City boundaries aren't off-limits for sly downtown visitor, the fox

March 09, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

ON A WINDY night last week, I was comfortably placed before a television set in the parlor at the home of my friends Pippa and Ian Barker in Hampshire, England. The BBC news aired a segment on fox hunting; the British legal system is in the throes of debate about how to deal with this activity, which some consider traditional good sport and others a horror.

There I was in a distant place, watching the video footage of hunters and animal rights protesters. I thought about this debate for a few minutes and was then summoned to the table where my thoughts turned to gratitude for my hosts.

I arrived back in Baltimore this week to equally chilly weather. It was my first day back after six nights overseas. My mind was elsewhere; Baltimore appeared as unappealing as it does in the first days of March.

Just to blast away a spell of midday inertia, I took off on foot up Calvert Street and ran into a few friends who were leaving St. Ignatius Church and the noontime Lenten Novena of Grace. There were, in fact, quite a few people out on the streets of old Mount Vernon this noon hour.

I was headed west on Read Street when I reached Hargrove Alley about the same time as a woman who was also well-wrapped against the March winds. There, in the heart of the cemented city, was a sight I will not forget.

We both looked at an animal who was trotting gracefully among the trash cans, carriage houses and garages. "That is a fox we're seeing," she said, as much a question as a statement. Indeed, it was, a silvery gray fox - sporting a particularly fine tail - making his lunchtime rounds in the asphalt and masonry of downtown Baltimore, two blocks from the Hotel Belvedere, two blocks from the Jones Falls Expressway and maybe another six to the State Penitentiary. It disappeared behind 903 St. Paul St.

For the last dozen years or so, I've been fascinated by the progressive penetration of this storied animal into parts of Baltimore normally associated with confirmed city dwellers.

Each winter, it seems, I spot one fox well within the city limits. My first sighting was about this time of year on Belair Road where it crosses the Herring Run Valley - a logical spot, as this is a wooded watershed that wraps around Northeast Baltimore.

Then I saw a gorgeous red fox darting across Charles Street by Second Presbyterian Church in Guilford one Sunday afternoon. This, too, had some geographic logic - there are arms of the Stony Run Valley that wrap around the city here.

But this past Tuesday's sighting beat all. I am used to seeing feral cats, stray dogs and rats in the alleys of Mount Vernon. I guess I wouldn't be surprised at a raccoon - after all, wasn't I greeted by a pair of glow-in-the-dark eyes a couple of months ago while I was on my way home from a dinner party off University Parkway?

Then my imagination went into overdrive. What if the fox hunters abandoned the hills of Howard and Harford counties and started making urban runs? Would jumping horses start sharing the same pavement as our mounted police officers? Or was life imitating art? Had one of the English hunting prints displayed on the walls of the nearby Maryland Club come to life and its wily fox jumped off the picture frame and into the alley?

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