Thankfully, not all pet foxes meet with a grim fate. When fox owners understand the laws regarding the ownership of foxes as pets and provide for their animals correctly, foxes can be successfully kept as pets, such as with Alayna Sitterson and her pet fox, Swiper.
In the spring of 2010, Alayna Sitterson purchased a seven-week-old silver-cross-colored red fox, a silver-colored fox with some red color in the pelage, from a breeder in the Midwest (Sitterson 2010; The Washington Post 2010). She decided to name the baby fox “Swiper” after the villain fox character from the cartoon show, Dora the Explorer (ABC 7 News 2010) and started the blog My Pet Fox at mypetfox.com to catalog each day with her new pet. She intended to follow the day-to-day life of her pet fox in order to answer the question, “Can a fox be kept as a pet?” (Sitterson 2011a).
ABC 7 News (2010) reported that on Halloween, October 31, 2010, Sitterson dressed Swiper in a dog’s skeleton costume and decided to walk him on his leash at the Reston Town Center. Fairfax County Police and Animal Control was called and confiscated Swiper, believing that the proper Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) permits were not in place to own the fox. Sitterson was charged with “Unlawful possession of a wild animal” and Swiper was taken to Fairfax County Animal Shelter. “I started crying. I was very emotional,” Sitterson told ABC 7 News (2010).
Sitterson insisted that she understood her area’s laws and did not need a DGIF permit to own Swiper because he was “bred for domestication” and not a wild animal (ABC 7 News 2010). “I knew my rights. The law was always on my side,” she wrote on her blog (2010).
According to Title 4. Conservation and Natural Resources, Agency 15. Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Chapter 30. Definitions and Miscellaneous: Importation, Possession, Sale, Etc., of Animals, Section 4VAC15-30-30. Exclusions of the Virginia Administrative Code:
This chapter does not prohibit the possession, importation, and sale of native or naturalized albino amphibians, native or naturalized albino reptiles, or those domestic animals as defined in 4VAC15-20-50. [Domesticated races of red fox (Vulpes) where their coat color can be distinguished from wild red fox.]
Falls Church News-Press (2010) confirmed that after consulting with DGIF state wildlife biologists, officials determined that Swiper was a domesticated breed and Sitterson did not require a specific permit to legally own her fox. “Police say the fox is a breed that can be trained and domesticated, so it posed no threat to the public,” writes WUSA9 (2010). Swiper was released back to his owner on November 1, 2010, just one day after being confiscated, and all charges on Sitterson were dropped.
As she left the Fairfax County Animal Shelter with Swiper safely in her arms, Sitterson cautiously warned ABC 7 News (2010), “If you are going to get an animal like this, you need to know the law. You need to be responsible.”
Even though Sitterson and Swiper are legal, they are still met with controversy. “It’s just not a good mix to keep a wild animal as a domestic pet. They’re always going to be wild,” stated Sergeant Mary Zambrano of the Fairfax County Police Department to ABC 7 News (2010). Jay Korff of ABC News 7 (2010) also noted:
Swiper has had all his vaccinations, but according to animal control officials here in Fairfax County, they’re not so convinced that the rabies vaccination is entirely effective on foxes and they say if Swiper would happen to bite anybody in the future, they would have to put Swiper down.
Tara and Eric Hiatt’s pet fox, Vader, demonstrated this situation to be an actuality. Even though Vader had a valid rabies vaccination, he was euthanized after biting an animal control officer (KX News Minot 2014; Meredith 2014; Minot Police Department 2014; Schramm 2014). The same applies to Swiper. Even though Swiper may be a legal pet and has been vaccinated for rabies, he would be determined a wild, rabies-prone animal in the case of a bite and would be euthanized immediately (CDC 2008; DNR 2014; ODNR 2013).
Alayna Sitterson is aware of this dark possibility and warned about the risk of owning a pet fox on her blog in 2011, “I do not recommend a pet fox because of one reason. There is no proof that the current rabies vaccine works on foxes. Even if you find a vet that will give your fox a rabies shot, if that fox ever bites anybody, the law states that it will have to be euthanized” (2011a). She recommends that foxes are not owned as pets or brought into the public until a fox rabies vaccine is approved by the USDA and recognized by government officials in order to prevent the loss of pet foxes due to euthanization.
Sitterson even commented on Vader’s situation in a blog post titled Regarding Vader (2014). Sitterson pointed out that while many things may have gone wrong in Vader’s case, such as his owners owning him illegally, the animal control officer catching him inappropriately, and the police investigating a possibly false bite report, there was a documented bite from Vader and because he is a red fox, an animal with no proven rabies vaccine, he must be euthanized to test for rabies (CDC 2008; DNR 2014; ODNR 2013). “Without a ‘real’ rabies vaccine in existence, ALL foxes are considered rabies factors whether they’ve had their shots or not,” Sitterson wrote. “This is a risk all fox owners take. The minute that rabies factor enters your home, you are going to struggle to take care of it properly” (Sitterson 2014).
Sitterson made it clear on her blog that she was writing to promote responsible pet ownership. In her 2011 blog post titled A Final Word on Fox Ownership, she asserted that one must complete several preparations before considering owning a fox as a pet: one must check the laws and county laws to ensure the fox is legal to own as a pet, find a veterinarian that will treat the fox, and build an enclosure that is fully reinforced and serviced for the animal. “I sincerely suggest that if you cannot provide all of these things, you should reconsider fox ownership,” she concluded (2011b).
Following her own advice, Sitterson posted a somber note on her blog in early 2011. “What I need to tell you is that Swiper does not live with me anymore,” she began after assuring everyone that Swiper was well and alive. Sitterson began by explaining that when she first acquired Swiper, she lived in a five-bedroom house with a spacious backyard. After ending a relationship with her boyfriend, however, she and Swiper were forced to move into a much smaller apartment where Swiper was not given the amount of space and outdoor experiences as Sitterson felt he needed. “It was then I realized that if I really loved Swiper, I would have to do what is best for him, no matter what. Even if it meant letting him go” (Sitterson 2011b).
After deciding that she was no longer able to provide Swiper with the proper care that he needed, Sitterson contacted Fox Wood Wildlife Rescue Inc., a USDA-certified rehabilitation facility, Certificate No: 21-C-0154, located in East Concord, New York (USDA 2015) about admitting Swiper into the sanctuary. Arrangements were made and Sitterson drove Swiper to New York. “The car ride was long and ominous. I wanted to turn around and go home at every intersection, and yes, I cried a lot,” Sitterson wrote on her blog (2011).
On March 9, 2011, a man named Joe posted a photograph of Swiper on his DeviantART social media page with the following status update:
So this is Swiper, the fox I’ll likely be taking in this Spring or Summer (hopefully Spring!) Here, he’s in his temporary pen at Fox Wood until I can get something built here. For now, I can only visit him 2 or 3 times a week, and I really wish I could bring him here sooner so I could get him used to me quicker. He still doesn’t trust me, but he’s only been there a few days now, and I’m sure it will take some time. I’ve been in contact with his previous owner so she knows what’s going on, and she’s included some of the photos I took of him at her blog about him. What she’s done with this fox is just so amazing, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her to give him up. He was definitely loved. I’m looking forward to having him here.
On April 5, 2011, Joe posted a new photograph of Swiper in his newly-built permanent enclosure at his residence with the caption, “On 3/30/11, I was finally able to bring him home!” Now, four years later, Swiper continues to live with his new adopted owner, Joe and enjoys his expansive outdoor enclosure.
Sitterson continues to write on her blog, My Pet Fox even without owning Swiper anymore. She posts new pictures and status updates that Joe sends her, old pictures and videos of Swiper when she feels like reminiscing, and celebratory posts for Swiper’s birthday and other momentous occasions. She also continues to answer questions her readers ask about owning a pet fox and continues to promote responsible pet-fox ownership. In a blog post written in 2012, Sitterson reflected:
From the moment I laid eyes on him, to the day I said goodbye, I’ve only wanted two things for Swiper; for him to be happy and healthy. Joe’s found a way to accomplish that and take that to the next level. It’s because of Joe that both Swiper and I can both sleep peacefully at night.