Wildlife research ecologist Erica Kelly says Bakersfield residents have changed their tune regarding the San Joaquin kit fox.

"People used to ask us, 'Kit foxes are everywhere. Why are they endangered?'" Kelly said.

But now they say, "I used to see them all the time, but I haven't in the last few years. What happened?"

What happened is sarcoptic mange, an often-fatal skin disease caused by parasitic mites. It's been a disaster for the urban kit foxes that established Bakersfield as their home.

According to the Endangered Species Recovery Program, established through California State University, Stanislaus in 1992 at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the kit fox population has declined in Bakersfield by close to 70 percent.

"They were doing very well in Bakersfield prior to mange," Kelly said.

The urban habitat is not ideal for the slender-built canines, she said. But with 95 percent of their habitat lost to development — including agriculture, urbanization and industry — the species' success in Bakersfield and Taft has been viewed as a positive.

However the urban environment may also contribute to the spread of the disease, although the jury is still out on that.

"Once the foxes reach Stage 3 of the disease, they cannot be treated successfully in the field," said Sharon Adams, the curator at the California Living Museum.

For scores of foxes facing horrible, lingering deaths from the disease, CALM has been the saving grace, the animal hospital where the foxes are quarantined, treated, given time to recover and then reintroduced back into their urban habitat.

Adams was the infected foxes' keeper for a few years, and she witnessed what the disease could do. It wasn't pretty.

Open sores. Eyes crusted nearly shut. Fur loss. Weight loss. Adams and the researchers and biologists in the field have seen it all.

"The care of the kit foxes is a group effort," Adams said. "We are happy to be a part of the process."

According to Kelly, mange infested foxes die within three months of becoming sick, unless they receive treatment. They cannot survive the disease on their own.

Since mange first appeared in the local kit fox population in 2013, CALM has taken in 137 kit foxes with mange and 110 have been successfully rehabilitated, according to statistics provided by the Endangered Species Recovery Program.

So far in 2020, CALM has taken in and rehabilitated 12 foxes.

The numbers of sick foxes may be falling as their total population is decimated. However there is a glimmer of good news. Some of the foxes the group has trapped recently appear to be healthy, Kelly said. And this year's annual camera survey saw a slight increase in healthy foxes and an increase in litters has been reported.

If members of the public see pups or an adult, they should let them be. But the recovery program would love to receive a phone call — and a photo if it can be taken without getting too close.

In the meantime, the Central Coast Chapter of the Wildlife Society is currently holding a T-shirt fundraiser to assist with treatment and further research on sarcoptic mange. All proceeds go to CALM, which has been critical in saving the lives of well over 100 kit foxes.

Wildlife biologist Tiffany Whitsitt-Odell, past president of the Central Coast Chapter, said the T-shirt design, which features a kit fox and a kangaroo rat, was created by another wildlife biologist, Jackie Hancock.

"Through this fundraiser, we want to engage other people," Whitsitt-Odell said. "It's more than a fundraiser, it's a way of informing people that mange is a serious issue for the San Joaquin kit fox — and it's spreading."

To order the T-shirt and learn more, visit bonfire.com/save-the-san-joaquin-kit-fox.

The fundraiser ends Nov. 7.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.