In December of 2012, Eric and Tara Hiatt (2013 August) contacted Tiny Tracks Exotic Animals LLC, a USDA-licensed breeding company, Certificate No: 32-B-0211, located in Auburn, Indiana (USDA 2015) about purchasing a ranch-raised pet fox. During the weekend of May 4th-May 5th, 2013, Tara Hiatt (2013 August) drove 1,500 miles, one-way, to purchase her new pet, a silver-colored morph of the red fox. Because of her husband’s love of Star Wars and the fox’s dark-colored coat, they decided on the name “Vader” and started the blog, May the Fox be With You at maythefoxbewithyou.tumblr.com. On her blog, Hiatt posted photographs of her exotic pet and answered questions about pet-fox ownership. Unfortunately, her blog may have resulted in the death of her pet.
On February 21, 2014 the Minot Police Department of Minot, North Dakota released a press release announcing Vader’s death. On February 20, 2014, two police officers arrived at the home of Tara and Eric Hiatt to confiscate their silver-colored red fox pet. The police department reported that they had received an anonymous report that the animal was in violation of city ordinance and was a public health concern as it had been reported to have bitten someone who had contact with the animal.
Animal Control Officer (ACO) Tremblay and Senior Officer Clouse arrived on scene and informed the Hiatts that their possession of a fox was in violation of Minot City Ordinance 7-5 and that it would need to be confiscated throughout the entirety of the investigation. According to Chapter 7 Animals and Fowl, Section 7.5 Keeping of certain animals prohibited; exception. of the Minot, North Dakota Code of Ordinances:
(a) No person shall keep, maintain or harbor within the corporate limits of the city any of the following animals:
(08) Foxes; or hybrid;
(21) Any non-hoveled animal for which there is no approved rabies vaccine;
(29) Any animal commonly found in a zoo;
The press release (Minot Police Department 2014) reveals that while Animal Control Officer Tremblay attempted to detain the fox, the animal bit through his protective gloves and broke the skin on his hand and wrist. After impounding the canine, contact was made with the State Veterinarian, North Dakota Department of Health, and the Minot Veterinarian Clinic.
Jill Schramm of the Minot Daily News (2014) reported that a rabies vaccination certificate for Vader the fox was received by the Minot Police Department from a Rugby veterinarian Clinic, but the vaccination used was intended for ferrets and not guaranteed to prevent rabies in foxes. According to Vader’s vaccination record, posted on Facebook by his owner Tara Hiatt (2014) Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Richard Lagasse administered a “Ferret Rabies. X.” vaccine to Vader on August 15, 2013. In the press release (Minot Police Department 2014) the State Veterinarian was said to have stated that the Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recognize a preventative rabies vaccine for foxes and declares, “The safety and efficacy of parenteral rabies vaccination of wildlife and hybrids have not been established, and no rabies vaccines are licensed for these animals” (CDC 2011, p. 9).
The CDC (2008) addresses terrestrial carnivore bites seriously and declares, “All bites by such wildlife [raccoons, skunks, and foxes] should be considered possible exposures to rabies virus” (p. 14). Official guidelines suggest that terrestrial carnivores “should be euthanized as soon as possible (without unnecessary damage to the head), and the brain should be submitted for rabies diagnosis” (p. 14).
Written in the press release, the Minot Police Department (2014) followed the CDC’s guidelines and authorized Vader the fox to be euthanized and tested for rabies. Vader was euthanized by the Minot Veterinarian Clinic on February 21, 2014 and was sent to the Department of Health for rabies testing on February 24, 2014.
In the “North Dakota Department of Health 2014 Epidemiology Report”, a total of 731 animals were reportedly tested for rabies in North Dakota. Ward County, containing the city of Minot, submitted 67 animals for rabies testing, including Vader the fox. Four animals tested positive for rabies, two cows, one skunk, and one cat. Although these results were preliminary when printed in December 2014, Vader the fox was tested for rabies in February 2014 and his results were most likely included in this publication. These results suggest that Vader the fox was not among the animals that tested positive for rabies in the state of North Dakota in the year 2014.
According to the press release (Minot Police Department 2014), Tara Hiatt had contacted ACO Trembaly in July 2013 to inquire about the possession of foxes in city limits and was cited Minot City Ordinance 7-5 as prohibiting pet foxes within city limits. Beginning on July 8, 2013, Hiatt began posting on her blog about Vader’s illegal status. She attempted to apply for a USDA exhibitor’s license, but on July 18, 2013, she wrote on her blog that the city of Minot would not recognize the state permit in order to exempt her from the city’s law.
The Minot Police Department (2014) also took note that a permit required by the State Board of Animal Health to transport animals across state lines was not obtained by Hiatt to allow her fox to be imported into the state. According to Title 48 State Board of Animal Health, Article 02 Domestic Animal Importation Requirements, Chapter 01 General Importation Requirements, Section 10 All other animals. of the North Dakota Administrative Code:
Importation of all animals not included in the preceding sections, [cattle, bison, sheep, swine, poultry, dogs and cats, horses, and skunks and raccoons] including domesticated wild animals, game animals, game birds and eggs of game birds, shall be accompanied by a permit issued by the North Dakota game and fish department or the board of animal health. The state veterinarian may require for the detection of any disease, tests and inspections upon any such animals and birds and eggs prior to importation and may deny importation if the results of such tests or inspections are other than negative.
The Minot Police Department (2014) cited Tara Hiatt, the primary caretaker of Vader the fox, for “Keeping Prohibited Animal in City Limits.” According to KX News (2014), she was also called to court in March 2014 and served with a small fine. “A citation is nothing,” states Tara Hiatt in The Huffington Post (Meredith 2014) “But the death of my pet has left me devastated…There was no warning. No chance to say goodbye.”
Hiatt fears that Vader’s Internet popularity may have been the cause of conflict (Meredith 2014). On September 13, 2013, Hiatt answered a question on her blog about negativity she receives from her community toward Vader. Neighbors have expressed fear towards Vader being near their children, licking their hands, coming close to their dogs, and walking on a leash in the neighborhood. On June 13, 2013, Hiatt wrote a post on her blog about an incident she had with one woman that resulted in Animal Control reporting to the scene. While walking Vader on a leash in the community park, Hiatt was approached by a woman and told to keep her “wild animal” away from the woman’s children because she feared her children contracting rabies. The woman threatened to call Animal Control and when Hiatt returned to her car in the parking lot, she found an Animal Control unit looking for her. An ACO approached Hiatt and Vader and announced that he had received a report on a “vicious wild animal in the park.” After explaining the situation, Hiatt was left with a warning to be aware of the community’s potential fear of her exotic pet.
Hiatt reported to The Huffington Post (Meredith 2014) receiving hate mail on her blog on many occasions, noting one message that threatened to fake a bite report. “My biggest fear is that someone who was upset about us having Vader called in a false report simply to have him taken and killed.” The Minot Police Department correctly followed protocol in euthanizing Vader to test for rabies because he had bitten an animal control officer, but the officers would not have had contact with the fox had they not been investigating a bite report.
Captain John Klug of the Minot Police Department informed KX News that his team responded as they should. “It was a city ordinance violation that we were investigating. Whether [the fox] bit somebody or not, that animal is not allowed in the city limits. Our plan was not to go there, take the fox, and euthanize it. Our plan was to go there, take the fox, while we investigated the incident that was reported to us.”
“Had the police simply asked me to remove Vader from the city, I would have gladly done so,” states Hiatt in The Huffington Post (Meredith 2014). She feels that the police department had no right to enter her home without a warrant and attempt to confiscate her animal without catch poles or without the assistance of the owners. She believes that Vader’s death resulted from police error and could have been prevented. “There is nothing heavier than the empty collar that sits in my hand,” she lamented (Meredith 2014).
Vader’s case demonstrates the delicate state of owning a fox as a pet. Because the risk for rabies in wild animals is most common in raccoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and bats, the importation, distribution, translocation, and private ownership of these animals is highly regulated (USDA 2011). Those who wish to own a pet fox must be familiar with and abide by the exotic pet laws in their area, including state, county, and city laws or risk endangering the lives of their animals. They must realize that their pets are not legal if any laws in their area declare it. Even though a pet fox may be legal in one’s state, it may not be legal within a city in that state. Fox owners need to realize the fear and misunderstanding that can result from their communities and attempt to protect their animals in the best way that they can. In return, communities should educate themselves on these exotic animals before acting in ignorance and fear.