In National Geographic’s March 2011 article, “Taming the Wild,” writer Evan Ratliff and photographer Vincent J. Musi travel to the Russian town of Novosibirsk to unveil the scientific discoveries made by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Over the last six decades, the Institute has been selectively breeding silver foxes, a color morph of the common red fox, Vulpes vulpes, in order to discover the relationship between genetics and domestication. Under the leadership of Dr. Lyudmila Trut, the fox farm experiment has carefully bred generations of foxes by selecting only for tameness. Although only a single trait was singled out, several traits began to change throughout the generations until the animals began to act and even look like dogs.
In 1959, Dmitry K. Belyaev, a Russian biologist inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin, became intrigued in animal domestication, particularly the presence of shared traits among different species of domesticated animals, such as changes in body size, fur coloration, and the timing of their reproductive cycle. As director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at the time, Belyaev composed a hypothesis and began an experiment to find a connection between the hormonal and chemical changes. Balyaev proposed his hypothesis to local fur farms who appreciated the idea of caging calmer foxes, agreeing to donate 100 female foxes and 30 male foxes to the cause. Belyaev began his fox domestication experiment with high hopes, but would end up even more surprised than he had hoped.
The experiment began by selecting for tameness and against aggression. Three groups of foxes were bred within the experiment. One group of foxes included the most aggressive around humans, biting and lashing out at researchers as they approached the cage. The second group of foxes was a control group, allowed to breed randomly. The final group was the main focus of the experiment, the domesticated group. These foxes were tested for tameness and only allowed to breed if the fox showed no fear or aggression towards people.
After several generations, the researchers were amazed to find that the foxes were not only calmer around humans than wild foxes, but also acted and even looked similar like dogs. By the fourth generation of foxes, the animals began wagging their tails, licking the researchers, and even coming when called. “All of them want human contact,” explains Trut. They also began showing physical changes as their tails grew shorter and curled over their backs, their ears stayed floppy, and white markings began appearing within their fur. These white markings, commonly found on other domesticated animals, were later found to be a result of a lack of melanin, a control of pigmentation that is directly linked with adrenaline levels. Further research discovered that the foxes with lower levels of aggression also had lower levels of adrenaline, a hormone that is produced in response to stress, in their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axes. An organism with less adrenaline will be less fearful, thus explaining why the foxes were becoming more tame. Belyaev and his colleagues had discovered that changes in behavior, anatomy, and physiology could arise simply by selecting for the single characteristic of tameness towards humans.
Today, the Institution continues to breed foxes, though Balyaev has passed and leadership of the program has been given to his assistant, Dr. Lyudumila Trut. Unfortunately, the Russian economy has impacted the Institute in a negative way, depleting its funding and its resources. In order to sustain its fox farm, the Institute has resorted to selling its prized foxes to both fur farms and to potential pet-owners, leading to controversy. Although these foxes are said to be similar to dogs in several ways, many people disagree with the decision to sell them as pets. “The animals are suffering. The animals have the instincts for living in the wild but they are limited to small flats and they develop diseases because of selection,” states Irina Novozhilova, President of the Vita Animal Rights Centre. She and many others believe that the foxes are still wild animals and should not be kept by humans. This counterargument does not stop the Institution, however, as several foxes have already been sold to a number of happy owners.
“Sales to private individuals support the important and insightful research from the Institute, but more important is saving these surplus foxes from being sold to fur farms and giving them a chance to have the companionship from a loving family that they were bred to desire,” expresses Kay Fedewa, a current owner of a domesticated fox named Anya. Determined to introduce these environmental wonders to Americans, she has established “The Domestic Fox,” at www.domesticfox.com, a company and website dedicated to importing the foxes from Russia into the United States. Because of the complex United States importation regulations on exotic animals, Fedewa has teamed up with Mitch Kalmanson, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed expert in Florida who specializes in importing exotic animals. Together, the two offer the successful and healthy importation of a Russian domestic fox into the United States for $8,900 an animal, despite color or gender. Although Texas state law bans the ownership of foxes, whether they are domestic or wild, two Russian domestic foxes can be viewed at the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary, Mikhail and Nikolai.
As an avid fox-lover myself, I continue to support the domestication of foxes and would someday like to help the Institution, myself, by adopting a domesticated fox. I appreciate the effort the Institute of Cytology and Genetics takes in order to ensure that its foxes end up in loving homes and honor the research and data they are providing in the area of genetics. I disagree with statements that these animals are wild because they are genetically different, specifically bred to be pets. These animals strive for human attention and would benefit more within homes than on farms or in coats.
Throughout National Geographic’s March 2011 article, “Taming the Wild,” writer Evan Ratliff and photographer Vincent J. Musi explain the scientific discoveries made by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics through the progression of its fox domestication experiment. Through selective breeding, the Institute has managed to create another perfect pet, the fox. Offering these animals for sale, the world now must decide whether the fox is a wild animal or a tame pet.