Visitors to the Safari Park will discover three furry new faces in African Outpost.
BY Donna Parham
Photography by Ken Bohn and Tammy Spratt
Movements and positions of the ears, along with the tail, are important ways foxes visually communicate among themselves.
Three bat-eared foxes Otocyon megalotis—two females and a male—were born at the Safari Park’s African Outpost on April 18, 2018 and have been keeping their parents and keepers busy ever since. Motsumi (mote-SOO-mee) is a confident little female whose name comes from a Setswana word for “hunter.” Monyenyô (mo-NYEN-nyo), another female, is “the shyest of the three,” says senior keeper Patty Cassady. She’s also the lightest in color, and her name, a Setswana word meaning “smile,” is a reference to the black chin-mask that’s typical of the species. The third, a male named Mkhuseli (em-cue-ZEE-lee), was the “runt” of the litter. “He was the smallest, but he’s also the most precocious,” says Patty. “He was the first to venture out of the den.” The darkest of the three, his name comes from a Xhona word that means “protector.”
The day the young foxes, called pups or kits, were born, keepers were able to peer into the den and count them, something they attribute to the trusting relationship their parents have with the keepers. “It says a lot that mom and dad would be so comfortable with us on day one,” says keeper Katie Becker. “With someone they don’t know, they are far more cautious and protective.”
The trust between fox and keeper is especially important when it is time for health exams and treatment, and it can only be earned through positive interaction, rewards, and patience. At two weeks old, the kits toddled out of the den for the first time. With the parents monitoring the situation, keepers began working with the furry little ones to prepare them for their eight-week vaccinations. “As a keeper, it’s a bit of a challenge, because we want them—and their parents—to retain all their natural behaviors, but at the same time, we want them to be comfortable around us so that we can handle them when we need to,” says Patty.
An average-sized bat-eared fox is about the size of a house cat; most weigh about 7 to 12 pounds. They stand about a foot tall and can be two feet long, not counting their fluffy, foot-long tail.
The new litter was no surprise to the keepers. “We started to see behavior changes that told us Suh-ka was pregnant,” says Katie. “Odif’s behavior changed, too. He was bringing her his food.” This selfless act is typical for a male bat-eared fox with a pregnant mate, or with young kits. Just as he tried to feed their mother, “Odif brought food to his kits,” says Katie. “To me, the bat-eared foxes’ most endearing quality is that males play such a huge role in parenting. It’s not too often in the animal world that you see such a devoted dad.”
“It is the responsibility of the male to provide food for the family,” says lead keeper Peggy Sexton. With this in mind, the keepers made sure to provide Odif with plenty of food to share. “Although it seems like the male is giving all his food away, he will eat enough to sustain himself.”
Bat-eared foxes live in family groups that center around a male. In eastern Africa, up to three—usually related—adult females, along with all their offspring, round out the family. In southern Africa, adults are monogamous—like Odif and Suh-ka. A female suckles her offspring for 10 to 15 weeks, but it’s the male that does most of the other work, giving mom a chance to feed herself while he feeds, grooms, guards, and plays with the kits. As they grow older, he’ll teach them to forage, too.
A litter includes one to six offspring, which are called kits or pups. A newborn weighs about 3.5 ounces (about as much as a golf ball) to 5 ounces (about as much as a baseball). But it’s a lot cuter.
Room and Board
Bat-eared foxes excavate underground dens. In the wild, they may also take over dens abandoned by other animals. Their dens have several entrances, tunnels, and chambers. A fox family may use many of them, hauling their kits along by the scruff of the neck. Older juveniles share digs with their parents too, and the same den may be used over many successive generations. At the Safari Park, the foxes’ main den opens at the far right corner of the exhibit they share with warthogs. “It’s a labyrinth under there,” says Katie.
Creeping slowly, with their ears swiveled to focus on the ground in front of them, a bat-eared fox family forages together. They detect prey—mostly burrowing insects such as termites—by sound, pouncing on prey or quickly digging it up. Their hearing is so acute that they can distinguish dung beetle larvae digging their way out of a dung ball. But foxes aren’t particularly choosy, and—dung balls being in short supply—keepers feed the Safari Park fox family a ground-meat-based, commercial carnivore food; mice; and kibble. Live mealworms and crickets are special treats that also provide behavioral enrichment.
Patty says the foxes are “super fun to work with.” Like their parents, the kits have made themselves at home in their African Outpost habitat, alongside a family of warthogs. (In Africa, the two species share habitat, too.) The two happy families include Park-born offspring, which are growing up quickly. “Suh-ka and Odif make a great team. It’s rewarding to see them raise their first successful litter, and watch the kits grow,” says Katie. “We provide diet, enrichment, and health care—and we trust them to be good parents.” And they are.