We’ve been waiting for just the right moment to launch our Launstein Imagery Blog, but in the midst of all our planning something happened we hadn’t foreseen.
Just over a week ago, we lost a very special mom. Specifically, a female fox we had photographed and come to know and love over the past several years in Waterton Lakes National Park.
It’s always hard not to get a little anthropomorphic with wildlife subjects, especially ones that exhibit such obvious character traits we appreciate as humans. There’s probably no wild animal we’ve ever felt more of a connection with than this beautiful vixen, and just days before her death Josiah and I spent a few of the best hours we’ve ever had with her. In fact, we’re not alone. When news broke at the beginning of the month that she had been found dead near her den, leaving six adorable young kits without their doting mother, photographers and wildlife lovers throughout Alberta began sharing their special experiences with her and expressing their heartbreak over the loss.
But as wonderful as she has been in her seemingly willing role as a wonderful model to telephoto lenses and the excited photographers behind them, the role she clearly loved the most was simply being a mother. And so we decided to launch our blog on Mother’s Day 2015 with a tribute to a much-loved and already terribly missed mom.
For several years we have been tracking and photographing a handsome male fox in Waterton, and as winter gave way to spring each year, we were anxious to see if he would be raising a family again. And then one day as he approached his den site this lovely vixen bounded out to meet him. Before long, five adorable kits came out to see what the commotion was, awkwardly stumbling over each other and falling at nearly every obstacle they encountered. Right away we noticed how caring this mom was, nuzzling the kits back to their feet and giving them kisses and keeping a watchful eye on them as they explored their world.
And then last year, our favourite fox couple decided to upgrade their home and move to a more desirable location, as couples are prone to do. They chose one of the most striking sites you could find anywhere–none other than the front lawn area of the world-famous Prince of Wales hotel. It only seemed fitting for a couple deserving of royal status in the park, and like royalty, it didn’t take long for adoring fans and photographers to discover their whereabouts and ooh and aah over the kits that emerged from the den as spring arrived to southern Alberta.
For Jenaya, Josiah and I, it was always a struggle in deciding whether to train our lenses on the little bundles of fur and cuteness that were constantly on the move tormenting each other and exploring the world outside the den, or focus on their beautiful mom, who always seemed to be nearby providing for their every need. She nursed them. She hunted for them. She prepared the ground squirrels her mate brought her for the kits. She doted over them. She scolded them when they were getting out of hand. She barked warnings to get back to the den if one strayed too far or she sensed danger. She comforted them.
Like all good moms, she wore herself to a frazzle caring for her children. In fact, by June, she began occasionally coming over to the other side of the road where the photographers gathered and laying down, using us to get a few moments rest while still keeping an eye on her busy adolescent kits, and always ready to run back if needed.
She always did a wonderful job rearing her kits and preparing them for life on their own, and it’s been a thrill for my family to catch sight of her young-adult offspring throughout each summer and early fall in the park and nearby area. Of course once the kits have dispersed it’s been harder to find our favourite fox model, and throughout the winter we always came to Waterton hoping this would be a day we would get lucky with a sighting.
This spring she fooled us! We had caught glimpses of her in the valley a few times, but every visit to her known den sites left us wondering. There were no obvious signs of recent activity whenever we looked, but we never seemed to catch the conditions right either.
Then in April, Josiah and I drove up to the den she used last year, and lo and behold, two baby fox kits were joined by two more–and then another, who was not quite as strong or coordinated as its siblings. And with the encouragement of mom, some time later, a 6th kit clumsily emerged. This one did not have full function of its back legs, and our vixen worked an amazing balance of coddling it by nuzzling and licking it and forcing the kit to work on gaining mobility by coming to her across the rolling grassland. Every visit we made we watched her paying special attention to these two kits, often licking their poorly-functioning legs at length, and always getting kisses in return.
To say that our Waterton Princess was putting on a show this spring is an understatement. Just a few days before she died, she crossed over and hunted in front of Josiah and I, with Middle Waterton Lake below and Vimy’s Peak rising behind.
I never get tired of witnessing the excitement of my kids as they experience the beauty and drama of the wilderness and wildlife we have in Alberta, but I’ll probably never forget watching Josiah (age 10) quietly and respectfully photographing this fox this year. As she eventually trotted back to her den, Josiah and I said “Thank you, Momma!”
I will also never forget an experience Josiah and I were privileged to witness later that evening. We had found our vixen’s mate hunting down by the lake and saw him catch a Columbian ground squirrel and begin trotting back to the den with it. We followed from a distance in our truck, and then as he made the climb up to his family, we swung around and turned the truck off and waited. Momma was resting in the grass between two of the den entrances when her faithful mate came home from work. He literally came around the Prince of Wales hotel, walked across the entrance lane, and trotted down the front steps. At this point, our vixen rushed to meet him, wagging her whole body in excitement and kissing his face repeatedly before taking the ground squirrel to her kits. She helped them tear into it a bit, then returned happily to her mate, this time rolling onto her back and tenderly reaching up to his face with her paw. They kissed each other and nuzzled briefly, and then dad trotted off, disappearing into the twilight in search of the next meal.
It was far too dark for pictures, and to be honest, it was such a precious glimpse into the lives of this fox couple, I’m glad I didn’t have the distraction of the camera and was able to just soak it in with my son.
Josiah and I came home and told the rest of the family it was time to pack up the trailer and head to Waterton for the first camping trip of the year–it was clear we would be in store for some amazing photographic opportunities with our favourite fox family.
We weren’t able to get down for a few days, and pulled into the campground too late to visit the den that night, but were excited about what the morning might have in store.
What the morning had in store was not at all what we expected.
As I checked my Twitter feed over breakfast, I saw a link to an article sharing the news that park officials had found the body of the vixen by her den and were working with biologists to determine the best steps for the six orphaned kits.
We were literally heartbroken by this news. My family and I have spent so many hours in the company of this wonderful animal, and her whole-hearted devotion to her mate and children had endeared her to us more than any other fox we’ve ever encountered.
So this Mother’s Day, as we celebrate and honour the incredible gift of our moms, we also mourn the loss of a wonderful Waterton mom.
We also celebrate the loving care she provided her children year-in and year-out. And we are celebrating that her mate, ever the faithful dad, has been bringing meals to his kits and spending time playing with them, and that at least four of them are out and about each day exploring and roughhousing with each other (and I think from looking at our pictures this past week once the road was re-opened, we may have caught one or two of the other kits peering out at us from the den entrance).
So, to our royal Waterton vixen, we have been touched by your tenderness to your children, your love for and joy in your mate, your kind patience with those of us who found you too beautiful to resist capturing you in pixels and prints, your example of what it means to be a mother.
Your children are in good hands.
We will miss you dearly.