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A Fox Around Town : This Time, Zorro Just Didn't Come Home

March 01, 1987|BARNABY CONRAD | Barnaby Conrad's most recent book is "Time Is All We Have: Four Weeks at the Betty Ford Center" (Arbor House).

He arrived at our Victorian house in San Francisco in a parakeet cage. Attached to the top was a note that read: "Zorro is an orphan, a 5-week-old, tree-climbing gray fox. Feed bitch's milk every couple of hours."

In the cage was a reddish-gray ball of fluff, not much bigger than my fist, with a bushy tail attached. For a moment, one might have thought it was a kitten, except for those ears--big, like the ones on statues of Egyptian felines--and those Oriental eyes, chartreuse around moist black olives, and that pointy black nose. No cat he!

I put my hand into the cage and, completely unafraid, the creature licked my fingers and whined hungrily. I went out to try to find some bitch's milk. They don't carry that item at the Safeway, but through a veterinarian I finally found a can of dried dog's milk at a pet store.

My wife, Mary, gently lifted the fox out of his cage, put him on the kitchen table and fed him with an eyedropper while Michael, our 10-year-old, and I watched. We were afraid of how Samantha, the haughty Himalayan-Siamese cat, and Tomas, the pug puppy, would react to the newcomer. But they took to him at once; the cat cleaned the little fox thoroughly, and the pug fetched his precious rubber ball and placed it in front of the stranger in an offer to play. The little fox wobbled forward, touched noses with the dog, and they were pals for life.

During the next year, the unlikely friendship among the three animals grew, as Zorro developed into a gray, white and russet beauty with a magnificent brush. He was totally tame and loving and immaculately clean and odorless (the legend of a fox's pungent scent stems from the powerful acrid smell of his urine). Zorro was housebroken immediately, newspaper-trained, though sometimes, alas, when one was reading it. He had a fine vulpine sense of humor, and it was wonderful to watch him at play with Tomas, toying with the slow and slightly dimwitted dog as they charged through the kitchen and around the living room, and then raced up the stairs. During these hot pursuits, the nimble fox would slow up for the puffing little fatso, brush his full tail across the dog's eyes to confuse him and then leap gracefully to a bureau or the mantle and gaze down at his frustrated pursuer, a smile actually curling at the corners of his mouth.

Samantha was far too regal to engage in such antics, but she would deign to curl up and sleep with Zorro from time to time. Often, I would come home to find Zorro in bed with Mary, the blankets pulled up to his chin, his front paws hooked over the top sheet, while both watched television.

Our children adored him and he them, and when one day he somehow slipped out of the backyard and didn't come back, they were heartbroken. He had set out on little forays before, but neighbors had always called to say they'd seen him at the nearby park or in someone's garden, and we'd either gone to pick him up or he'd returned home on his own, scratching at the door to be let in.

But this time he didn't come home, and no one telephoned. The cat and the dog and the children moped around the house, wondering where their playmate was. When several days went by and with still no Zorro at the door, no foxes reported in the pound and no answer to our classified ad, I started to give up. By the end of the week, I decided that there was no way an animal like a fox could have survived in a hostile big city. I sat the children down and gave them a solemn talk by way of consolation, some fatuous rationalization about how lucky we were to have had him as long as we did and that we should dry our tears because he was having a wonderful time up in fox heaven.

But Michael, our animal child, wouldn't accept this; he refused to give up. "Zorro's out there somewhere. He's trying to get back to us," he said, "and he doesn't know how. He's just lost."

Every day after school, Michael would ride his bike to nearby Washington Park, a natural place for a fox to go, and he would spend hours wandering through the trees and bushes calling, "Zorry, Zorry!"

He telephoned the pound regularly, scanned the lost-and-found columns every day and stopped strangers on the street to ask whether they'd seen a fox. They'd shake their heads and look at him strangely. A fox--in San Francisco?

He telephoned columnist Herb Caen and asked for help. The renowned newspaperman ran an item on the lost pet in his column.

Two weeks went by, and we had two telephone calls of fox sightings, but they turned out to be false leads. Still, Michael would not give up. He called Carter B. Smith, a popular disc jockey, and told his tale. The story was aired three times on station KSFO.

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