An animal lover has welcomed seven rescue foxes into her home – but although she calls herself a “fox mum” she accepts they might “do their business on the floor” and does not expect them to follow any of her house rules.
Since then, her “lockdown project” has expanded so she is now running a fox sanctuary in her back garden, getting up at dawn every day to look after the creatures she says have been rescued from the fur trade.
Determined to allow her foxes to stay true to themselves, Nicole, who is single and has no children, calls her unusual set up “the best kind of chaos”.
She said: “I love these animals, but they are wild animals. I would never call them pets.
“When they’re in my home, for example, I don’t scold them for natural wild animal behaviour. If they do their business on the floor or chew my shoes, well that’s on me.”
As Libby and Louie do not get along with the other five foxes, who have arrived more recently, they tend to play by themselves outside. However, she allows Reef, Kai, Coral, Jasper and Penny into two spare rooms in the downstairs of her two-bedroom home.
She said: “I always say I’ve adjusted parts of my life to their needs and wants. if coming inside is something they want to do, then I allow them to do that.
“If they feel the need to come inside, explore and hang out in the air conditioning, then that’s fine.
“I have cameras set up, there are no loose wires and nothing they can chew on and harm themselves. All the furniture is old so it doesn’t matter if it gets scratched up.”
Those five foxes share a large outdoor enclosure that is roughly 1,000 square feet while Libby and Louie have another that is approximately 300 square feet to themselves in Nicole’s spacious garden.
And, being primarily nocturnal animals, they are happy to curl up and sleep there by day, while Nicole – who is now back to her job as a guide on tourist boats in the Florida Keys – goes off to work.
“The work schedule I have and the foxes’ natural schedule works really well,” she said.
“They’re not missing me, and I’m not worried something is going on.”
Nicole, who grew up on a farm in Western Pennsylvania, has shared her whole life with animals and nature.
She said: “I’ve always been drawn to animals. I grew up on a large horse farm in Western Pennsylvania and our next-door neighbour was a wild animal rehabilitator.
“Helping her care for her animals and releasing them back into the wild, I grew up knowing the difference between domestic and wild animals.
“I also learnt to respect animals of all kinds.”
In adulthood, Nicole began working on boats taking people around the Florida Keys’ coral reefs and teaching them about the eco system.
She also began volunteering for a sanctuary that looks after all kinds of animals in 2017 and was particularly taken with two foxes.
“I’d been around a huge variety of species of animals. But foxes were new to me. I became fascinated with their personalities,” she explained.
“Unlike a dog you would rescue from a shelter who may be grateful or open to affection, foxes are not like that. You really have to earn their trust and take the time and patience to get to know them.”
But Nicole was heartbroken when she was told the foxes had been rescued from a fur farm, where they had been bred with the intention of killing them for their pelts.
She said: “I knew the fur trade existed. I just didn’t know it was still so alive and well here in the US.
“I was horrified these beautiful animals were being bred in captivity and would be dead by the time they turned one.”
And so, when Nicole was asked to look after two rescue foxes on the same day she lost her job in late March 2020, she was determined to do it.
“I didn’t know how I was going to make this work. I’d just been laid off, but I knew I had to help. It’s funny as, in a way, it was my lockdown project.”
Needing money to buy food and set up suitable accommodation before her new charges arrived, Nicole used some of her own savings and asked friends and family for financial donations.
She also successfully applied for a permit which is needed to keep foxes in Florida and applied to create a charity so she could legitimise her rescue efforts.
In April 2020, Libby and Louie arrived at their new forever home and began settling in.
And soon there was more good news.
“The very next day after I became what I call a fox mum, I got a letter from the state making Pawsitive Beginnings an official charity.”
Sadly, Nicole says, as the animals were born in captivity and bred in “‘unnatural” colours for fur, it would be both illegal and immoral for them ever to be released into the wild.
This means they will live their whole lives with Nicole, and they could easily reach 10 to 15 years old living safely with her. She has all of the animals sterilized, so they cannot reproduce.
Nicole’s daily routine now involves waking up at around 6am to clean up after the foxes, giving them breakfast of fruits and vegetables and freeze-dried chicken bits and allowing them to play for a couple of hours in the garden or house.
Luckily, she is quite happy with that, saying: “I don’t mind waking up early.”
The foxes – who have access to the outside all day – normally choose instead to sleep inside most of the day.
Then when Nicole returns from work at around 6.30pm, she cleans up after them, feeds them a dinner of something like chicken, rabbit, duck or goose and more fruits and vegetables, and plays with them for a few hours.
She said: “As of right now, seven foxes is my limit. I’m planning on selling this property and moving further north in Florida next year to have more land to help more animals.
“This is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life and the thing I am most proud of.
“Life with seven foxes in the garden is hectic, messy and chaotic but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”