You Can’t Vaccinate a City Animal for Rudeness

"London Foxes," a short story by Kaliane Bradley

You Can’t Vaccinate a City Animal for Rudeness

London Foxes

It took us four years, but we cured all of London’s foxes of mange. Every fox in the greater metropolitan area was captured, tagged, and treated.  We received awards from PETA and the urban planning department. In our acceptance speeches, we thanked the three pillars of our successful campaign: teamwork, perseverance, and a combination of Ivomec and broad spectrum antibiotics.

It should have been enough to see the gleam of thick vermillion coats under the weak city moon; it should have been enough to hear the foxes scream in the night, resplendently bepelted. But after the awards ceremonies, that achievement didn’t seem like enough of a reward. We’d had so much champagne. We’d had our names on custom-inked certificates. We wanted more.

What else could we cure the foxes of? Initially we thought we might target their diet, but this was laughed out of the first funding meeting. Do you want to open up a little fox restaurant? Spaghetti and meatballs? Accordions? We considered a program of mass sterilization, but PETA got wind of that project and threatened to take our award away.  So we spun on our spinny chairs and crunched on the problem like a camel chewing a Pepsi can. What could we cure the foxes of? What still afflicted them, now that we’d made them so beautiful?

A post-graduate student hatched the earliest incarnation of the plan. The foxes had been cured of their physical ailment, but they still suffered a terrible, insidious sickness: an image problem. They shrieked in the gloaming, they ate refuse from people’s front gardens, they crapped on lawns. In the eyes of fastidious gardeners and keepers of domestic cats—London’s most powerful voter base—they were russet hoodlums.

Of course, we couldn’t simply provide the foxes with good PR. We were scientists. Dabbling in advertising was simultaneously below us and well above our pay grade. We had to think in terms of applicable, tangible, medical cures. That’s when we hit on the solution: we would cure the foxes of their rudeness.

We identified the rudeness as a spatial issue. Foxes had no understanding of how disruptive the sight of a glistening turd in a field of mellow green could be, how traumatic was the sight of a household’s garbage entrails when strewn across the street, because they had no understanding of the ritualized importance of such spaces. We had to imbue in the foxes a sense of place.

The latest and most disconcerting innovations in biotech were put at our disposal. We would build walls—literal cellular walls—in the brains of the foxes, marshalling their thoughts, focusing their perceptions.

It was easier to capture them the second time around, accustomed as they’d grown to our equipment, our rubber-gloved handling, tagged as they already were by the chips bought with the nostalgic remnants of our EU funding. It took only eighteen months for three-quarters of London’s foxes to pass through our program. It was, all things considered, another success. We eagerly awaited our summons to the summer awards ceremonies.

There was a fallow period as the foxes adjusted to their new sense of place. Its initial manifestation was of the all-according-to-plan variety. Introversion overcame the foxes. They mated quietly, and their scavenging became fastidious. They appeared to designate certain brownfield or abandoned sites as toilets. They appeared to learn to queue. 

Our first intimation that something had gone very wrong came early that summer. A young vixen was spotted in the peonies of a pleasant suburban garden, digging industriously. Naturally the owners assumed this was a creature as yet unvaccinated against rudeness, unable to comprehend the sacrilege of unearthing the flowers. They went outside, banging wooden spoons against frying pans. They expected the vixen to flee.

Urban foxes have almost never been recorded attacking humans—they’re bright enough to know that it’s not worth the hassle. The peony-growers had no idea that the vixen would launch herself at their faces. Besides, humans retreat to suburbia because they don’t want to do any fighting more strenuous than a sharp note to a neighbor through the letterbox. Even armed with saucepans, their exposed flesh tears easily.

It transpired, in the ensuing panicked media coverage, that the vixen had a perfectly accurate sense that the peony bed was a cherished space. She simply had a different idea about what should be placed there, how homage should be paid. She planted rat skulls and green bottles. It must be said that she added a large chunk of human skin, hair and muscle.

Spates of fox vandalization—and fox violence—blistered across the city. We realized too late that by teaching the foxes the value of place, and of the rituals surrounding the creation of place, we had inadvertently taught them religion. In teaching them religion, we had taught them religious mania. We had taught them boundaries, and they had learned about borders. By the height of the summer, the foxes knew about nationalism.

Now we don’t know how to reverse it. The foxes have learned about bodily autonomy, and they evade our attempts to recapture them. They’ve learned about conformity and are ruthlessly eliminating the remaining vulpine population still rude, lewd and animal in the brain. We can feel their eyes on us. We can sense that something is simmering. We leave out choice cuts of meat and milk on doorsteps, as we might to a horde of murderous elves, but we don’t know if it’s going to be enough. We have taught the foxes what rudeness is, and with that we’ve taught them how to hate, and we can feel it, oh God, we can feel that they hate us so much.

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