Niusia Winczewski on urban foxes

Niusia Winczewski is a part-time student on Goldsmiths’s MA course in Design and Environment; this September, her project “Fox Diner”, which encourages Londoners to share their scrap food with urban foxes, was exhibited at the Goldsmiths Design MA show “TILT”. Urban foxes are a familiar presence to us, but they also tend to cause controversy. How can we learn to share our space with them? Niusia answered a few questions about her project and her take on the issue: 

Nadia: How did you arrive to the idea of your Fox Diner project?

Niusia: Having moved to London around 2 years ago, I initially did not believe that there were foxes living here, as it took me a good year to finally spot one. One night, cycling back home, a shadow crossed my path, quickly acknowledged my presence and returned back to his secretive world. Jean-Christophe Bailly’s essay, The Animal Side, describes these chance encounters with wild animals as instances where we touch some part of their world. However centuries of human development and civilization now seems irreversible and have drastically minimized these shared spaces. Back home in South Africa, I have this latent fear of protected nature reserves becoming the last “vestiges of a world about to dissappear” as global policies of infinite growth with finite resources hurtle forward. So in a localized context, the Fox Diner aims to reclaim a communal space for humans and animals to overlap, where instead of discarding food on the ground (as one often sees on the streets of London), passersby can read a menu of food that foxes enjoy eating and share it with them, and in so doing, learn something about another species, and help to sustain it. That is in essence is what sustainability entails: the sustenance of life.

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Nadia: What kind of research supported your project? What’s the urban environment like as an ecosystem for foxes?

Niusia: I visited The Fox Project, a local charity based in Tunbridge Wells, that offers ambulance and rehabilitation services for wounded and sick foxes. Many of them were recovering from dog attacks, car accidents as well as mange, a terrible infection caused by mites that, if left untreated, can cause long and painful suffering for the fox. Each fox had its own clean cage with an artificial ‘den’ of newspaper clippings to burrow into should they feel unsafe and were receiving treatment before they are returned to the area they were found. Upon roaming around the facility I noticed a tub of dead baby male chicks alongside a loaf of bread and jam. The former is a sad by-product of the chicken industry (male chicks are useless and thus gassed), while the latter is a sweet treat for the foxes (if they have a choice, they will often choose a peanut butter and jam sandwich before meat). I found this endearing (they too have a sweet tooth) and introduced a anthropomorphised diner, with two slots to lift, one for ‘mains’ and the other for ‘dessert’. The diner was also constructed from discarded wood palettes I found which lent itself to the concept of disposability as well. As foxes are highly adaptable creatures, they manage quite well in urban environments, but this has come out of necessity rather out of preference. Sterilized monocultures now dictate much of the countryside, which limits the food sources of foxes, and cities like London have actually quite a high diversity of foraging food available to them.

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Nadia: Urban foxes have been a topic of debate in the media: reports of babies and house pets being attacked have caused outrage. What would you say to people who, far from wanting to share their scraps with urban foxes, are calling for them to be culled or classified as vermin?

Niusia: Foxes, like all species, form part of a necessary ecosystem, whose one feature is to control rat populations. Classifying them as ‘vermin’ is shortsighted, and lacks understanding of the wider picture, whilst believing conflated media reports is also not helpful. Professor Stephen Harris, a key expert on foxes based in Bristol, is a fierce defender of foxes and would be a good reference point to investigate a more holistic interpretation from an environmental scientist’s perspective, rather than, say a politician’s.

Nadia: How can Londoners reconcile their image of the fox as a predatory animal who was routinely hunted as a sport in the past, and as a villain of fairytales, to accept them as just another piece of their urban environment?

Niusia: Humans have developed self-centred assumptions that only our own perspective is privileged, and they are built on a lack of concern for the environment. These notions have created dangerous imbalances in the ecosystem which need urgent realignment. Why should we view any other species as there purely for sport to hunt or as a pest to be exterminated? These are viewpoints that need to be shifted.

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Nadia: How would you describe your design aesthetic and your interests as a designer?

Niusia: I would say my time at Goldsmiths has really highlighted a clear move of my interests to post-anthropocentric and ethical design, one that accounts for other lifeforms as well. For too long design has been a vehicle of materialism and excessive consumption, a characteristic I am finding harder and harder to accept as volumes of waste produced by marketing creates a cyclic pattern of desire and disappointment. These desires are never met, and so the cycle continues. I believe design can be put to better use now.

Nadia: What are you working on now?

Niusia: I am currently researching air pollution within the Lewisham area, as well as on a macroscopic scale of politics in general and have found it interesting to note the connection between socio-economic conditions and pollution. Most if not all environmental problems are socio-economically and politically connected, so each project relies on delving into a web of research in order to develop a concept and possible design solution.

Nadia Barbu