and they retaliate in the only way they know.
Sadly, no number of dangerous dog acts or law suits will halt the tally of injuries inflicted on us by man's best friend. Even if the world was rid of rottweilers, doberman pinschers and pit bull terriers – indeed of all species but spaniels and chihuahuas – fur would still fly. Because the unpalatable truth is that dogs – all dogs – have the potential to be deadly.
Many owners, of course, prefer to ignore this fact, viewing them instead as companions, accessories and surrogate children. By treating them like another member of the family, however, they not only demean their dog, but deny its essential animal nature. Anyone who's watched a jack russell chase a rabbit, or seen a german shepherd get into a dog-fight, knows they are still as wild at heart as any fox. Unfortunately, since we have welcomed them into our homes, they are also far more dangerous.