Saturday, February 4, 2023

OIB backpedals on fox trapping, will seek alternatives

A fox wandering close to an Ocean Isle Beach sea turtle nest while local volunteers are working there. Local sea turtle protection coordinator Deb Allen said her volunteers have had close encounters with foxes for the past two years and they pose a safety risk. (Photo courtesy Deb Allen)

OCEAN ISLE BEACH — A local beach town is looking for other options as it abandons a controversial practice to control local wildlife.

Ocean Isle Beach came under fire earlier this month after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called out the board of commissioners’ decision to trap foxes and send them to hunting preserves, colloquially referred to as “fox pens.”

READ MORE: Ocean Isle Beach mayor says town may ditch fox trapping after backlash

The state definition for these preserves is “an enclosed area where foxes and coyotes are pursued with dogs.” PETA claims animals kept in them are often mauled to death, despite state regulation that provides them with places to hide. 

PETA reached out to the board requesting it choose euthanization, rather than pen the foxes after the board decided on the latter last month. Penning and euthanasia are the only options afforded by the state, and PETA’s position was euthanizing the foxes would be more humane. Trapping is only permitted in January, and the town had yet to hire a trapper.

After the backlash, the board revisited the issue during its Tuesday meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Dean Walters admitted he did not know what exactly penning entailed when the decision was made at November’s meeting.

“I assure you I am not in favor of that action,” he said at the meeting. “I think that is cruel and unusual.”

After hearing public comments from seven people and discussing its own research during the meeting, the board unanimously voted to suspend its motion to hire a trapper.

Why did they want to trap foxes?

The Ocean Isle Beach Sea Turtle Protection Organization, which is mandated to protect sea turtle nests on the island, reported foxes venturing close to volunteers a year ago. The group expressed concern for the safety of its volunteers.

Local sea turtle protection coordinator Deb Allen was the first to take the podium during Tuesday’s public comment period. She repeated to the board what she told Port City Daily last week: The organization’s intent was to protect volunteers, not the hatchlings, despite messages from PETA members claiming the contrary.

She said the foxes have lost all fear of humans because they stand within feet of volunteers guiding hatchlings from nests. Foxes often dart between them and could become food aggressive if a volunteer gets in between the wild animals and a hatchling, Allen surmised.

Allen said the foxes have become so bold on the west end of town some of her volunteers refuse to work in that area.

Though she is not happy the foxes eat the hatchlings, Allen said they are a natural food source.

Animal rights activists who spoke at the meeting, as well as Smith and commissioner Wayne Rowell, each described foxes as “curious,” with Smith saying they are “absolutely not an aggressive animal.”

Nanette Martin, a resident and sea turtle volunteer, said in the 12 years her family has lived in Ocean Isle Beach, they have gone from never seeing the animals to witnessing them near people on a regular basis.

She said she recently chased off a fox who approached her 90-year-old mother-in-law in the middle of the afternoon. Retired pediatric nurse practitioner and trauma nurse, Martin has had first-hand experience with animal bites. She had choice words for other speakers who said foxes are not aggressive.

“You have never held a child when they are getting a rabies shot or treated a child for sepsis from cellulitis, or dealt with the trauma of an animal bite,” she said. “Why do we want to wait until there is an incident?”

Francesca Slaughter, vice president of the Shallotte-based Rescue Animals Community Effort, claimed the foxes are not a danger to humans and “anyone who believes otherwise has an irrational fear.”

Allen told PCD she received messages from PETA members suggesting foxes do not spread rabies but pushed back on the false information. 

Brunswick County reported a local fox tested positive for rabies in May after biting someone in Southport.

John Henry Harrelson, field biologist for North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission District Four, told PCD two other foxes in Brunswick County tested positive for rabies during the summer as well. Neither were involved in a biting incident.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists foxes as a rabies vector — along with dogs, basts, skunks, racoons and cats — and notes rabies can cause uncharacteristically aggressive behavior in infected animals.

Besides rabies, foxes carry other infectious diseases like distemper, which can kill cats and dogs and cause permanent nerve damage. 

“Normal behavior is to avoid people,” Harrelson said of the foxes. “However, when wildlife becomes habituated either through close residency with people and also through feeding, they lose that natural fear of people, and that’s what we’re seeing in Ocean Isle.”

Harrelson said it would be reasonable to assume people are at an increased risk of being bitten. However, no volunteer for Ocean Isle Beach Sea Turtle Protection Organization has been attacked by a fox up to this point, officials confirmed.

What now?

The commissioners agreed it needed a new way to address the sea turtle organization’s concerns. Specifically how remains up in the air.

Some suggestions made during the meeting were to launch a public education campaign and work with property owners to post signs advising people against feeding the foxes. Another was to institute and enforce a steep fine for feeding animals.

Smith pointed to one idea that worked for the town in the past: a spay and neuter program. Ocean Isle was overrun with feral cats about 15 years ago and instituted the program to help with population control. The town also embarked on an information campaign to compel people from feeding cats at the time, but she said those efforts never worked. 

Allen told PCD she would be in favor of a spaying and neuter program, but it does not solve the immediate issue. Though opposed to penning, Allen agreed with PETA about euthanasia.

Harrelson said spaying and neutering is not an option.

“Those foxes came to that island,” he said. “They walked there or swam there, and there will be new foxes that walk there or swim there for exploration of resources or territory. It would be a nonstop capture and recapture.”

Harrelson said similar measures have been attempted on deer populations, which proved time consuming, expensive and ineffective.

Harrelson said the wildlife commission does not have the resources to survey the local foxes and determine if there is an overpopulation issue. Its recommendation when it receives reports of issues with small wildlife becoming too comfortable around humans is to address people’s behavior.

“When we do have issues, it’s usually a people issue,” Harrelson said. “Usually feeding, whether on purpose or inadvertently through feeding outdoor cats or leaving trash unsecured.”

It’s something the wildlife commission deals with often — with tourists feeding alligators. Like the town of Ocean Isle, it, too,  embarks on educational campaigns to engage residents and rental owners.

Commissioner Tom Athey said he thinks the town should lobby the state legislature and lobby for assistance, though he did not offer any specific recommendations.

“I think we’ve got the ability here, as a board, to make that request of our legislature,” Athey said.

Allen said her organization plans to reach out to the legislature for assistance as well.

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