Cull all parents!


Here is the news. Regrettably, an urban fox got into a house in Bromley, South East London, whose back door was seemingly open while it awaited repair, and it bit a four-week-old baby. The baby’s finger was bitten off. (Surgeons were able to re-affix the finger, which is good news. Not much else about the story is good news.) Our balanced, responsible newpapers also reported “­puncture wounds on his face”, although when the baby’s photo was published on the front of the Mirror and the Sun this morning, none were visible.

The story was related in terrifying, lurid detail, and we learned that the baby’s mother was “in the next room”, when she “heard a scream” and a “loud thud” when the baby was apparently pulled from its cot. She also described his little hand being trapped “halfway down the animal’s throat”. The three-hour operation was described as “tense.”

I don’t for one minute doubt the facts of the story. It’s a nasty story that will unnerve parents everywhere. You wouldn’t wish it on anyone. However, what bothers me is that those with an axe to grind against foxes, and animals in general, are already jumping all over this poor mother’s anguish. London Mayor Boris Johnson thundered, “We must do more to tackle the growing problem of urban foxes. They may appear cuddly and romantic but foxes are also a pest and a menace, particularly in our cities. This must serve as a wake-up call to London’s borough leaders, who are responsible for pest control.”

The first wake-up call surely goes out to Bromley council, who had left the mother without a working back door, certainly by her account. The family have, it seems, been rehomed by the council, but if it’s a council deficiency that caused a door not to be repaired or replaced then the real wake-up call goes to the Government, who are decimating council budgets up and down the country in order to pay for their rich friends’ lifestyles and various colonial military adventures.

It’s essentially a tabloid story (and you have to admire their cheek with the way the photo of the poor baby is telescoped so that its injury looks as big as another baby), but well done to the Telegraph for this added flourish: “A child’s red pair of shoes and a deflated football remained in the front garden of the end of terrace property.” A neighbour, Khadine Peters, 36, was doorstepped by the eager Telegraph reporter, said, “I wasn’t there at the time, I was walking home down the street when I saw the ambulance outside the house.” Not much use as a witness, then. However, she had an opinion. “I definitely won’t leave my back door open again. Something needs to be done about all these foxes roaming freely around all these homes. They’re disgusting, they’re not cute pets, they’re vermin. The council should get rid of them.” (Who, by the way, leaves their back door open, and unmonitored? It’s the 21st century. A burglar is more like to come in than a fox.)

Thankfully, we heard from a spokeswoman for the RSPCA, who said the only reason that a fox would ever attack is due to fear, adding, “It’s extremely unusual for foxes to attack young children or anyone. It’s not typical fox behaviour at all. Foxes will come closer to a house if there are food sources.”

The truth is, like it or not, we share our cities with animals, including foxes, and it can’t be long before we hear the c-word: cull. Cull the foxes! Cull the badgers! Cull the deer! (It sounds a bit like “kill” but it’s more socially responsible.) People who live in towns are mad for culls. They resent wildlife encroaching upon territory they have helpfully marked out as their own by putting up fences and gates and walls around. How dare “disgusting” animals fail to recognise that boundary? (Any cat owners ever observed a cat when a door in the house it expects to be open is closed? Ours just sits there and looks at it, until somebody opens it. Animals do not recognise physical boundaries. At best, they confuse them. At worst, they frustrate and irritate them.)

What do urban foxes live off? Food we throw away and leave outside. We feed them. That’s why they thrive. If I were a fox, I feel certain I could live off the food that various householders round my way leave out on refuse-collection day, because they helpfully put it out the night before, not in a bin, but protected by a special fox-deterring meniscus of thin black plastic called a bag. (On my Monday morning walk to the shop for my newspaper, I measure out my progress by the torn-open bin bags containing fragrant leftover food. Oh, and our bin collection occurs after breakfast, so putting it out the night before in exposed bags is nothing short of stupid.)

Assuming it’s adults who leave the bin bags out, then why not cull them? Cull the parents! Cull the idiots!

I don’t have a newborn baby. If I did, I would not leave doors and windows open, which is usually the way when babies are attacked by foxes. And yet, nobody ever blames the parents. (Me? I always blame the parents!) It would be a preposterous and unthinkable idea to cull people. So would culling foxes because they inconvenience us, and expose our slovenly habits, and our knackered infrastructures. We have to learn to live together. Either that, or stop feeding the animals. (It always amazes me how bloodthirsty some people are. You may or may not remember “WHY I HATE SQUIRRELS!”, the SCREAMING Daily Mail manifesto in 2010 for urban blood sport and the judicious use of the back of a spade by the obviously-bullied Quentin Letts, which I wrote about here, at the time.)

There’s an urban fox attack every couple of years. That’s a lot of foxes not attacking a lot of babies in the interim. It’s rare. They are not hunting for babies. They are trying to survive. When we get hungry, we go to a shop and buy a thing that somebody else has made for us in a factory. When an animal gets hungry, unless it’s one of our pets, it goes to forage and hunt for food, wherever it can find it. We sometimes get in the way with our fences and a our plastic bags and our broken doors and our babies’ hands.


Missouri breaks

Phew-ee, I’ve been out of the cinema loop, what with Edinburgh, and then going on holiday to a place with no cinema. So it was with some relief that I returned to the reassuring Curzon to see Winter’s Bone last night, and rejoined the cinemagoing public. Lots of people queuing up to see Tamara Drewe, but I have low hopes for that, and fancied something a bit more nutritious. So I went for the low-budget, downbeat US indie, with Sundance stamps all over it and its director Debra Granik, whose previous film, which I haven’t seen, also coincidentally with Bone in the title, Down To The Bone, also won laurels in Park City in 2004. Winter’s Bone, adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, which I haven’t read, is set in the Ozark Mountains in deepest Missouri, where cars are left to die in the grass, shotguns are cocked whenever strangers take the wrong path, simple inquiries on porches are met with threats, many layers are worn, carcasses are hung, and you can’t see the wood for the forest. It was also filmed there, among real people and in real houses, which is where the film’s power comes from. (Woodrell was involved in the production, so we may assume it’s faithful not just to his text, but to his people.)

This is not, as Granik puts it, a “cheap holiday in other people’s misery,” although the hand-to-mouth existence for those that scratch out a living here lies at the heart of the story, which revolves around a young woman’s search for her wayward father in order to prevent the bailiffs throwing here out of a pretty humble abode, which he’s put up for bail after being busted for the manufacture of “crank” ie. crystal meth, which is a way of life up there in the hills. Ree, played by a Jennifer Lawrence, who’s sucking up all the plaudits and rightly so, spends most of the film either maternally training her younger brother and sister for the hard life that’s ahead of them (they skin a squirrel at one point) – I certainly assumed they were her kids and that the father was absent, but they’re not – or knocking on the doors of strangers, who also happened to be distantly related to her by blood, trying to track her daddy down. Clannish loyalty unites them against her.

It’s a beautiful looking film, which is not to say it’s always pretty. But the location is vividly conveyed – the light, the timber, the decor, the plastic condiment bottles shot off a fence for target practice, the difference in car between the residents and the visiting bondsmen, sheriffs and social workers. We’re right there in their predicament with them. In many ways, in its simple narrative and even-handed treatment of the locals, even when things get a bit gothic, it’s the anti-Deliverance. Banjos are not played by weird in-bred curiosities, but by families having a knees-up. It’s not country versus town. It’s people versus the authorities. Lawrence, whose first significant movie role this is, will be a star. Watch out too for John Hawkes, who plays her initially sinister, violent, coke-snorting uncle, whom you may have seen in Lost, briefly, or Eastbound And Down.

It’s too easy to romanticise poverty, but Winter’s Bone doesn’t. It’s hard up there in the mountains. And the respite is modest and infrequent. But people with drawling accents who chew tobacco aren’t stupid. And family ties count for something. Oh, and they seem to be really nice to their cats and dogs and horses. And they probably like the grey squirrel more than, say, the gun-toting conservationists in Northumberland, who trap and kill them without subsequently skinning and eating them in a stew.

Oscars in the new year? Maybe.