AUBURN — Tammy Sweeden and her mother had just gotten lunch at Burger King on Mount Auburn Avenue on Friday when they saw a fox.
The animal was small, thin and scruffy. When Sweeden and her mother, Marlene Frechette, got out of their car with their food to check it out, the fox approached them. It appeared to sway as it walked. It stopped about a foot away, watching them. At times it approached other people.
Sweeden called the police and, on their advice, called a local wildlife control specialist. The fox, she thought, wasn't acting right.
"I was shocked," Sweeden said. "It was very unusual to see a fox out during the day like that, especially that close to humans. I thought he was rabid."
Rabid or not, workers at the Auburn Mall, up the street from Burger King, had called police after repeatedly seeing a fox walking through the parking lot. Nearby Gracelawn Memorial Park owners also called police after they, their employees and visitors began seeing a fox wandering close to humans, parked cars and buildings.
Cemetery officials want to hire Richard Burton Jr., the same wildlife control specialist Sweeden called and owner of Lewiston-based Maine Animal Damage Control, to trap the animal or animals with a padded foothold trap and relocate them.
"It's just a matter of time before somebody gets hurt," Burton said.
But even though people in the area are growing worried about foxes getting too close, the warden service says there's nothing to worry about. As long as the animals aren't aggressive — and slowly approaching at the sight of food doesn't count as "aggressive" — they aren't a danger to humans. They just need to be left alone.
"People say, 'Oh, yeah, it came at me.' It's like, 'OK, well, did you have a burger in your hand?" asked Maine Warden Rick Stone. "These fox are urban foxes. It happens every year in all these major cities."
A litter of foxes was born in the grassy and wooded areas behind the Auburn Mall a few years ago and some believe the babies stayed around and raised new generations. Living so close to humans, the foxes have grown accustomed to traffic, noise and people walking through their habitat, experts believe. Because of that, they're less likely to run at the sight of humans. In some cases, they may even approach, out of curiosity or hunger.
Burton believes that's part of the problem.
"When foxes are around people for a long time, they lose their fear of people," he said. "And that's a bad thing because that's when people normally end up getting bit."
He wants to capture what he believes are one or more nuisance foxes and move them out of the area.
Diane Fuller, a spokeswoman for Gracelawn, said at times foxes have gone under parked cars and underneath a house on the property. On Friday, she said, it came within 15 feet of a delivery person.
Fuller calls herself a "bleeding-heart-liberal animal lover" but says she's concerned for people's safety, and she wants the fox or foxes gone.
Burton said the best way to capture them is with a padded foothold trap, in which the animal's paw is caught but not injured, he said.
"I will slam my own hand in the trap (to prove it)," Burton said.
However, foothold traps are only approved for use during trapping season, which starts in the fall. They can also be approved by the Warden Service on a case-by-case basis, but Warden Stone said the traps are only OK'd when there are extenuating circumstances — such as when a wild animal has killed farm animals. Stone won't give approval in Auburn because of the circumstances and because cats and dogs could also get caught.
Burton said it's worth the risk. "It comes down to public safety."
On Friday, he appealed Stone's denial of the trap. Stone's supervisor upheld the decision.
That afternoon, Sweeden saw the fox at Burger King. On the advice of local police, she called Burton and Maine State Police, who contacted the Warden Service. Burton arrived first. He spotted the fox but felt there was nothing he could do. A couple of hours later, Stone arrived.
The fox, he said, was not rabid. It was not aggressive, did not move to attack him or anyone else and was not acting unusual. Foxes sometimes go out during daylight to look for food, he said. It might have learned that people at Burger King offer food and so approached Sweeden. And it could have been swaying, he said, because it was hungry, weak or had been injured by a car or kicked by a person.
When he saw it, the animal was on the side of a nearby embankment, quietly eating.
"It was eating a mouse, or maybe it was a Whopper Jr., I don't know," Stone said.
But the fox was mangy. Caused by mites, mange makes animals itch and causes them to lose their fur. It does not make them aggressive, and wild animals with mange pose no threat to humans. But without fur, they are not likely to survive the winter.
So Stone shot and killed the fox.
"I felt it would be better to put it down now rather than to suffer this winter," he said.
His suggestion to people who see foxes in the area: Leave them alone. Don't approach them. Don't feed them. Don't leave out food or trash they might consider food.
"They're looking for something to eat," Stone said. "If there's no food source, it's not going to stick around. If it's aggressive and it's sick-acting, we're going to kill it. If it's not, we're going to let it be."