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Minnesota’s ‘Cathedral Fox,’ saved by a priest’s intervention, now a National Geographic star

Fox returned to the wild after falling in window well of St. Paul cathedral

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Before the 'Cathedral Fox' was transferred from the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota to a licensed wildlife rehabber for outdoor conditioning, Joel Sartore of National Geographic Photo Ark came to take his photograph on Thursday, July 1, 2021. The caption: A juvenile gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus ocythous, at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota. Roseville, Minnesota, USA. Natgeophotoark.org
Joel Sartore / National Geographic Photo Ark via St. Paul Pioneer Press
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ST. PAUL -- As the Rev. John Ubel returned home from an early-morning run on a Thursday last May, he noticed a fox scurrying across the grounds of the Cathedral of St. Paul.

“That’s kind of neat,” he thought.

Only later did the priest realize — in what has become known as the story of the Cathedral Fox — that this was the first sign that something was terribly wrong. A wrong he would help right.

The second sign of trouble came in the dark.

“The next night, Friday night, I was returning from a wedding reception,” Ubel recalls. “It was later at night, close to 10, and I heard some sounds. I thought, ‘That must be the fox I heard yesterday.’ The sound was a bit alarming.”

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The crisis became clear the next morning.

“I got up very, very early on Saturday morning and heard the noise again,” Ubel said.

He followed the sound — a crying — into the bushes and realized a fox had fallen about 15 feet into the depths of a cavernous version of a window well of the Cathedral, an area that was framed in iron fencing.

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After this gray fox kit fell into a deep window well at the Cathedral of St. Paul in May 2021, the Rev. John Ubel spent a long weekend trying to find someone to help him rescue it.
Courtesy / Rev. John Ubel via St. Paul Pioneer Press

“It looked a lot smaller than the fox I had seen,” Ubel said of his discovery. “And then it dawned on me … ‘Wait a minute … that must have been the mother that was running around.'”

Had she been distraught, trying to rescue her kit — her pup — after the fall? There was no way for her to reach the kit.

But Ubel could help. While he was unsure of catching or trapping the wild animal, he knew there must be people out who could. So he picked up his phone and started making calls.

Help wanted

Unfortunately, it was a weekend.

“I made calls all over the place in St. Paul and Ramsey County,” Ubel says. “No offense to anyone, but no one was getting back to me.”

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By the time he started calling for help, Ubel estimated that the fox had been trapped for at least 48 hours without food or water.

“I decided I’d better do something myself,” he says.

But what to feed a fox?

“I did a Google search,” Ubel says.

After a run to the grocery store, the fox had some bananas, dried fruit plus a puddle of water to drink. The priest resumed his round of phone calls.

By Sunday evening, though, the fox had squeezed behind a window grate; it seemed weaker.

“It was not moving anymore,” says Ubel.

Help arrives

During the priest’s weekend calls, he left a message with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota. The Roseville nonprofit is a veterinary hospital for wildlife — but it has no ambulance service; it requires the public to drop off injured wildlife.

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The Rev. John Ubel, right, poses with one of the volunteers from the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota who helped him get a gray fox kit out of one of the deep window wells of the Cathedral of St. Paul on Sunday, May 16, 2021.
Courtesy / Cathedral of St. Paul via St. Paul Pioneer Press

On Sunday night, the priest connected with Tami Vogel, the center’s communications director.

“She told me that the city is very good about helping and would probably come out first thing on Monday,” he recalls.

Ubel didn’t think the fox could survive another night.

“I think the animal will be dead by then,” he said.

After the call ended, Ubel tried to focus on what was in front of him: dinner at his mom’s house in Highland Park.

He must have been pushing his food around.

“You’re thinking about that animal, aren’t you?” asked his mom, Gix.

Minutes later, the phone rang.

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When he arrived at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota after getting stuck in a window well at the Cathedral of St. Paul, the "Cathedral Fox" was so weak his blood pressure wasn't registering on the hospital's equipment.
Courtesy / Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota via St. Paul Pioneer Press

Two of the center’s staff members had offered to come and help after they clocked out.

“I left the food on my plate,” Ubel said, “and rushed back to the Cathedral.’

With the help of a ladder, one of the volunteers descended into the window well of the Cathedral and, within moments, masterfully untangled the fox from his hiding spot.

The crisis was clear.

“As soon as they came up, they were gone,” Ubel said. “I thought, ‘Wow, they weren’t in a talking mood. This must be serious.’ ”

It was.

“The fox was literally at death’s door,” says Vogel. “His blood pressure was so low, it didn’t register.”

It was rescued just in time.

“They told me this animal would not have made it through another night,” Ubel says.

Hope

The fox’s future was unclear.

“We honestly didn’t think it was going to survive,” says Vogel.

They did know this: He was a gray fox, not as well-known as its distant cousin, the red fox. Gray foxes are typically born later in the spring, but this fox was already about three months old. Besides being critically emaciated, his bloodwork also revealed a case of lead toxicity — lead poisoning.

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While in critical care for clinical emaciation and lead poisoning, a gray fox that had fallen down a window well in St. Paul in May 2021 was handled by humans at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in Roseville -- but after his condition stabilized, people stepped back in hopes he could maintain his fear of humans and be released back into the wild.
Courtesy / Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota via St. Paul Pioneer Press

Back at the Cathedral, the days crept by as the priest awaited news he wasn’t certain would be good.

“I didn’t want to bother them,” he says. “And I was worried they’d say, ‘I’m sorry, but …’ ”

After three days of critical care, though, the fox’s blood pressure became strong enough to register.

He was still fighting for his life, though.

“Time will tell if the fox will survive the trauma his body is going through,” read a post on the wildlife center’s Facebook page.

Ubel saw the post, which was published a week after the fox was admitted.

“That’s when I knew,” said the priest, “that there was hope.”

As he moved out of critical care, the fox continued his recovery — with humans increasingly at the perimeter of his life.

“It’s not like he was a domesticated fox, if there is such a thing,” Vogel said. “We are very hands-off with our patients — we spend no time with the animals other than treatment, or giving them fresh food and water. A fox bonded with humans cannot be released into the wild, which is a very bad thing.”

But could he be released?

To answer this question, he’d move on to an independent wildlife rehabilitator for the “outdoor conditioning” phase of his rehab.

Before he left, on July 1, someone arrived to take his photo.

This is where National Geographic enters our story.

The Photo Ark

Have you heard of the Photo Ark?

It’s an effort by Joel Sartore, a National Geographic photographer, to take portraits of about 20,000 species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries across the world — and also, occasionally, at the Minnesota Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville.

“I think we linked up with him at the National Wildlife Rehabilitation Association’s annual symposium, he was a guest speaker one year,” Vogel says. “He found out about our patient load. He has a list of species he needs to photograph, so when we get a patient he needs, we contact him and let him know. He will do his best to get a photo of the patient while it’s in our care.”

That’s how it worked with the fox, although the fox may not have realized it.

“He uses a blind, almost,” Vogel says. “There’s no human interaction other than transferring the fox into the container for the photo. It’s amazing to see Joel at work. He has a very, very good eye; he knows what he wants, he’s organized and efficient, putting minimal stress on the animal.

“A lot of people want ‘the photo,’ but Joel does not put undue stress on the animal for the photo — he’s quick, quiet and efficient, and that’s why we work with him.”

In an email to the Pioneer Press, Sartore explained his process.

“I always photograph animals on a white or black background so there are no distractions in the photograph, it’s just the animal and the viewer,” he wrote. “There’s also no size comparison, so this juvenile fox is as important as any other species that I’ve ever photographed, giving all species an equal voice. Throughout the shoot, the comfort and safety of the animal is most important, so I minimize talking and try to get the shoot done as quickly as possible. The entire shoot lasts just a few minutes.”

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Another photo taken by Joel Sartore of National Geographic Photo Ark of the 'Cathedral Fox." Technically: A juvenile gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus ocythous, at the Wildlife Rehab Center of Minnesota in Roseville, Minn. See more photos of animals and learn more about Sartore's Photo Ark at Natgeophotoark.org.
Joel Sartore / National Geographic Photo Ark via St. Paul Pioneer Press

In just a few minutes, what was his impression of the fox?

“The fox was just adorable, of course, and I felt good knowing he was in very good hands with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota (WRCMN),” Sartore wrote.

That’s evident from the photo: In 46 days — about six weeks — the gray fox had transformed from fading away in a window well. clinically emaciated and poisoned with lead, to a creature with fur so fluffy and eyes so bright that he almost looks like an artist’s rendering. Which, for a moment, he was.

The artist’s mission goes beyond the image itself, though.

“I’m very honored to have been able to partner with the WRCMN for many years now for the Photo Ark,” Sartore writes. “The ultimate goal of my project is to document every species in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, inspire action through education, and help save wildlife by supporting on-the-ground conservation efforts. The Photo Ark gives animals the chance to be seen, and have their stories told, while there’s still time to save them and their habitats. In my images, I hope viewers will look deeply into the eyes of these animals and see they are all important and so worthy of preserving. Readers can learn more about the project at natgeo.org/photoark.”

In rehab

After his photo shoot, the fox was taken to Connie and Nick LaFond’s farm in Hennepin County, a 45-acre property located between Maple Plain and Delano, about 35 miles from St. Paul.

Here, Connie LaFond, with the help of her husband, works with foxes and other wildlife to prepare them, if appropriate, to be released back into the wild.

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After a gray fox, rescued from a window well at the Cathedral of St. Paul in May 2021, was strong enough to be released from the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in Roseville, he was sent for the outdoor portion of his rehabilitation and conditioning at Connie and Nick LaFond's farm in Hennepin County.
Courtesy / Connie LaFond via St. Paul Pioneer Press

It’s a passion project for LaFond, who is licensed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to rehabilitate wildlife but has a day job as a certified public accountant.

“I was always interested in wildlife,” LaFond says. “Back in the 1980s, when the WRC was just a room at the University of Minnesota, my husband and I took a class at the Humane Society in Golden Valley on wildlife rehab. That year, the Humane Society got a litter of foxes and didn’t know anybody to take them. We said, ‘Well, we have a small farm, we could take them.’ They said, ‘Good, here.’ ”

Since then, the couple has moved to a larger farm and, while they work with a variety of wildlife, they are known as specialists at working with foxes (both red and gray).

“The fox pens are large and come with dead trees, brush piles and other things fox would see in their habitat,” LaFond says.

It was clear this fox was in need of conditioning.

“Because of his intense treatment, he hadn’t moved around a lot,” LaFond says. “He seemed a little weak.’

As summer deepened, the fox reconnected with his wildness, climbing trees and hunting prey.

“He got better and better and stronger and stronger,” she says.

He also made a friend, another gray fox transferred from WRC. Originally from Wildwoods, a rehabilitation center in Duluth, this fox was recovering from a broken leg.

“The two of them got along great,” LaFond says. “They spent a lot of time climbing and carrying on.”

LaFond was not surprised that the foxes were thriving.

“Foxes are really intelligent, they’ve very tough and they want to live,” she says. “Compared to cottontails, which you have to feed very carefully and just the right amount or they’ll die, foxes can survive almost anything. With fluids and food and medication, they can go from surviving to thriving, it’s just amazing.”

It was time to release these survivors.

Released in the north

The Cathedral fox did not return to city life. Instead, on Aug. 18, he and his pal from Duluth were transported to a property about three hours from St. Paul in Cass County, Minn.

The hardest part of the journey was probably crating them.

“By this stage,” LaFond says, “they are not friendly — that’s what we want, we want them to be afraid and wild, not to come up to people.”

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About three months after falling into a window well at the Cathedral of St. Paul, the "Cathedral Fox" had regained his strength and was released on a landowner's rural property in Cass County, Minn., on Aug. 18, 2021. "It was a successful release," says Nancy Gibson, who handled the transport and release, "as Cathedral Fox looked at us, then climbed a nearby tree to watch us leave."
Courtesy / Nancy Gibson via St. Paul Pioneer Press

The foxes would never know it, but the person whose habitat was opened up to them was a friend.

“The private landowner has about 300 acres with the mixed habitat that gray foxes need, and no hunting or trapping is allowed,” LaFond says. “He was thrilled to have gray foxes in the habitat.”

It was in this place, three months after he was rescued, that the fox of Cathedral Hill was set free.

“A friend we work with did the transport,” LaFond says. “She said it went great. Basically, you just wave goodbye as they run off into the woods.”

A bittersweet goodbye?

“I do have mixed feelings about it,” says LaFond. “But we give them a chance they would not have had otherwise, and they are as prepared as they could be.”

It’s been almost a year now since Ubel first spotted a fox on the grounds of the Cathedral.

As another spring begins to bloom, the priest says he’s become more aware of nature and wildlife all around him; it’s one of the gifts of the gray fox.

“Creation is a gift from God that we do not always take the time to enjoy and fully appreciate because we are so busy,” Ubel says. “Animals are one of the gifts in the background of our lives. The fox has taught me to be more observant and aware of my surroundings; I am more likely to see the beauty of nature.

Since he helped save the fox, Ubel has become a supporter of WRC and its work, as well as of Sartore’s Photo Ark. He also shared the story of the fox with parishioners in a Cathedral bulletin post called “‘Foxes Have Dens’ (Most of the Time): The Beauty of God’s Creation.”

“This animal clearly captured my heart,” says Ubel. “He captured everyone’s hearts.”

LaFond agrees.

“When you think about it, it’s an amazing story,” she says. “Everyone involved went to pretty extreme measures to save this fox.”

Learn more

Learn more about the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota at Wrcmn.org .

Learn more about the National Geographic Photo Ark at NatGeoPhotoArk.org .

View and purchase Joel Sartore’s photos — and a video — of the juvenile gray fox at Joelsartore.com .

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A fox that was rescued out of a window well at the Cathedral of St. Paul and received treatment at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in Roseville was later photographed by Joel Sartore of the National Geographic Photo Ark and became known as the "Cathedral Fox" before he was released back into nature.
Courtesy / Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota via St. Paul Pioneer Press

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