Three silver and black foxes with pirate-themed names run, gambol and dig daily in Verona -- in a very public setting. Captain, Jack and Davey give animal lovers a rare chance to observe wild animals that are generally shyer and less plentiful than the birds, squirrels and raccoons we frequently see in our backyards.
People can look, but they can't touch the 1-year-old male foxes that live at the Animal Rescue League Wildlife Center. They frolic in a new 1,400-square-foot enclosure built just for them -- a chain-link fence keeps them inside, and a second fence keeps people and animals away from them.
As very young kits, the foxes were illegally sold as pets to people who had no idea how to care for them. The Pennsylvania Game Commission confiscated them last summer and took them to the league's rehab center.
The foxes had been bottle-fed but were severely malnourished and had mange, a serious skin condition. In Verona, league staff bottle-fed them formula that met their nutritional needs. The foxes are now healthy and weigh 8 to 9 pounds. Staff recently moved them to the outdoor enclosure, which cost $25,000.
Because foxes are heavy-duty diggers, the fences are sunk 3 feet into the ground to prevent escapes. Pipes are buried throughout a 4-foot hill in the habitat to keep them busy. The foxes happily run through the pipes and dig their own holes and tunnels.
The staff fill in the holes so the foxes can dig all over again, said Jill Argall, director of the center. Caretakers are trying to devise games and activities, but dog toys aren't fitting the bill. The foxes quickly rip to shreds even the toughest toys.
In the wild, foxes spend much of their time hunting, killing and eating other animals, Ms. Argall said. Staff and volunteers serve these three frozen rats and mice, dry dog food, fruits and vegetables.
Sadly, the little foxes will never run free.
Each year the league's wildlife center takes in more than 2,000 wild animals that are injured, orphaned or ill. Some have been attacked by wild predators, but most end up in rehab because of people. The animals are hit by cars, shot with guns or injured by pets -- mostly cats. Birds fly into windows.
Nearly 65 percent of the patients are returned to the wild, and that's more than twice the national average, she said.
Captain, Jack and Davey would not survive in the wild, Ms. Argall said, because they were taken away from their mother and hand-raised by humans. They've lost their natural fear of humans and they don't know how to hunt, so they will become "educational ambassadors."
The center has 20 ambassadors, including a great horned owl, a red-tailed hawk, a porcupine, a possum and a squirrel.
It costs a lot of money to save these animals, and the Animal Rescue League relies on donations. The yearly operating budget is $325,000.
There are currently 150 animals getting care. Here are treatment costs for baby animals and average length of stay:
• Raccoons, $10 a day, 150 days.
• Foxes, $8 a day, 120 days.
• Squirrels, $8 day, 90 days.
• Birds, $5 a day, 30 days.
The center at 6000 Verona Road, Verona PA 15147, is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, but animals can be dropped off at other hours.
Here's the advice of licensed wildlife rehabilitators: When you find an injured animal, wear gloves and place it in a box. Don't handle it because that stresses the animal and could expose you and your family to serious disease. Don't feed it because many foods, including milk and bread, can make wild animals extremely ill.
Don't rescue an animal that doesn't need help. Mothers leave their young to forage for food, but they return. Keep an eye on the babies. If they aren't crying from hunger, bleeding or covered with flies, they should stay where they are, Ms. Argall said.
For more information: www.animalrescue.org or 412-345-7300, ext. 500.
After people get their last swims of the summer, three pools are letting the dogs in to benefit three shelters.
The Mineral Beach pool in Finleyville is the scene of The Doggie Swim on Labor Day, 5-8 p.m. It's a fundraiser for the Washington Area Humane Society.
Activities include a contest for best dog swimsuit. Each dog will get a free doggie bag. Dogs must be friendly with people and other dogs and must have proof of current rabies vaccination.
Advance registration is $10 for the first dog and $5 for the second dog. Registration is $15 for the first dog on event day.
The always popular Dormont Doggy Dip on Labor Day benefits the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society with swimming, games and raffles.
Dogs 30 pounds and smaller swim from 4-5 p.m. and the large dog (more than 60 pounds) session is 6:45-8 p.m. Dogs of all sizes are welcome at 5:15-6:30 p.m.
Registration at www.wpahumane.org through Thursday is $20 per dog, $25 afterward.
The Chapel Gate Swim Club is the venue for the third annual Doggy Day on Sept. 4, 4-8 p.m. A $10 donation per dog will benefit Animal Friends. Dogs can swim or run freely on 1.5 acres. The facility on Glen David Drive, O'Hara, is fenced. There will be music, food and raffles. Call 412-874-6338 for details.
Linda Wilson Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-3064.