06/20/2012 10:15 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

When Life in the Suburbs Gets Wild

LEXINGTON, Mass. -- Perhaps she hunts by bankers' hours, the red fox who lives in our neighborhood. Or maybe her kids are growing up fast, demanding more to eat.

The first time we saw her close up, several weeks ago, we were eating breakfast on the patio between our garage and house at about 9:30 a.m. She loped down the street, perhaps 30 feet away, straight toward Massachusetts Avenue, the main road of our historic, Revolutionary War village. Not a care in the world.

Then, on Father's Day, Kathy was sitting on the same patio, talking on the phone to her mother at 5:25 p.m., when the fox emerged from the shadows behind the garage, not 5 feet away. It walked another 10 feet to the lilac bush, stopped, turned and stared, not hurried, apparently not the least bit afraid. Kathy sort of was. She raced into the house, slammed the screen and blurted out the news.

Instead of cat and mouse, we've been playing fox and man of late in our neighborhood. Or, occasionally, coyote and golden retriever.

Unlike the fox, the coyote doesn't dally. He raced by at 10:30 a.m. sometime last week while I was walking Murphy on a dirt connecting road on the hill behind our house. But the fox takes her time. I saw her again less than an hour after she passed Kathy and paused by the lilac bush. This time, she was standing in a neighbor's lawn, maybe 20 yards away, just staring at me. Fearless. (The fox, that is.)

Our most haunting neighborhood addition has yet to show its face. That's the fisher, sometimes erroneously called the fisher cat. Late at night, three times last week alone, we've been awakened by its screech, something akin to the sound of two cats fighting in an alley or a ghoul cornered by the ghost busters. It's enough to make me involuntarily pull the covers just a bit closer.

To think that until a year ago, wildlife in the 'burbs meant no more to me than a stray mouse or two, or an occasional family of wild turkeys. (Our house is just a dozen miles from the heart of downtown Boston.)

Mind you, I don't have anything against wild creatures. Mom was a nature counselor at camp when I was little. But with our 4-year-old granddaughter and golden retriever running around in the yard, I thought I'd better check out what's happening in our neighborhood. So I emailed a former student, Evan Allen, who had written about coyotes in another suburb for the Boston Globe, and then set to work calling a few experts.

My first call didn't elicit a lot of excitement from Lexington Animal Control Officer Stephanie Doucette.

"We've had wildlife in the neighborhoods for a long time," said Doucette, who has been on the job more than seven years. "They just do their own thing."

Among the town's wilder celebrities, she said, are two fox families, one with five babies on Locust Avenue. That is just two blocks from our house.

So, I asked. Might this present a safety problem? One night, for example, the fox walked into the street while Kathy was walking the dog. Another staring contest ensued before Kathy said, "Go away," and it ambled off.

Not to worry, says Doucette, who did acknowledge she's been getting more calls about wild animals of late. "The reason they are staring at you is they are going to see which way you go, and they'll go in the opposite direction."

Sounds like basic street smarts to me. And wild animals have plenty, according to a virtual brochure of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, "Living with Wildlife: Suburban Wildlife in Massachusetts."

Here's what it has to say, in the best bureaucratese: "These species are attracted to human dominated landscapes because they are highly adaptable, opportunistic feeders that are energy efficient."

Translation: Give them the chance to eat your garbage or other food that's easy pickings, and all those wild animals we've been seeing would much prefer to grab an easy meal than use a lot of energy hunting prey.

"Most of it has to do with food," says Marion Larson, chief of information and education for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. "People may not realize they are feeding wildlife. But if they put their food out the night before trash pickup, they've just provided an all-you-can-eat buffet."

That buffet does not include small children, thank goodness, but it just might include cats left to wander at night.

There are ways to discourage foraging, Larson said, from putting trash out in barrels the morning of pickup to taking down bird feeders and keeping pet food inside.

And if your neighborhood fox seems to be getting too close for comfort?

"Their first response is flight, not fight," Larson said, speaking generally of wildlife in the suburbs.

But she added, it doesn't hurt to show them whose boss. ("My mother is over 70 and she yells at bears," she said.) That might mean "whooping it up" to scare the animals away, turning on bright lights or throwing something at them. Preferably -- and this is my suggestion -- from behind a very large fence.

As for our local coyotes, in some cases they just may be the guys in the white hats. About a month ago I had a chance to interview the owner of Wilson Farm, a 128-year-old family farm nearby, and he said the coyotes that visit nearly nightly are keeping the rabbit population from eating too much lettuce or other crops in his fields. (Apparently coyotes are more efficient than Mr. McGregor in Peter Rabbit.)

Still, these are all wild animals. So I'm carrying a flashlight on my night dog walks these days. And keeping the cat indoors.