Scientists Battle Mange Outbreak in Urban Kit Fox Population

For the past  5 years, the WIL and it’s partners the Endangered Species Recovery Program (ESRP), UC Davis, CDFW-Region 4, USFWS, and the California Living Museum (CALM), have been working together to help San Joaquin kit foxes living in Bakersfield gain the upper hand during a fatal epidemic of sarcoptic mange. 

Healthy male San Joaquin kit fox

Healthy male San Joaquin kit fox, #6833, in January 2017.

Kit Fox-6833_Male(3)_20170725_Mange-250px

The same male San Joaquin kit fox, #6833, months later in July 2017 – after becoming infested with mange.

Male San Joaquin kit fox after treatment for  sarcoptic mange.

Male San Joaquin kit fox, #6833, a month after receiving treatment for mange while at the California Living Museum, CALM. CALM is a permitted wildlife rehab facility in Kern County.

WIL environmental scientist and UC Davis graduate student, Jaime Rudd, was recently featured in a story about some of the ongoing work and it’s challenges. More about the research can be found on CDFWs Science Institute’s “Science Spotlight” website:

 Additional information about the outbreak, including a recent publication, can be found by following the link

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Confiscated Badger Finds a Home

By Tom Batter, WIL Scientific Aid

Quite recently, the WIL became a recipient of a new guest in our temporary animal holding facility: a bouncing, bright-eyed American badger (Taxidea taxus).  This particular mustelid arrived due to an unfortunate circumstance, but one that is all too common.  The badger was found as a kit, and then was harbored at a residence and kept as an exotic pet.  Upon receipt of a tip, CDFW wildlife officers confiscated the badger and brought it to the WIL for temporary housing until a more permanent solution could be reached.

American badgers are prolific diggers.  Here the badger can be seen "digging" a relaxing moment in our hammock. (Photo credit: Deana Clifford, WIL)

American badgers are prolific diggers. Here the badger can be seen “digging” a relaxing moment in the WIL hammock. (Photo credit: Deana Clifford, WIL)

Upon arrival at the WIL, it was clear that this badger was very habituated to humans thus rehabilitation and release were not an acceptable option. While not as ideal as if this badger had remained a wild animal without human interference, the WIL was able to find a permanent licensed facility that will offer professional care, nutrition, mental, and physical activity to ensure the badger’s well-being.

Although it is illegal to import, transport or possess any wild animals in the state of California, some may not recognize the reasoning as to why these laws and regulations are in place.

One of the main principles of the North American Model for Wildlife Management is that fish and wildlife belong equally to all.  Personally possessing wild animals violates this basic principle.  Furthermore, there are many risks to both humans and animals when wildlife are taken in and kept as “pets.”  These risks include:

  • Public safety: By their nature wild animals are unpredictable. They can unexpectedly bite, scratch, attack, etc. when put in a highly stressful environment such as captivity. Often wild animals that seem docile when young, will become dangerous as they grow up.  This captive situation will ultimately end up endangering owners, their family, friends and neighbors.
  • Habituation: When animals become used to situations they would otherwise avoid (i.e. human contact) they become habituated and reliant on humans for their survival.  A habituated animal cannot be returned to the wild as they could become a nuisance or danger to humans, jeopardizing the animal’s safety in return.
  • Disease: Wildlife can carry diseases dangerous to humans.  Since it is illegal to possess wild animals, it is more than likely they will lack any vaccination history. This only increases the chances of zoonotic transmission.
  • Animal welfare: Providing proper care for wildlife requires extensive knowledge of the life history of the species, as well as an extensive time investment to fully meet that animal’s needs.  Wildlife possess instincts and behaviors that are tied into a free-roaming state without human contact.  Residential homes cannot nurture instincts and stimulate natural behaviors that wildlife need to live a healthy life.  When CDFW finds illegally kept wildlife they are often malnourished and kept in unsanitary and sometimes inhumane conditions.  When captivity is unavoidable, it is best to leave captive wildlife care to appropriately permitted professionals, who have the knowledge and resources to properly care for the animal.

If you are aware of a situation where a wild animal is being illegally possessed, please contact CalTIP 24 hours, 7 days a week at:

1 888 DFG-CALTIP (888 334-2258)

Growing Up Kit Fox

By Jaime Rudd, WIL Scientific Aid

Spring is a transformative season in California’s Colorado Desert. The mild weather and gentle rains that trickle down during this time of year are what entices the desert flora and fauna to awaken from their dormancy.

California's Colorado Desert. This desert is a subdivision of the larger Sonoran Desert that encompasses Arizona, southeastern California, most of the Baja California peninsula, the islands of the Gulf of California, and much of the state of Sonora, Mexico. Map image courtesy of http://www.grabovrat.com.

California’s Colorado Desert. This desert is a subdivision of the larger Sonoran Desert that encompasses Arizona, southeastern California, most of the Baja California peninsula, the islands of the Gulf of California, and much of the state of Sonora, Mexico. Map image courtesy of http://www.grabovrat.com. Inset photo courtesy of Jaime Rudd.

Colorful desert flowers come into bloom and sweeten the air as moths, butterflies, bees and other insects bustle about collecting pollen all the while fertilizing each blossom.  Various desert reptiles come out from torpor and sprawl upon the sand as the sun’s rays rest upon their backs.  The invertebrates and small mammals, when not offering new life of their own, are out collecting seeds and eating the newly arrived vegetation. It is also the time of year when the mild-mannered spring desert welcomes the next generation of desert kit foxes (Vulpes macrotis).

A mated pair of desert kit foxes. The male (top photo), stretches after a night of hunting for both his mate (bottom photo) and himself. These foxes both serve as disease sentinels in the California Department of Fish & Wildlife's (CDFW) desert kit fox disease monitoring project. Each fox is equipped with a radio collar that emits a unique frequency allowing biologists to monitor their survival after an outbreak of canine distemper virus (CDV) occurred in this desert valley the year before.

A mated pair of desert kit foxes. The male (top photo), stretches after a night of hunting for both his mate (bottom photo) and himself. These foxes both serve as disease sentinels in the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s (CDFW) desert kit fox disease monitoring project. Each fox is equipped with a radio collar that emits a unique frequency allowing biologists to monitor their survival after an outbreak of canine distemper virus (CDV) occurred in this desert valley the year before. Photo courtesy of CDFW, Region 6.

Monogamous in nature, kit foxes form pair-bonds that can be lifelong. During the early stage of pup-rearing and care, the female will hermit herself inside the den. Her mate is busier than usual, setting out to hunt for two, returning to the den with prey.

This female desert kit fox keeps a close eye on her den. She has 4 pups that her and her mate have been diligently been providing for.

This female desert kit fox keeps a close eye on her den. She has 4 pups that her and her mate have been diligently been providing for. Photo courtesy of CDFW, Region 6.

Once the pups are old enough, they are coaxed from their subterranean shelter under the watchful eye of their parents.

Already a couple of months old, the pups begin to explore a bit more while their parents remain close by.

Already a couple of months old, the pups begin to explore a bit more while their parents remain close by. Photo courtesy of CDFW, Region 6.

At nearly 3 months old, these pups are gaining more independence. While neither parent is seen in the photograph, they remain nearby.

At nearly 3 months old, these pups are gaining more independence. While neither parent is seen in the photograph, they remain nearby. Photo courtesy of CDFW, Region 6.

The pups will continue to stay with their parents for the duration of spring and early summer. The later summer months bring with it heat, independence, and all too often difficult life lessons. It is in these later months that the journey into adulthood and harsh desert introductions may end for some.

Remote cameras captured these images of a bobcat (Lynx rufus, top photo) and a coyote (Canis latrans, bottom photo) passing through a desert kit fox den complex.

Remote cameras captured these images of a bobcat (Lynx rufus, top photo) and a coyote (Canis latrans, bottom photo) passing through a desert kit fox den complex. Photo courtesy of CDFW, Region 6.

But for now, the season is young and it is still a time when the desert truly gives life, both day and night.

This male desert kit fox looks over his 4 pups on a cool desert evening. Sunset is one of the most active times for desert kit foxes as the adults prepare to leave their den complexes (and their young) for an evening hunt.

This male desert kit fox looks over his 4 pups on a cool desert evening. Sunset is one of the most active times for desert kit foxes as the adults prepare to leave their den complexes (and their young) for an evening hunt. Photo courtesy of CDFW, Region 6.

The Wildlife Investigations Laboratory would like to thank Jose Figueroa & David Elms from our Region 6 CDFW office for the wonderful photos captured by remote camera. Remote cameras have been a useful, non-invasive tool for biologists to detect animal presence and monitor the health and physical condition of these desert dwellers. All the photos featured in this story belong to a single mated pair that is being monitored as part of CDFW’s desert kit fox disease monitoring efforts in Riverside County.

Catch & Release: When to Decide if Medical Intervention is Needed During Wildlife Captures

By Jaime Rudd, WIL Scientific Aid

The Living Desert Zoo publishes an online magazine, FoxPaws. In article 7, issue 2 the zoo writes about an injured desert kit fox that WIL brought into their care last winter.

The Living Desert Zoo publishes an online magazine, FoxPaws. In article 7, issue 2 the zoo writes about an injured desert kit fox that WIL brought into their care last winter.

Studying wildlife on nature’s terms can be difficult. Not only can the weather and topography be uncooperative, but the study species can pose challenges as well. One challenge is deciding if intervention is necessary and appropriate if an animal is found sick or injured.

Here at the Wildlife Investigations Laboratory (WIL), we have veterinarians who can help make decisions regarding wild animal care. Deana Clifford, WIL’s non-game veterinarian, is also an epidemiologist and field biologist. With her diverse background in field studies and wildlife medicine, she is able to make important decisions while in the field or here at WIL. However, like many field biologists, she finds herself in remote areas far from home. In these situations, we rely upon local wildlife rehabilitation facilities for their time and care.

The Tennity Wildlife Hospital and Conservation Center at the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert has partnered with WIL to provide medical treatment for sick or injured desert kit foxes (Vulpes macrotis). The desert kit fox disease monitoring project is ongoing and began in January of 2012 in response to a canine distemper outbreak that occurred at a solar development site in eastern Riverside County. During our January 2012 capture effort, an adult male desert kit fox was suspected to have a broken jaw. The decision for intervention was made by Dr. Clifford, who quickly weighed many factors to decide if the risk associated with temporarily taking this fox out of the wild was mitigated by the benefit that would be gained from treatment.  Key considerations for her decision making included: Was the injury significant enough to affect the fox’s chance of continued survival? Could the cause of the injury be associated with our trapping efforts? Could the injury be fixed allowing the fox to return to normal?

Since this injury could definitely affect the fox’s ability to catch prey and potentially was repairable, we transported the fox to the Living Desert Zoo to confirm whether or not the jaw was broken, and if so, examine options for repair.  Living Desert veterinarian Dr. Kevin Leiske consulted Dr. Yee, a veterinary dentist at Veterinary Dental Specialists, and a treatment plan was set up to care for the young male with the intent to release him back into the wild. After approximately 7 weeks of care, the fox’s jaw had healed. Before release, zoo staff made sure that the fox was able hunt and eat whole prey. In March 2012 he was fitted with a radio collar and then taken back to the site where he was originally captured (under state department regulations, all wild mammals must be released within 3 miles of where they were found).

Not long after release, the fox’s collar went “off-air” and biologists were unable to track him. Despite an extensive ground search by California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW, formerly Fish and Game),  biological monitors at the solar site, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and volunteers, we did not find the fox. In October 2012, CDFW took to the sky to listen for his signal, but again was unable to successfully locate this one fox.

In January 2013, our concerns were finally laid to rest when we recaptured this male fox! His jaw is a little bit crooked but he was in good body condition and weight — clearly surviving and doing well back in the wild. We also discovered that his collar had simply malfunctioned and was no longer working.  We then removed the collar and sent this fox back on his way to continue thriving in the wild.

After WIL biologists discovered that the radio collar on this desert kit fox was no longer working, it was removed. Upon his release, he shows his gratitude by offering a unique photo opportunity as he rolls around! Photo courtesy of Deana Clifford.

After WIL biologists discovered that the radio collar on this desert kit fox was no longer working, it was removed. Upon his release, he offered a unique photo opportunity as he rolled around on the sand – not far from biologists! Photo courtesy of Deana Clifford.

There is always a risk when an animal has to be removed from the wild, even if it’s just for a few hours or days. Biologists understand this risk and must consider the benefits, if any, to the animal. Knowing the life-history and behavior of the study species is extremely important during the decision-making process.  In this case, a young otherwise healthy male desert kit fox was found to have a potentially life-threatening injury that could be treated with minimal human contact. If we treated his injury and successfully healed the fracture, we felt that his probability of survival was much greater than if we knowingly released him with a broken jaw.

A healed and healthy desert kit fox was recaptured a year after he was found with a broken jaw. While his lower canines protrude a bit, he was in good weight and body condition. Photo courtesy of Deana Clifford.

A healed and healthy desert kit fox was recaptured this winter, one year after he was found with a broken jaw. Trained wildlife biologists are able to use physical restraint rather than chemical immobilization during desert kit fox physical exams. This allows us to quickly conduct exams and take samples without the use of drugs. In this photo CDFW volunteer biologist Teri Baker gently holds the fox while WIL veterinarian Deana Clifford  documents his uniquely new physical feature – slightly protruding lower canines.  This male fox was found to be in good weight and physical condition at the time of recapture. Photo courtesy of Deana Clifford.

WIL would like to sincerely thank Dr. Kevin Leiske, Saldy Portacio, and the rest of the wonderful staff at Living Desert Zoo for generously giving their time and providing care  to the desert kit foxes and other desert wildlife. To read more about how the Living Desert cared for this desert kit fox, go to page 4 of FoxPaws Magazine.

PLEASE NOTE: Only state and federally permitted individuals or organizations can lawfully rehabilitate wildlife. California Code of Regulations section 679 specifically addresses wildlife rehabilitation and has incorporated The Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation written by the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC) and the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA). To learn more about the permitting process, please follow the link.

Wildlife rehabilitation is a broad and complex field and it is continually evolving and progressing. Continued education is a critical factor when it comes to maintaining a professional knowledge-base at rehabilitation facilities. Because of this, the CDFW requires that all wildlife rehabilitation personnel (professional and volunteer) satisfactorily complete one approved wildlife rehabilitation training session each year. The minimum for these sessions is 2 hours.

Click here for more information on wildlife welfare and rehabilitation and for a complete list of wildlife rehabilitation facilities in California.

Ringtails: Living a Life of ‘Climb’

By Tom Batter, Wildlife Investigations Lab Scientific Aid

Imagine a creature with the body of a ferret, the tail of a lemur, the face of a fox, and the eyes of an owl. This animal is agile, elusive, and rarely observed due to its secretive nature.  Such characteristics must describe a mysterious creature of Greek mythology, Viking lore, or an American folk tale… right? Wrong!  What sounds like a fabled beast is actually a little-known, small predator that lives in California, the ringtail (Bassariscus astutus).

Also adapted for cuteness. Photo courtesy of the American Society of Mammalogists

 The ringtail is an exclusively nocturnal procyonid (i.e. raccoons and their kin), which is why it is seldom seen and relatively unknown to all but the most avid wildlife enthusiasts.  It is a resident of California as well as the mountainous west, southwest, and south-central United States on down into Mexico. Preferred ringtail habitat consists of rocks, cliffs, and trees.  Similar to their procyonid relatives, ringtails are adapted for omnivorous feeding and exceptional climbing ability.  However, unlike raccoons, ringtails do not support themselves on the soles of their feet (plantigrade locomotion).  Instead, they have adapted to moving on their toes (digitigrade locomotion) causing some scientists to place them in a separate family (Bassarisidae).

The ringtail’s most noticeable feature is its long bushy tail, alternately banded black and white.  They use this tail for balance and abrupt directional changes while traveling.  Ringtails have fine dexterity, sharp eyesight, and acute hearing making them excellent hunters of small mammals, birds, amphibians, and insects; in fact, ringtails are the most carnivorous members of the family Procyonidae. Ringtails have semiretractile claws with hind feet capable of rotating at least 180 degrees – traits which permit a ringtail to cling to near vertical surfaces and scale trees and cliffs without difficulty.

The ringtail is known by many names including cacomistle, raccoon fox, and civet cat.  In California they are often called “miner’s cats.”  Miners and settlers often caught ringtails and placed them in their frontier mines and cabins to control rodents.  They quickly figured out that the ringtail is gifted with an innate mousing ability even greater than that of the house cat.  As ringtails became associated with mining operations, the name miner’s cat seemed to fit.

A ringtail examines the interior of our mobile vet lab while recovering from anesthesia after an exam.  The ringtail’s unique, long white and black banded tail is used for exceptional balance. (Photo by Robin Heagy)

As part of this year’s “Fisher Frenzy” fisher (Martes pennanti) capture, staff from the Wildlife Investigations Lab and the Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC) also examined other mesopredators that made their way into the traps.  Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereargentus), Western spotted skunks (Spilogale gracilis), and ringtails were caught in addition to fishers.

With funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service Section 6 Conservation Grant program, the WIL has partnered with IERC to study disease exposure in other small carnivores that share habitat with conservation-vulnerable fishers. Our findings will enable us to better understand health threats to forest carnivores.