Scent Mapping

Foxes are usually active at night, so seeing them in the city during the day can be difficult.  Instead, I’ve been trying to trace their whereabouts through the sense of smell.  Foxes ‘scent mark’ their territories with urine, to signal to other foxes and animals that this territory is taken.  Whenever I smell the distinctive fox odour I record the location, date and time, building up a fox scent map to create a different way of thinking about the animals with whom we share the urban space.  I have begun to build up a picture of where my journeys intersect with fox territories.

Using this kind of ‘sensory’ research, rather than just sight, has changed the way I experience my neighbourhood.  As I’m walking around I am more aware of the strength and direction of the wind and the presence of other smells.  When I began mapping fox scent, it was winter, and there didn’t seem to be so many competing smells.  Now it is spring, and trees are in full blossom, there are many other scents that interfere with my ability to identify the fox.  Fox scent changes and strengthens during their breeding season (February) so that also explains why I noticed the marks more often then.

Attempting to use the fox’s way of perceiving boundaries forces me to change the way I move my body, and I’m immediately aware of how badly adapted the human body is to behaving as an animal, and the extent to which “the body is both physical and cultural artifact” (Scheper-Hughes 1987: 19).  I have to undo some of these culturally-constructed behaviours, whilst trying not to attract too many confused looks from human passersby.  Firstly, my nose is too far from the ground – I can’t easily sniff around trees and plants.  I find myself walking more slowly, stopping, looping back to check what I think I’ve detected.  If the wind is blowing, I change the angle of my nose to help me detect where the smell is coming from.  Even my pattern of breathing changes – I adopt a short succession of quick sniffs rather than my usual regular inhalation/exhalation.  I am experiencing a kind of “self-alienation, estrangement” (22) which actually helps to unsettle my normal way of interacting with the city, and forces me to experience and think about things differently.

This exercise hasn’t just been interesting from a sensory and phenomenological point of view, it has also revealed important factors related to human-fox conflict.  Our human methods of stating property ownership and boundaries (physical fences and walls; legal titles of land ownership) mean nothing to a fox.  It can easily leap over a fence or climb through a hedge.  However, if we think more like a fox, and understand how it perceives boundaries, we open up more effective ways of living side-by-side.  For people who would prefer foxes don’t come in their gardens, special scent mixes can be sprayed at the boundary of your garden to make the fox think a bigger animal has laid claim to this area, coaxing it to adapt its own movements.

If we don’t understand this difference in human and fox boundary management, we are more likely to feel that they are ‘invading’ our space and being a menace, and are more likely to end up in a ‘conflict’ situation.  As Sandra at the Fox Project explained, licensed fox controllers in London will come and shoot a fox for between £350-£500, but within two weeks, another fox will have moved into that same territory, making it an ineffective long-term solution.

The way we insist on stating these boundaries between humans and animals can also be reflected in how we state boundaries between ourselves and other humans.  If we “retreat to secured enclaves with walls, gates, and guards [we threaten] public access to open space, and create yet another barrier to social interaction, building of social networks, as well as increased tolerance of diverse cultural/racial/social groups” (Low 2001).  By being more open to the presence of other wild creatures, we may in turn become more open to the presence of other humans.

Inspired?  Intrigued?  Here are some links to explore embodiment, sensory mapping and, if you are still not convinced, fox deterrence:

  • To read about a man who’s taken the task of embodying a fox (and other animals) to greater extremes, click here.
  • And to see how other forms of sensory maps can change the way humans understand and interact with cities, read about the work of artist Kate McLean.
  • The Fox Project has more information about deterrence options here.
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