At what point does an animal depend on a human rather than his wild, natural instincts? When should an animal live undisturbed in his natural habitat and when should humans keep animals as their personal companions? What distinguishes a wild, dangerous beast from a tame, domesticated pet? “Hey, Anya! Hey, Anya!” exclaims Kay Fedewa in a high-pitched voice, expressing maternal adoration to her beloved pet like any dog-owner would. In response, Fedewa’s fluffy friend rolls over on her back and excitedly wags her tail while panting heavily and whining for attention (Fedewa). The symbiotic relationship between the two is clear as they both feed off of the other’s energy, increasing each other’s happiness. Anya, like most dogs, seeks human contact and is happiest when with her owner, though Anya isn’t a dog; she’s a fox. Anya, a Russian domesticated fox, is just one of the victims of the ongoing domesticated pet controversy.
Because of its short duration, most people have no knowledge of the current experiment to domesticate the common red fox, Vulpes vulpes. In 1959, Russian biologist Dmitry Belyaev became intrigued in animal domestication after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. “Not a single domestic animal can be named which has not, in some country, drooping ears,” wrote Darwin, noticing that drooping ears was not a feature found in the wild (Darwin). Belyaev began to question the common traits shared between different species of domesticated animals, such as the changes in body size, fur coloration, and the timing of their reproductive cycle. How did domesticated animals obtain wavy hair, curly tails, and floppy ears, traits not normally found in their wild counterparts? Why were there so many differences in anatomy and physiology in domestic animals when their wild brethren were generally uniform? Inspired by Darwin’s writings, Balyaev constructed a hypothesis and designed an experiment, hoping to find a connection between the hormonal and chemical changes within silver foxes, a variant of the red fox, and their anatomy and physiology as he selected for tameness (Goldman). As director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, Russia, Belyaev assembled a team of colleagues and chose thirty male foxes and one-hundred female foxes to begin the research.
The experiment began by testing each fox for overall tameness. Each month, a fox would be tested for overall tameness based on their reaction to an experimenter. In order to test the nature versus nurture theory, the theory in which organisms are more greatly affected by their nurturing or by their innate nature, three groups of foxes were maintained. The foxes who showed fear around humans were labeled aggressive and categorized into Class III, while those who showed curiosity and friendliness were called tame and categorized as Class I. Class II foxes were those who showed neither positive nor negative reactions to experimenters and were used as a control group. Every fox, despite its class, was treated the same way and received the same amount and the same kind of human interaction in order to control the nurturing of each fox and single out the genetics (L. Trut).
Several years passed as generation after generation of fox kits were born. By the sixth generation, Belyaev and his colleagues began noticing dramatic changes and were astonished by the results. By determining whether an individual fox would be allowed to breed simply to how she reacted to humans, physiological and anatomical characteristics that were not found in the wild began appearing, and the changes were very familiar to the reserachers. Eager for human attention, the foxes whimpered, whined, and even barked before sniffing and licking their caretakers. They wagged their tails to show their excitement and were anxious to explore new situations. Many of the foxes displayed floppy ears, short or curly tails, extended reproductive seasons, changes in fur coloration, and even changes in the shape of their skulls, jaws, and teeth. The foxes were not only beginning to act more like dogs, but they were beginning to look like them, too.
Further research discovered that the foxes with lower levels of aggression also had lower levels of adrenaline in their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axes. Adrenaline is a hormone that is produced in response to stress, controlling the fight-or-flight response. An organism with less adrenaline will be less fearful, thus explaining why the foxes were becoming more tame, but not explaining the physical changes in the foxes, such as the white pigmentations appearing, especially on the face and forehead. These “star” markings, commonly found on cows, horses, dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals, were later found to be a result of a lack of melanin, a control of pigmentation, and is directly linked with the adrenaline levels. Finally, 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.
Fifty years have since passed since the beginning of the fox experiment and Balyaev is no longer alive to witness the continued progress of his project. Now under the advisement of his assistant and mentee, geneticist Lyudmila Trut, the Institute continues to breed foxes in the search for the most domestic fox. Although the project has solved mysteries and continues to make important discoveries in biology and genetics, the Russian economy has devastated the Institute’s budget and threatened the lives of the foxes. Unable to pay for caretakers and provide food for the hundreds of foxes on their farm, the Institute has been forced to make difficult decisions in order to stay afloat. Unfortunately, some foxes have been put down while others have been sold to fur farms to benefit the fashion industry. Unwilling to continue ending the lives of so many foxes, the Institute has turned to another solution to help relieve their financial burdens and provide happiness for the foxes. The Institute of Cytology and Genetics has now begun selling their domesticated foxes as pets to owners around the globe.
While most people agree to the ownership of dogs as pets, others are not as willing to accept the ownership of a fox. Despite the fact that these Russian foxes are genetically domesticated and are incredibly similar to dogs, not only in appearance, but also in behavior and their desire to socialize with humans, many animal rights activists are protesting the enclosure of these animals and want them returned to the wild. “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 (Fox in a box – the new pet craze). Many believe that foxes should not be domesticated and should not be owned as pets.
Kay Fedewa, owner of Anya the Russian domesticated fox, has also faced controversy over her unusual pet. After first acquiring Anya in her state of Michigan, where foxes are allowed to be kept as pets, an investigator approached her after an angry call from a neighbor. Although it was legal to own Anya, Kay refused to pay the legal fees required to fight her neighborhood in court and ultimately decided to move to an alternate location in order to keep her beloved fox (Nosowitz) Some people are even willing to fight their neighbors in order to keep the foxes out of households.
Currently, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics is struggling to sell foxes locally because of the poor economy in Russia and globally because of the complicated laws regarding the import of exotic animals. Each state in the U.S. handles the ownership of a fox differently, though most outlaw owning the animal. Texas does not allow the possession of foxes, thus changing several lives in the fall of 2011 as Kay Fedewa bought her first fox from the Institute. In 2010, a company called Sibfox arose in the United States and began a relationship with the Institute in order to import domestic foxes for $5,950 each. Fedewa was one of the first customers to contact Sibfox, pay the fine, and choose her fox from the pictures listed on the company’s website. Renaming the fox from Antoshka to Viktor, Fedewa began preparing for her fox’s arrival in the fall of 2010. After Viktor and another fox purchased were sterilized and vaccinated, they boarded a plane set for Dallas, Texas. Unfortunately, Sibfox was not aware of Texas’ ban on foxes and Viktor and his brother were confiscated after arriving at the airport. Fedewa was refunded her deposit, but was informed that she would never be in possession of Viktor because of state laws (Nosowitz). After contacting the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary, the Texas government made arrangements for Viktor and his brother, now renamed Mikhail and Nikolai, to reside permanently on display in Austin, Texas.
After this unfortunate series of events, Fedewa became determined to own a domestic fox and contacted Mitch Kalmanson, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed expert in Florida who specializes in importing exotic animals. The two created The Domestic Fox at domesticfox.com, a company that took the place of Sibfox as America’s sole importer of Russian domestic foxes. After flying to Russia, herself, Fedewa was able to pick out her domestic fox, opting for Anya. A few years have since passed and Fedewa and Kalmanson have now successfully imported ten domestic foxes into the United States. Planning to make trips to Russia each fall, The Domestic Fox offers Russian domestic foxes for $8,900 each, despite color or gender.
Although Russian domestic foxes are slowly starting to gain exposure, many laws and regulations still stand on their rights to live as pets. States argue that the foxes are wild and dangerous and that they should not be kept because it would be detrimental for the animal and the people living within the immediate area. This is simply not true. Any domestic fox owner can express how much his life has improved since owning his fox and can explain how his fox in return, seeks out and thrives on his love and attention. State legislations and animal rights activists wrongly accuse the Russian domestic foxes as simply being nurtured into tameness and do not admit to the genetic differences that make the animals different from a wild fox. Balyaev’s experiment clearly disproved this theory through his research on multiple groups of foxes. Even tame foxes that were artificially implemented into aggressive mothers continued to grow up to be tame, domestic foxes that craved the loving attention of humans. Russian domestic foxes are not simply wild foxes raised to be tame, they are genetically domesticated, just like any dog or cat.
Another common argument against the domestic foxes is the pet lifestyle not being suitable for a wild animal. The Institute of Cytology and Genetics recognizes the needs of the foxes and complies with the Permanent Committee of the European Convention on the protection of animals’ conditions of captivity in which animals need to feel comfortable and possess few stresses. Unlike wild foxes raised on fur farms, the foxes bred through the Institute’s program produce less of a stress-induced hormone and do not experience stress in captivity (L. N. Trut). These foxes also do not experience the abrupt change in hormones before reaching their first year of age that causes much discomfort and emotional distress that wild foxes suffer through. Because of their genetic make-up, these foxes are suitable for living in smaller spaces without becoming stressed. The Institute, along with fellow fox-owners agree that living alongside humans is a much better fate than dying for them. Loris and Boris, a couple living in a Moscow flat with their Russian domesticated fox Martyn, say they’re “saving him from a much worse fate – the fashion industry” (Fox in a box – the new pet craze).
While many people disagree with the ownership of foxes, the legality of owning Russian domestic foxes bred by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia, should be challenged. These foxes are not like their wild brothers as their genetic make-up differs resulting in a change in behavior and anatomical and physiological traits. These changes help make these foxes suitable pets as they strive for human contact and live in smaller areas without becoming stressed, similar to dogs. Russian domesticated foxes should be recognized as domesticated animals and should have the same rights as other domestic animals, such as dogs, cats, and horses. Owning these animals should be legal in order to save them from the fashion industry and satisfy their need for love and comfort. With these laws re-evaluated, the fox could soon become man’s new best friend.
- Darwin, Charles Robert. The Origin of Species. Vol. XI. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. http://www.bartleby.com/11/.
- Fedewa, Kay. “Anya the Happy Fox.” YouTube. YouTube, 19 February 2012. Web. 26 March 2013.
- Fox in a box – the new pet craze. 21 January 2009. 9 December 2010. <http://rt.com/news/prime-time/fox-in-a-box-the-new-pet-craze/>.
- Goldman, Jason G. “Man’s new best friend? A forgotten Russian experiment in fox domestication.” Scientific American (2010).
- Nosowitz, Brian. “Can I Have a Pet Fox?” PopSci (2013).
- Ratliff, Evan. “Taming the Wild.” National Geographic (2011): 40-59.
- Trut, Lyudmila N. “Domestication of foxes and problems of modern animal breeding.” 2012. Institute of Cytology and Genetics. 26 March 2013.
- Trut, Lyudmila. N. “Early Canid Domestication: The Farm-Fox Experiment.” American Scientist (1999): 160.