Tuesday, January 16, 2024

How Do Biologists Capture Island Foxes?

Meet guest blogger, FIF Board Member, Jessica Sanchez. 

Sanchez is a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist who's been working with Channel Island foxes since 2006. She started her career managing the captive breeding and wild fox monitoring program on Santa Cruz Island. For her master's degree, she researched social interactions among island foxes, and modeled vaccination and monitoring methods to prevent and detect disease outbreaks. She is currently a consulting veterinarian for island foxes across the Channel Islands, providing medical care and advising on biosecurity and fox health research.

Every year, island managers and biologists conduct island-wide capture of wild island foxes to monitor the population size, reproduction, and health of individuals. This is done using the same locations every year, so direct comparisons can be made and trends identified. (counting island foxes)

The first step is finding a safe location to place a box trap–somewhere with flat ground, so it won't roll. It has to be out of the direct sun and wind, away from water with no risk of flooding, and where we can use vegetation to cover and disguise the capture device.


We capture foxes using wire, humane, live box traps; the very same ones used to capture feral cats. There is a "treadle plate" at the back that is attached to the door with a stiff wire. When the animal steps on the treadle, the door closes behind them.

We disguise the wire bottom by covering it lightly with grass or other vegetation. This also provides a comfortable bed for the fox to spend the night. We attract the fox with a small cup of fox-safe food at the very back, past the treadle. The fox must enter far enough to trigger the door and close it behind itself. An aromatic scent is also spread on a branch above the box trap–this scent travels longer distances than the smell of the food and attracts the fox to the area.

We cover the box trap with vegetation so the island fox is shaded and protected from any other animals that might come poking around. Then, we leave it overnight and return to check it first thing in the morning.

Sometimes, animals will try to get to the bait without going inside. This trap was disturbed by ravens! Ravens are extremely smart and will learn that the brightly colored "flagging" we put on trees to mark locations means there is an easy meal nearby.

If a fox is in the box trap, we first weigh both the trap and the fox. Once the fox is released, we subtract the weight of just the trap to calculate the fox's weight. An adult island fox will weigh between 1.5–3 kg, or 3–6 lbs, with foxes being slightly different sizes on different islands (largest on Santa Catalina, smallest on Santa Cruz).

We carefully remove the fox from the trap, being sure not to get their tail caught in the door!

The first thing we do once we have the fox in hand is scan it for a microchip tag, just like the ones used in dogs and cats. This tells us that the fox has been previously caught. The microchips are small implants, the size of a grain of rice, and are inserted under the skin near the shoulder blades using a needle.

The microchip provides lifelong identification of an individual so we can track its history–the locations it was captured, its age, any injuries, whether it had offspring, vaccines administered, any blood test results, and radio-collar frequencies.  - Jessica Sanchez

See F257's multi-year story.

The microchip can also alert the biologist that the captured fox has already had a health check that year. If so, it is immediately released.


If not, the island fox will receive a full health check. Follow as Jessica provides an island fox with a Health Check Part 2 - body condition. 

Health Check Part 3 - Preventative care 

Other species encountered during health checks