WE’D first spotted him the night before while taking the dog for a walk; heard the growling and snarling as the two creatures startled each other in a roadside culvert.
Vulpes vulpes – the red fox – this one looking more skeleton than predator, his last feed a distant memory.
And now, on Australia Day morning, curled on the ground behind our shed, not long for this world, his breathing laboured and punctuated by tremors and muscle cramps.
Whatever you think about the much maligned red fox, there’s nothing pleasant about an animal suffering.
And the fox, more than most creatures, has a history of looking over its shoulder.
In its native Europe, the beleaguered beast has been hunted for sport by the aristocracy and the landed gentry since the 16th century. Only recently was the use of hunting dogs banned in Britain, but the “sport” continues.
The fact that there are seven-and-a-half million of these feral carnivores roaming Australia in search of a feed is no fault of their own.
Poor old Vulpes vulpes was packed away into the dark hull of a sailing ship bound for the new colony in 1830, in the name of entertainment, and quite naturally turned its stealth and smarts to preying on the native fauna.
The equally misguided introduction of rabbits provided the food source to ensure its spread across southern Australia. The rest, as anyone with chooks knows, is history.
But, lying there behind our shed, even in his emaciated state, I couldn’t help but be moved by the beauty of this little fox. His pointed triangular ears, slightly upturned snout, his long bushy tail.
After all, I grew up with a skulk of friendly foxes, beginning with Dr Seuss’s Fox in Socks, and was always enthralled by Roald Dahl’s wily troop who made a mockery of farmers Bunce, Boggis and Bean.
I couldn’t bear to let this one suffer, whatever his past misdemeanours, or those of his kin.
Still, for a kid who grew up in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, and was more often prey than predator, it’s the hardest thing in the world to take the life of an animal, even with death so present.
To physically undertake the act of killing is to fight every normal urge to protect and nurture.
Did I do the right thing by intervening? Is it better to let nature take its course? I really don’t know. But I did feel an enormous sense of calm when the poor creature finally lay still.
The final irony, however, came from our sassy and enigmatic house chook Ringo, who, stumbling across the scene, gave the dying fox one last almighty peck before going back to her foraging.
A casual, yet deeply symbolic gesture on behalf of every terrified chook across history.