Slinking through suburban streets with its eyes flashing in the reflection of passing car lights, the urban fox -- blamed this week for mauling twin baby girls -- is a common sight in British cities.
About 10,000 red foxes are thought to roam the streets of London alone, living off the plentiful scraps discarded by the capital's residents and adding their screeches to the police sirens and traffic noise that fill the night air.
AdvertisementThey show little fear of humans or domestic pets -- kittens and rabbits should beware -- but experts say the apparent mauling of two babies is out of character and insist it is extremely rare for foxes to attack humans.
Lola and Isabella Koupparis, nine-month-old twins, were attacked Saturday in east London as they were sleeping in their cots upstairs. The fox is believed to have entered through a ground-floor door left open due to the warm weather.
"I went into the room and I saw some blood on Isabella's cot," their mother, Pauline Koupparis, told the BBC. "I put on the light and I saw a fox and it wasn't even scared of me, it just looked me straight in the eye."
Lola suffered facial injuries and puncture marks to her arm, while Isabella suffered arm injuries and remains under sedation after receiving surgery.
John Bryant, a pest control consultant who specialises in foxes, described the incident as "freakish" but suggested it was probably carried out by a cub attracted to the smell of milk or the babies' nappies.
"I think this fox has grabbed the nappy thinking it was food, can't get it out through the bars (of the cot) and fought with what it sees as a rival for the nappy," he said.
News of the apparent attack caused a storm in Britain's excitable tabloid press and London Mayor Boris Johnson urged local councils to boost eradication efforts, "because as romantic and cuddly as a fox is, it is also a pest".
But experts say the danger posed by the animals, which typically weigh little more than an average cat, is tiny.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has no record of fox attacks on humans, and said the twins attack was "strange".
The London Wildlife Trust also has no records of such incidents, despite the latest surveys suggesting a total of 33,000 foxes living in towns and cities across Britain, and a further 250,000 in rural areas.
There are more foxes now than at any time of the year -- researchers at the University of Bristol estimate about 425,000 cubs are born each spring, and the youngsters are often bolder than their elder relatives.
But few survive long, with about 100,000 a year killed on the roads.
The attack could change the fox's image in Britain's cities, however.
Many people in rural communities regard them simply as a pest -- one they argue that hunting with dogs helped resolve before it was banned in 2005.
By contrast, city dwellers often like the idea of wild animals in their midst and encourage their presence in their gardens by leaving food out.
Foxes have long had cultural importance -- they were the stars of literature from Aesop's Fables to Roald Dahl's "Fantastic Mr. Fox", were known in folklore for their cunning and in Japan for having magical, shape-shifting abilities.
Music executive Sav Remzi, 46, a neighbour of the twins who were attacked, admitted he was thinking twice about the animals.
"I see foxes all the time and I like them generally but this is quite amazing. I never imagined something like this happening," he said.