The original first draft of Sand Dancer didn’t have any fennec foxes. I can’t remember exactly when the concept of Fez, the main character’s pet fennec fox, came about. To me the logic was “every cool YA fantasy has an animal companion” and here I was thinking of Faithful, the black cat from the Song of the Lioness series, or more recently, Fleetfoot from the Throne of Glass series. One day Fez barged his way into my story and he hasn’t left since.
Fez is a cute fennec fox that Mina, our lovely main character, chases across the Dusland desert. Though Mina would correct you if you called him a pet, he warms up to her and rarely leaves her side. So long as he has food to nibble, and a warm spot to curl up into, he’s a content little beast. And whilst he follows Mina around, sometimes choosing to sit on a shoulder or rest inside a sahn (a sling-like sash), he does sometimes have his uses.
When I started writing Fez, I realised I needed to research fennec foxes. They’re not exactly native in my country, and despite being cute with massive ears, I knew nothing about their diet, habits, or behaviour. Wikipedia and general Googling gave me basic information, but watching them in action on YouTube gave me a feel for fennec foxes. How they sound, act, run around and play. Fennec foxes can be kept as pets, but they’re naughty little things and require a lot of effort to keep and care for. It turns out they’re more than just a weird cross between a cat and a dog – they’re incredibly hyperactive and screech a lot, their teeth are like painful needles, and boy, do they smell. Certainly not the easiest of pets!
I learned a lot about fennec fox behaviour from YouTube. I recommend two YouTube channels, if you’re interesting in finding out more:
- The Dro‘s massive collection of videos based on his pet fennec fox, Scout.
- Lucy the Fennec Fox
But, watching them online isn’t the same as meeting them in real life. I discovered that a zoo only a few hours drive from me happened to have a a fennec fox enclosure: the Five Sisters Zoo in West Lothian, Scotland. A wonderful family run zoo I’d recommend anyone near by visit.
The first time I visited the zoo, it rained. Of course it rained, it’s Scotland! I was worried the rain would scare the foxes into hiding and I wouldn’t get to see much of them. One thing I love about Five Sisters Zoo compared to others is that most of their animal enclosures have an outdoor and indoor area where you can sneak a glimpse. I could see the family of foxes snuggled inside their little den. But I got lucky. The foxes needed to have some checks by a vet. As the zoo staff examined them, a few foxes needed to be placed outside of their den, out of the way. Mama Fox was not happy about this. She ran and she screeched. I recorded some terrible footage, and couldn’t get over just how tiny they are in real life, how fast they run, and also how noisy they are!
As soon as my zoo trip was over, I immediately put my name (and cash) down for adoption, which earned me a nice collection of information about the fennec foxes and a certificate. Sadly they don’t offer animal adoption packages for fennec foxes anymore. The zoo post updates on the foxes on their Facebook page, and I’m hoping to drive back up and see them once the warmer weather is arrives.
So this is how I put my research into building the character of Fez. I’ll end this by sharing an extract from Sand Dancer about my favourite fennec fox:
A sharp curse snapped her eyes open. The fennec fox was attacking Jonan’s saddlebags. It snatched a small red felt hat in its teeth and ran.
“That’s mine,” Jonan snarled and swiped at the fox.
“Is this a friend of yours?” Lord Talin asked, bemused.
Mina shrugged and chased after it. The fox ran between her legs. She snatched the hat free and the cub paused, its ears flat, staring at her. She crouched and offered a finger. Its large ears sprang up. “I followed it across the sands—I think it’s hungry.”
Lord Talin dug pieces of dried meat from his own saddlebag and tossed one down. The fox dragged the meat to the small pond at the center of the oasis, where it chomped away. Mina settled beside it and twirled the fuzzy hat in her hands. The meat disappeared, and the fox placed a paw on her leg. It screeched for more.