Rock Creek Park was still dark when the killer emerged from his den, a flame-colored phantom on black-stocking legs. With exquisite night vision, the fox surveyed the contours of the park’s forests and the curves in its stream. He could clearly see Washington, D.C. from the edge of the forest. As he began to accelerate into a trot, he put his paws on the soil and made diamond-shaped footprints.
The fact that it was May early suggests that the fox likely had a new father. This detail has been left out of published accounts. Foxes are most at risk in the cold months. After mating, pairs move in together to raise kits, usually by expanding a burrow abandoned by a woodchuck or skunk. In springtime, the hills of Rock Creek Park are alive with these renovated dens. The litters of litters, which are usually born in March or April, stay in the dens for nine days. They sleep with their eyes shut, nose to tail and neck up, while keeping their heads down. The park’s kitties have only recently ventured towards the cave mouths to play with their bones and flop with their siblings while they wait for their fathers return from hunting.
It’s not clear whether the fox had his final destination in mind as he moved through dense stands of sugar maples, oaks, and beeches under the light of a crescent moon. He would have been able to hear cars whizzing down the streets nearby with his keen ears. However, this noise was quietened during the pandemic when D.C. mayor shut down restaurants and people fled downtown. The city had become throbbly again by May last year, resulting in increased hunting opportunities within the park. This was especially true for the Smithsonian National Zoo, which is the ultimate garden of prohibited treats.
Spread across the zoo’s grounds are more than 100 enclosures where bamboo-bingeing pandas, neon tree frogs, and all manner of other creatures are held for the viewing pleasure of visitors. These enclosures have been refreshed since the zoo opened in 1891: Steel bars have been replaced with moats, stone walls, and other naturalistic barriers to deemphasize the aesthetics of the cage. Changes like these have proved soothing for visitors, but the animals remain confined in spaces that constitute a tiny fraction of their natural range.
The senior staff of the zoo said that they respect the local ecology. This includes both the park itself and the concrete area surrounding the capital. The zoo’s perimeter fence may be 8 feet tall and topped by barbed wire, but that’s mainly to keep people out at night. One staff member told me that guests do “stupid stuff.” One staffer said that guests can do stupid things if they aren’t careful.
If officers from the zoo’s dedicated federal law-enforcement agency spot a white-tailed deer on a control-room monitor, they do not express alarm. Also, raccoons who make fish ice cream out of trash can be tolerated. A curator informed me that juvenile bears were recently spotted at Rock Creek Park. She wouldn’t be surprised to see one walking down the central path of the zoo. Even foxes are welcome to roam the grounds, subject to certain limitations, which are strictly enforced: If, for instance, a fox indulges his darker vulpine impulses and hunts the zoo’s animals, he will swiftly be brought to justice.
The fox seems to have entered the zoo by slinking up a wooded hillside on its southern edge, his white-tipped tail bobbing behind him like a wind sock. We don’t know exactly what lured him to the level path that runs along the back of the Bird House, although given that he hails from a multimillion-year hunting tradition, it may have been his well-honed sense for easy prey.
During the 20th century, most zoo animals were plucked roughly from biomes across the planet until eventually a distaste for these abductions settled in among the public. Most animals in accredited zoos are taken from captives. Although there are many zoos around the world, some animals remain vulnerable to certain genetic diseases. Life in captivity can also diminish animals’ immune system, not to mention their morale. It is possible that the Fox made prior visits to the Zoo and observed how captive animals don’t move in the same way as wild animals. Some may even be suffering from distress. The fox may have wandered to the Sloth-Bear enclosure just outside the Bird House, possibly because the bears were pacing around in circles ,, a similar behavior as the tigers at this Zoo and other large captivity mammals worldwide.
An old Rilke poem describes the pacing of a caged animal as a ritual dance of “powerful soft strides … around a center / in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.” Depression is the word we use to describe a paralysis of will, and captivity inflicts a special form of it on animals, which we call “zoochosis.” Those suffering from it sometimes pluck their own fur compulsively, and may even mutilate themselves. While these are clear signs of something wrong with an animal they may not be able to see other animals.
At the back of Bird House, the fox may have noted the way the 74 flamingos ambled across their nearly 10,000-square-foot enclosure. Something about their movements may have struck him as curious. Foxes are great hunters of birds and may have some cognitive abilities that can alert them when a bird’s wings stop working. In the wild, some flamingos power up to Andean peaks or glide, pelicanlike, for miles along the coast. These flamingos are different. They were permanently grounded when zoo staffers removed their flight feathers three days after they were born, to make sure they wouldn’t escape their enclosure.
Wing cutting is cruel because it reduces a bird’s world. A range for a land animal is only two dimensions on a map. However, a flying creature can travel a vast area of Earth’s atmosphere. Mass slaughter is also possible for birds that are grounded. A fox would be fortunate to find a flamingo nest in the wild and be able to grab one of them before all the others flee. The zoo’s Flamingos, however, would not fly away even under attack. They could not. The foxes were held captive like chickens inside a coop.
The fox had work to enter the Bird House. It’s a valuable target and is well-fortified. Bill McShea from the wildlife ecologist department at the zoo told me that it has “the right-sized animals for the predators we have.” When the zoo’s American flamingo exhibit first went on outdoor display in the 1970s, the birds were surrounded by a fence that, for more than 40 years afterward, kept them successfully protected. It was removed six years ago and replaced by a stainless-steel mesh fence that met the national enclosure standards. These standards change as animals’ creativity evolves. Every day since, the new fence had been checked, most recently at 2:30 the afternoon before the fox arrived, when it was found intact.
The tales of fox cunning go back as far as human culture. Aesop’s foxes were constantly involved in deceptions. In Apache lore, a thieving fox stands in for Prometheus, stealing fire for humans. I imagine that at the zoo, the fox walked back and forth along the flamingo fence, sussing out its vulnerabilities. It was impossible to tunnel underneath because the concrete dig barrier is too far underground. Zookeepers might have noticed if the fox attempted to remove it slowly over several nights. Whether out of insight or frustration, at some point in the dark hours before dawn, the fox began to grind the fence mesh between his teeth. Like a spy cutting a circle of glass out of a high-rise windowpane, he was able to chew a softball-size hole in the fence and, with some wriggling, slip through.
Flamingos are large birds; some weigh nearly half of an adult male fox. Their size did not deter him. “Foxes are the ultimate opportunists,” Dan Rauch, a wildlife biologist for D.C., told me. The fox moved quickly and measuredly towards the birds, keeping his head low. If he saw one of the birds glance in his direction, he would have stilled every muscle. When he got within leaping range, an adrenal thrill would have surged through his limbs. He would feel playful and like a kitten romping in the den, then he’d jump forward with a deadly pounce.
Sara Hallager arrived at the Bird House just after 6 o’clock that morning. Hallager is the head bird curator at the Zoo. She makes sure she checks on all the birds first thing in the morning, looking carefully at the herons and cranes. When she reached the flamingo enclosure, she was alarmed to find herself eye to eye with the fox. While not all foxes are prone to spotting humans, this one appeared to be conscious of his guilt. Hallager said that the fox ran through the hole in his fence as soon as it saw me. Hallager’s hopes of seeing the fox just arriving were crushed when she discovered that pink-feathered mighthem had been spread across the enclosure and into the shallow pool. “I could already see a large number of dead flamingos,” Hallager said.
Hallager is one of the National Zoo’s longest-serving curators. She started as a volunteer in 1984, helping hand-rear tiger cubs, baby seals, and red pandas. She met her husband, another lifer, at the zoo. Today, she oversees a team of 10 curators and keepers who care for more than 400 birds, including gem-colored hummingbirds and ostrich-size rheas. For the past six years, she helped lead a $69 million renovation of the Bird House, along with a major shift in its curatorial philosophy. No longer will the zoo acquire birds from Africa, Asia, or South America, she told me when I visited her there earlier this winter. New exhibits will instead showcase North American birds. This story will be set against Rock Creek Park and tells a story about conserving the wildness on this continent. The park is a long-standing migratory station. Its forests are located on the Atlantic Flyway. This coastal route is used annually by millions. Together, they form an airborne river that sings all the way to the Arctic.
Instead of finishing up one of her exhibits that morning, Hallager was tasked with overseeing a horrendous scene. She called two keepers who were already on-site at a different part of the zoo, and they immediately ran over to help. The zoo’s vets arrived about 30 minutes later. They have a special van for ferrying animals up to the on-site hospital, where an open bay feeds into a pair of operating rooms. On the rare occasion that a lion requires surgery, zoo protocol insists on a special police escort, but no police were needed to move the flamingos. “We tried to triage the birds that were obviously injured,” Hallager told me. They were able to save three but lost 25 others–more than a third of the flock–plus a pintail duck. Although the victim count made headlines with its shocking implications, there was a simple explanation. Foxes are known for their “kill now and eat later” mentality. When Hallager happened upon the fox, post-rampage, he’d already buried two flamingos in the sand, beak to toe.
The flamingos are managed as a group, which means they aren’t given individual names, except for those raised as chicks by keepers. Hallager had dribbled baby-bird formula into some of the flamingos’ tiny beaks and watched as they grew into adults capable of living into their 50s. She described them to me as “charismatic, cranky, and very funny.” Zoo leaders made grief counselors available to her and the other keepers, just as they had when two elephants died of old age during the pandemic. Hallager described elephant deaths as intense experiences for staff. But, the tragic loss of the flamingos struck her as deeply disturbing. She said that the images she has in her mind since that morning still haunts me today.
Last month, I met with Bryan Amaral, who runs animal care for the entire zoo, to discuss the institution’s response to “the flamingo incident,” as he called it. Over coffee in a large conference room not far from the cheetah enclosure, he told me that he has had to deal with a range of animal intruders over the course of his career, including a Florida alligator that snuck into Disney’s Animal Kingdom and bit an elephant. In the case of the fox, “we didn’t have the attack on film,” he said. “All we could do was CSI the situation to the best of our ability.”
Foxes have hunted captive flamingos in bulk before. In 1996, one snuck past the red-coated guards at Buckingham Palace and killed six flamingoes that Queen Elizabeth II kept as garden pets. In 2014, another fox broke into Germany’s Frankfurt Zoo and killed 15 flamingos. Some birds died in a dignified manner: One bite broke the pink velvet rope around their necks. Some were completely decapitated.
Foxes are first-rate escapers if they’re caught in these acts of violence. In ranching country, they’ll run through herds of sheep to break up their scent trails. In snow, they’ll wave their floofy tails back and forth, possibly to broom away their tracks. No one at the zoo tried to pursue the fox after he dashed away from Hallager, but the staff worried that he’d strike again. He might have been able to resist the temptation to return to his crime scene, particularly if there were hungry kit awaiting their flamingo food back home. How would he react if he was next to kill a whooping crane or another endangered bird at the zoo?
Keepers set about bolstering the fence surrounding the Bird House. The cage traps were also placed around the perimeter to protect the flamingo display. Amaral told me that he holds no grudge against foxes in general. He said that they didn’t intend to trap any foxes in the vicinity of the zoo. He said, “We did our best to find the perpetrator.” They found the rattling fox more than a week later in the traps. But they aren’t sure if they caught the culprit. During my conversation with Hallager, she made sure to emphasize that they’d caught a fox, not necessarily the fox.
Amaral stated that the DNA test was inconclusive and that it was impossible to establish a police line-up. Despite this uncertainty, the zoo’s staff immediately initiated Phase 2 of their plan: A plastic bag was draped over the cage trap, shrouding the fox in a dark balloon. Anesthetic gas was pumped in until he fell asleep. After he was sedated, a syringe dripping with barbiturates was pushed into his orange fur until it punctured his skin like a venom-filled fang. Inside the rib cage of every fox is a small but mighty heart that beats up to 400 times a minute when the animal is trying to escape death. He stopped in a matter of minutes.
I asked Amaral whether there was any internal dissent about killing the fox. I asked Amaral if there had been any internal opposition to killing the fox. He said that he couldn’t recall any. This unanimity among the staff surprised me. This seemed to be contrary to the spirit of the zoo. It seemed to me like an act of desperation. Surely an institution devoted to caring for animals should have found a way to spare the fox. Why not relocate him to a forest across the Anacostia River?
” That would cause all sorts of problems,” Amaral stated. Apart from humans, red foxes have the most extensive natural range of any land mammal on the planet. They’re at home in North Africa’s deserts, in the Taiga, in the mountains of Argentina, and in the Canadian Arctic. In the United States, their distribution is dense because European settlers killed off cougars and red wolves, their natural predators. Anywhere the fox was relocated, Amaral argued, he’d soon find himself in a deadly turf war. He said, “It’d be like remote execution.”
I left the zoo unresolved. The feeling that the fox was being wronged was something I could not shake. The very next night, I experienced a visitation. A sudden high-pitched, loud scream woke me up in the early hours of the morning. For 30 seconds, I laid still in bed, thinking that the sound was a remnant of an unremembered dream. It resounding again I jumped up and ran to the window, sweeping my curtains aside. To my astonishment, a fox was sitting on the sidewalk directly in front of my house, screeching into the dark wintry air, trying desperately to summon a mate. This went on for several minutes until headlights beamed down the street and he fled.
Later that week, while doing some late-night Googling I discovered that many zoos across the east have red foxes. This is presumably because it showcases one of North America’s most vibrant manifestations of wildness. The zoos in Florida were located in Melbourne and Naples. One was located in Little Rock Arkansas. Amaral emailed me to inquire if it was possible to move the trapped fox from one zoo to another. Amaral replied to my email saying no due to all of the planning it would require. The zoo would also have to take care of the fox in a long quarantine. He said, “We were quick to respond to a situation with a skilled predator.” Fair enough, I thought. Perhaps it’s just as well. Confinement is no life for an animal, anyway. It’s certainly no life for a fox.
The post The Untold Story Of America’s Most Notorious Flamingo Killer was first published on The Atlantic ..