Kittens or puppies? Animals left at shelter turned out to be foxes — again.

A Phoenix man walked into the Arizona Humane Society last month with four fuzzy baby animals, each weighing less than a pound.

He told employees he wasn’t sure what the animals were, but he’d put them in a box after he found them inside a small den next to his shed. He thought they’d been abandoned and needed rescuing, said Kelsey Dickerson, public information officer for the animal shelter.

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“Their eyes were barely open, and they were probably 1 or 2 weeks old,” she said about the drop-off on the afternoon of April 16.

“I’m not sure whether he thought they were puppies or kittens, but we get that a lot,” Dickerson added. “People see adorable little animals alone on their property and think they are helpless orphans, so they bring them to us.”

A close inspection by an animal-care specialist at the shelter revealed that the babies weren’t cute domestic pets in trouble, but were actually wild gray foxes.

“It’s likely the mom was out hunting to get food for them, and she was going to be back soon,” Dickerson said. “This guy didn’t know they were wild, and he thought he was being a good Samaritan by bringing them in.”

It’s a common occurrence, but especially in Arizona, where the animal birth season generally runs from March through November, due to the warmer climate, she said.

Dickerson said baby bobcats, coyotes, bats and reptiles have also been dropped off by people who think the newborn animals have been abandoned and are in danger of starving to death.

There was a publicized case in California, where a woman thought she’d rescued a kitten two years ago, and it turned out to be a fox.

That same spring in 2022, a Massachusetts family took in a lost puppy and learned it was a coyote. In 2018, a Minnesota man learned the kitten he’d rescued in a parking lot was actually a baby bobcat.

The biggest mistake in animal identification was probably made by a British woman who rushed to the vet in March with what she thought was a baby hedgehog. The “newborn” she’d gently placed in a cardboard box and coaxed with cat food turned out not to be an animal at all. In fact, it wasn’t even alive. It was a pompom from a winter hat.

Last month’s situation with the Arizona fox kits prompted the Humane Society to remind the public not to pick up baby animals of any kind when they come across them, either on private property or in the wild. They also used the opportunity to remind people not to move litters of stray kittens.

“DON’T KITNAP KITTENS!” a Facebook post read. “We know the first instinct when seeing a litter of kittens is to rush to aid. But in fact, the best thing we can do is leave them for when their mama returns! If after eight hours, mom does not return, [then] you can assume they are orphaned.”

The four fox kits were sent the same day to the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in Scottsdale, where they will be cared for until they’re old enough to be released in the wild, Dickerson said.

“It’s a sad situation - the best thing would have been for the person to wait to see if mom came back, and if she didn’t, then call us,” she said.

Once someone has intervened and taken wild animal babies away, it isn’t always possible to reunite them with the mother, said Kim Carr, animal-care manager for the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center.

In most cases, too much time has passed and people don’t remember the exact spot where the animals were found. It’s also an involved process to try to determine whether the mother is still around, she said.

Warnings about moving baby animals are put out every year by animal shelters and wildlife agencies, including the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, which urges people to be on the alert every spring for white-tailed fawns, and to leave them alone if they’re found in yards or parks without their mothers. The mothers leave them alone on purpose, and almost always come back for them with food.

The Humane Society also offers tips on what to do if baby wild animals are found nestled in the grass or in dens on private property. Unless an animal is shivering, crying or showing signs of an obvious injury, the agency said to leave them alone.

The Arizona fox kits should be able to return to the wild later this summer when they’ve grown a little more and have learned to hunt, Carr said.

“When they first came in, we were feeding them specialized fox formula with a syringe every three hours, but for the last couple of weeks, they’ve been eating from a dish,” she said.

Every day, Carr said she mixes the same nutritious formula with fresh fruit, ground meat, baby food such as pureed pears or chicken, and the occasional mouse. She calls the concoction “fox soup.”

She drapes camouflaged fabric over her face and body before feeding the foxes, so they won’t grow accustomed to human faces and contact, she said.

“I want to disguise myself and also wear gloves, so they don’t think I’m their mother,” Carr said. “I don’t talk to them, and we keep sound machines going so they don’t hear human voices.”

Cuddling, although tempting, is forbidden, she said.

In about a month, the fox kits will be moved outside to an enclosure with natural shelters and places to hide, she added.

“It will give them a place to play in the sunshine and grow and develop their muscles,” Carr said. “They’ll also learn to hunt with live prey like mice.”

Foxes generally grow pretty quickly and like to climb trees, she said, noting that the center has also cared for baby coyotes, skunks, raccoons, bobcats, bears and javelina.

“It will be gratifying to release these young foxes into the wild,” Carr said. “It’s where they belong.”

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