Since 1959, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novisibirsk, Russia has attempted to domesticate the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, in order to better understand the domestication of the dog, Canis familiaris, from the gray wolf, Canis lupus. The criteria for breeding foxes were those that consistently displayed tame behavior with respect to people. Within just 10 generations of selectively bred foxes, the animals began to show dramatic changes within their behavior, communication, development, physiology, reproduction, and anatomy, demonstrating a genetically domesticated breed of fox. The ICG has since commercialized the Farm-Fox Experiment and offers domesticated foxes for sale as pets (Trut 1999).
Pet foxes in the United States have come across negative community attitudes and have been confiscated, relocated, and even exterminated as a result. Mikhail and Nikolai, two domesticated foxes from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics’ Farm-Fox Experiment were confiscated by the Texas government when illegally imported into the United States through the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (Fedewa 2011 December 6). Anya, another domesticated fox from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics’ Farm-Fox Experiment was successfully imported into the United States through Florida, but was forced to relocate from her city with her owner, Kay Fedewa, when community outrage triggered the enactment of a new law banning the ownership of foxes as pets (Fedewa 2012 May 3). After moving to a new city, Anya was later killed by a feral coyote when inadequately housed in an outdoor enclosure (Fedewa 2014). Vader, a ranched fox bred in Indiana owned by Tara and Eric Hiatt, was exterminated by the Minot Police Department of North Dakota when he bit an animal control officer (KX News Minot 2014; Meredith 2014; Minot Police Department 2014; Schramm 2014). Valo, another ranched fox, was exterminated in the city of Fairborn, Ohio, when found loose and thought to be a wild animal and not the pet of Chloe Kristensen (Crowe 2014; Moore 2014; WHIO Breaking News Staff 2014). Finally, Swiper, another ranched fox, did not meet with a tragic fate. Although he was confiscated by the Fairfax County Police Department, his owner, Alayna Sitterson, was able to repossess him (ABC News 7 2010; Falls Church News-Press 2010; The Washington Post 2010; WSUA9 2010). Swiper’s life was altered, however, when his owner realized that she was no longer able to adequately provide for him and surrendered him to a fox rescue organization.
Interest in owning the newly-domesticated foxes from the Farm-Fox Experiment as pets has increased, adding to the controversy of exotic pet ownership. Owning a fox requires a great deal of responsibility and commitment and only those who fully understand these sacrifices should own a fox as a pet. If one is not willing or able to provide for the animal’s basic needs including space, shelter, medical care, attention, affection, and exercise, he should not own a pet fox. One should also consider where he will acquire his fox, ranched in the United States or domesticated in Russia. Still, concerns about whether these foxes are truly suited for life with humans, should be allowed to live in the wild, or should have even been bred and domesticated at all remains debatable (Bok 2011; PETA 2015). The domesticated foxes have demonstrated the desire for human interaction, however, and have the ability to communicate with and obey humans (Cleek 2014; Hare et al. 2005; The Siberian Times 2012). Most concerning, though, is the fact that no rabies vaccine approved for use on foxes has been approved in the United States, thus foxes are declared nuisance animals and must be euthanized on sight or after having bitten someone (CDC 2008; DNR 2014; ODNR 2013). For this reason in particular, one must heavily consider the risk of possessing a fox and what is best for the animal.
This study investigated existing participant attitudes toward pets and pet ownership and analyzed how the manipulation of canine physical attributes by domestication can affect participant perceptions. Anonymous surveys were administered to 97 undergraduate students enrolled in psychology classes at Texas State University. Each participant’s attitudes toward dogs and pet-dog ownership were measured alongside their attitudes toward domesticated foxes and pet domesticated fox ownership. Additional questions were created to assess participants’ legal and ethical attitudes, knowledge of fox domestication, and opinions and experiences in regard to pet ownership. Images were created to isolate physical attributes in canines in order to assess their impact on human perception of undomesticated and domesticated features.
The results of this study showed a preference for pet dogs over pet foxes and provided evidence that a majority of people have participated in the practice of owning pet dogs. A connection was found between attitudes toward pet dogs and foxes. Attitudes toward dog and fox breeding and laws regarding pet-dog ownership and pet-fox ownership showed a preference for the legal possession of dogs as pets over foxes, but a moderate agreement to both dog and fox breeding. A low percentage of participants were found to have knowledge of the Farm-Fox Experiment and a moderately-high percentage showed interest in owning a domesticated fox as a pet. This study’s illustrations found that participants instantly reacted to physical attributes manipulated by domestication, but often prefer the standard wild red-colored fox. Different physical traits were also found to have different perceptions of participants. Comparing modal frequencies for changes in the ears, tails, and multiple changes, (face, extremities, ears, and tails, face,) most participants reported an immediate transition from wild to domestic, noting the second image as when the change from wild to domestic began. The most complete domestication was correctly identified by most participants as the final image. The wild image, Figure A, was typically rated as most attractive. The sole difference in modal response frequencies was the image most preferred owning as a pet. Most reported liking the feral image for curled ears and multiple domesticated features, but liked as a pet to own, the animal depicted with the tail most curved upward toward the fox’s body.
Returning to the dog, Canis familiaris, this animal has become one of the most popular companion animals since it was domesticated from the gray wolf, Canis lupus (Wayne et al. 1997). Because of its incredible versatility and variety, the dog can adjust and accommodate to fit the lifestyle of his owner and can communicate with humans better than any other animal (Hare et al. 2002, 2005). Dogs are willing to enter into genuinely reciprocal relationships with humans and will accommodate their behavior in order to function in human society. For these reasons, we have welcomed dogs into our homes as companion animals.
The domesticated foxes from the ICG’s Farm-Fox Experiment, like dogs, have demonstrated an eagerness to establish human contact and the desire to please. They can communicate with humans as skillfully as dogs (Hare et al. 2005) and can obey tricks and commands (Cleek 2014; The Siberian Times 2012). They are capable of forming deep-rooted pair bonds with humans and becoming loyal and loving companions (Trut 1999). “Before our eyes ‘the Beast’ has turned into ‘Beauty,’ as the aggressive behavior of our herd’s wild progenitors entirely disappeared” remarked Dr. Lyudmila Trut, head of the research group at ICG (1999, p. 168). This study has shown that while our communities are not yet ready to accept these animals into the home, there is potential. Not only do these animals have the genetic potential to become more domesticated and suited for life with humans, participants were shown to have moderately high favorability scores toward pet domesticated foxes. No longer should these animals be seen as villains in our fairy tales, vermin in our gardens, and dangerous animals in our homes. No longer do these animals deserve to be relocated, confiscated, and exterminated. No longer do we need to be afraid of these beautiful and unique creatures.