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Back Story: What Big Ears You Have!

Family ties cross species at the Saint Louis Zoo, which turns 100 this year.

Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts

Nobody was expecting Star except her mother.

“We had an older male fennec fox, Goliath, that we thought was not capable of reproducing,” explains Colleen Knobbe, a keeper in the Emerson Children’s Zoo. “He was in with Kenzie, a young female. And one day we noticed that Kenzie looked kind of, well, chubby.”

Fennec foxes are the tiniest of all foxes; they don’t “show” until about two weeks before they’re due. There was no time to introduce Kenzie to a new, quieter home. As the birth approached, she grew jumpy, wary, and withdrawn, with the strung nerves that can cause a first-time mother to eat her young.

Knobbe set up a video camera. Fennecs crave routine; any deviations would signal that Kenzie was about to go into labor.

“I started staying after work,” Knobbe says, “because we suspected she’d wait until it got quiet.” When Kenzie stayed in her nest box and warned Goliath out of the room, Knobbe hid in the janitor’s closet and kept watch.

“About midnight, the first pup appeared,” Knobbe says. “She took him in her mouth and ran out into the exhibit area with him. I followed, and she dropped him.” Knobbe rushed the baby to the incubator, but he was too badly injured to survive. Kenzie left the second and third babies on top of the nest box, though, and Knobbe swiftly rescued them.

She took the female babies home so she could feed them, from a puppy bottle, every two hours. Her kids named them Star and Comet. Star, now 6, is unusually calm, with a sweet, sturdy disposition. The smallest fox in the world, the fennec lives in the Sahara Desert (those big ears cool its blood), and it’s not the cuddly house pet breeders are trying to claim. But when Star returned from a year on loan to the Cincinnati Zoo and saw her foster mom, she let out excited yips and did her squirmy “happy dance,” getting down low and wagging her tail. Then she flopped over and showed her tummy.

Pure trust.

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