Faux Foxes: Fox Domestication and Pet Ownership | Chapter I: Foxes as Pets

Foxes as Pets

Because the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novisibirsk, Russia has begun selling and commercializing its domesticated foxes as pets (Trut 1999), controversy has arisen. The legislature is unsure of how to define these animals, whether wild, exotic, or domesticated, as illustrated by the city of Farmington in Anya’s case, and some people are still suspicious as to whether or not these animals are truly domesticated and should be welcomed into our homes.

According to Hilary Bok, from the Department of Philosophy and Berman Institute of Bioethics at The Johns Hopkins University, a pet is a “nonhuman animal whom we take into our home and accept as a member of our households” (2011, p. 769) and to adopt an animal as a pet is to “undertake to meet her needs, and to accept the responsibility of ensuring that one’s relationship with her is good for all concerned” (2011, p. 778). When a person decides to adopt an animal as a pet, that pet’s life becomes completely dependent on that person. Whether or not the pet eats depends on his owner remembering to supply him with food, whether or not the pet drinks depends on his owner noticing the empty water dish and refilling it, and whether or not the pet receives exercise depends on if his owner feels like going outside and has the time in his schedule to do so (Bok 2011; Sandøe et al. 2008). By accepting an animal into our homes, we unconsciously imprison him in a foreign world designed for the convenience of humans. However, when humans allow pets to become a part of their families, they cross species boundaries and forge new relationships. By loving and providing for their pets, humans allow both, themselves and their animals, to live harmoniously together and form a mutual and symbiotic bond. When a pet owner fails his pet by mistreating him or neglecting him, though, the pet can become trapped in a world of abuse without any recourse.

Opting to acquire a pet is a life-changing decision that requires a great deal of responsibility of the pet owner. One should consider whether he is willing to accept this responsibility before acquiring a pet as the time to figure out that you are not a pet person is before you alter the life of an animal, not after the animal has been adopted and brought into your home (Bok 2011). It is the pet owner’s responsibility to carefully consider the responsibilities he will be claiming and the life that he will be altering through the adoption of a pet. Pet owners owe it to themselves, to others, and to their pets not to adopt an animal if that animal’s life or the life of others will be worsened because of it.

When considering the responsibilities of pet ownership, one must ensure that they can provide adequate diet, space, shelter, medical care, attention, affection, exercise, and other basic needs. Regarding foxes, the domesticated foxes at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics are fed a diet of beef, meat by-products, minced chicken, cereals, vitamins, and minerals twice a day and water is available ad libitum (Gogoleva et al. 2010a, 2010b, 2011; Kukekova et al. 2008b; Trut 1999). Tiny Tracks Exotic Animals LLC (2015b), one of the most popular exotic pet farms in the United States, recommends feeding pet foxes Blue Buffalo Chicken-Based (Wilderness) or Merrick that has chicken or turkey. As for space, The Captive Wild Animal Order of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources requires all pet-fox owners in the state of Michigan to supply their foxes with outdoor enclosures and deems the animals not to “be chained or otherwise tethered to stakes, posts, trees, building, and other anchorage” (2014, p. 5). Foxes are required to reside within an eight foot long by six foot wide by six foot high outdoor enclosure fitted with a rainproof den, nest box, shelter, protected shelf perch, clawing log, and bedding in order to provide the animal with comfort and protection from inclement weather and heat (DNR 2014). Foxes, especially, require a great deal more than an average pet dog. Owners must be knowledgeable about their pets’ needs and ensure that they can provide for them, otherwise, they should not be pet owners. Hilary Bok declares, “When we cannot meet such basic needs, we have no business taking these animals as pets” (2011, p. 778).

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) understands there is no doubt that “pet guardians truly care for their animals,” but believes that if those guardians are “unable to provide their pets with an appropriate living environment that ensures both the health and well-being of the animal and the safety of the community,” they are abusing their animals (2015). In order to ensure that residents understand the requirements and responsibilities associated with possessing wildlife as pets, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources requires residents whom possess exotic animals to earn a Permit to Hold Wildlife in Captivity. “[Some] acquire young wildlife species because they are cute and cuddly, but are not prepared for the responsibility of caring for the wild animal as it grows older and larger and sometimes becomes dangerous and deadly,” writes the DNR (2014, p. 9). In order to properly acquire a Permit to Hold Wildlife in Captivity in Michigan, one must build, purchase, or acquire a cage, pen, or enclosure that meets the minimum enclosure specifications and amenities required by the DNR; pass an inspection of the facilities; complete an application; pay a fee; and continue to send monthly inventory reports and supply order forms to maintain the permit (DNR 2014). These requirements help ensure the DNR that the resident has the appropriate means to care for the animal and provide for its basic needs. When permits like these are not required, it falls upon the pet owner to ensure that he can supply his pet with what he needs to live a secure, enjoyable, and healthy life.

One must also consider how he will be acquiring his new pet. Regarding foxes, one must decide if it would be best for him to purchase a less tamed ranched fox or the genetically tamed, but much more expensive, domesticated fox from Russia (Tiny Tracks Exotic Animals LLC 2015a; World Wide Exotic Animal Talent Agency, LLC. 2012). Kay Fedewa, owner of Anya, a domesticated fox from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, supports the purchase of foxes from the Farm-Fox Experiment as pets as she believes that it enhances the lives of the foxes and supports the valuable research being conducted at the ICG. “Sales to private individuals support the important and insightful research from the Institute, but more importantly, 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,” she reasons (Fedewa 2012). Adopting from a shelter is also an option for acquiring pet foxes. Swiper was readopted from Fox Wood Wildlife Rescue Inc., the rehabilitation facility located in East Concord, New York (USDA 2015). If choosing a local breeder, one should research the breeder’s reputation and how the breeder houses, breeds, and raises his animals to ensure they aren’t raised in inhumane conditions.

Even if one can meet the basic needs of an animal, Hilary Bok (2011) writes that no one should adopt wild animals as pets because they are “neither psychologically nor behaviorally suited to life with humans” (p. 778). She believes that taking wild animals as pets often involves a set of problems as wild animals are likely to be unhappy in human households, are more aggressive than their domesticated counterparts, and may act in ways that their human owners find hard to live with.

Bok (2011) explains that wild animals are not adapted to lives in human households or apartments and will become bored and miserable even when allowed to roam freely in their owner’s house or yard. Irina Novozhilova, president of the Vita Animal Rights Centre located in Moscow, Russia agrees, “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” (RT 2009). Even United States legislature raises concern for keeping wild animals as pets. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources requires residents whom possess wild or exotic animals as pets to complete the IC1350-1 Form Permits to Hold Wildlife in Captivity in order to receive a Permit to Hold Wildlife in Captivity. A warning has been listed on the form: “Certain species of wild animals should be appreciated in their natural habitat without being owned as pets, and people in the market for a pet should strongly consider a homeless, domestic, dog or cat” (DNR 2014, p. 9). Taking an even stronger stance, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) organization objects to the institution of all pet ownership and believes no animals should be confined to lives with humans. “In a perfect world, animals would be free to live their lives to the fullest, raising their young and following their natural instincts in their native environments,” PETA states (2015).

Concerning Russian domesticated foxes, Dr. Lyudmila Trut believes that the Farm-Fox Experiment foxes cannot survive in the wild and are limited to lives on fox farms or in human homes. “Over the years several of our domesticated foxes have escaped from the fur farm for days. All of them eventually returned. Probably, they would have been unable to survive in the wild” (Trut 1999, p. 164). Not only does this show that the domesticated foxes enjoy the presence of humans enough to return from the wild, it may also suggest that the foxes from the ICG are no longer able to survive in the wild. In their natural environment, these animals are faced with extreme weather conditions such as cold and snow, heat, and rain and face starvation, infection, and animal attacks. Even wild foxes find it difficult to survive. The red fox has a potential lifespan of up to 15 years, but few individuals in the wild live more than 3 to 4 years. When raised in captivity, foxes are much more likely to reach their full lifespan potential than in the wild or on fox farms (Mulder 2004). Foxes are also considered nuisance animals in many states and are required to be captured and euthanized when found in urban communities due to their potential risk of attacking humans, attacking livestock, or spreading disease (CDC 2008; DNR 2014; ODNR 2013).

PETA and Bok agree that domesticated animals cannot survive in the wild and are thus the responsibility of humans (Bok 2011; PETA 2015). Because these animals have been domesticated and have lived with humans for thousands of years, they have adapted to life with people. “By now, our homes are the ‘native environment’ of cats and dogs, and if we treat them well, they can be much happier in our homes than in the wild,” writes Bok (2011, p. 777).

Regarding the ownership of the domesticated foxes from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, it appears that the canines would be happier in our homes than in the wild. These animals have been selectively bred for domestication and are genetically engineered to share lives with humans. Not only are these animals receptive to humans, approaching people willingly without fear and interacting with them in actively positive ways, they also thrive on human affection. “As for pets, for tame silver foxes, directionally selected for many generations for tolerance to people, humans represent a source of positive emotions” writes Gogoleva et al. (2011, p.220). These animals seek contact with people and desire to be touched and petted. They whine and whimper for interaction and will fight cage-mates for the attention of an approaching human (Belyaev 1979; Kukekova et al. 2011). “If foxes were brought up in a domestic environment interacting with other animals and humans, they would make fantastic pets. They are as independent as cats, but at the same time as devoted as any dog can be,” writes Trut reminiscing from her own experiences as a pet-fox owner (Trut 1999, p. 169).

Not only are domesticated foxes interested in humans, they can also communicate with humans as skillfully as dogs (Hare et al. 2005) and can be trained to obey commands (Cleek 2014; The Siberian Times 2012), helping them to better fit in and adjust to life with people. Hilary Bok (2011) explains that in order for animals to make appropriate pets, they must be willing to enter into genuinely reciprocal relationships with humans that involve efforts from both parties to accommodate the other, but most animals are not willing to develop this kind of relationship with humans. These foxes can use human communicative gestures and glances, and can communicate in return through actions such as their distance, location, position, ear carriage, tail activity, and vocalizations (Hare et al. 2005). Domesticated foxes also respond when called and answer to nicknames (Belyaev 1979; Belyaev and Trut 1975/2009). This ability to communicate with and understand humans could allow domesticated foxes and people to develop trusting relationships together.

In order to successfully integrate into a human society, pet foxes not only need to desire the company of humans and communicate with people, they must also be trained to live in a human-centered world. Foxes, like dogs, need to be trained in order to protect their safety and the safety of others. Just as one would teach his child how to act appropriately and respectfully, one must teach his pet (Bok 2011). Pets must be taught not to attack or bite people, run into traffic, steal food from people, jump on visitors, and chew up valuable items. Without these rules in place, the animal could become a danger to others or behave in ways that may risk his death or injury. These foxes may enjoy living with humans, but they need to be taught how to function in human society. “Well, they’re great pets,” remarks exotic animal importer, Mitchel Kalmanson of the World Wide Exotic Animal Talent Agency, LLC., in reference to the domesticated foxes from the Farm-Fox Experiment. “The animal needs a place to run, the animal needs to be walked, but it needs to be trained. These animals are calm, they’re domesticated, but they don’t know, it’s just natural behaviors…They haven’t been socialized.”

From Irina Mukhamedshina’s work with Anya, we know that foxes can be trained to obey commands such as “stand up,” “sit,” and “lie down,” but they don’t have the same concentration of a dog and can sometimes be disobedient (Cleek 2014; The Siberian Times 2012). Again, any person considering owning a fox as a pet must consider the requirements and evaluate if he has the time, patience, and ability to communicate, work with, and train a fox to abide by the rules of civilization.

Hilary Bok (2011) explains “the most basic function of training is to enable us to tell dogs not to do something when it is very important that they not do it, to teach them to avoid behavior that is dangerous to themselves or to others, and to teach them how to function in human society” (p. 783). Even PETA supports humane, interactive training of pets in order to allow them greater freedom and a better understanding of our world, and to prevent them from being punished and restrained for improper behavior (2015). Pet owners owe it to their pets to keep them from harm and to keep them from harming others so that they may continue to live their lives happily. Because we have adopted them and taken on their needs, we are responsible for their socialization.

Finally, there is controversy over the Institute of Cytology and Genetics’ Farm-Fox Experiment for continually breeding animals unfit to live in the wild and consciously trying to domesticate a new species. PETA argues it is only permissible to own pets because they have adapted to living with humans and would not be able to survive in their natural environments. PETA’s stand is that it is not moral to allow a domesticated animal to breed because it “perpetuates a class of animals who are forced to rely on humans to survive” and only increases the numbers of domesticated animals without adopted homes (2015). Bok (2011) agrees that the domestication of animals may or may not have been moral, but now that animals have been domesticated, for better or for worse, it has become the responsibility of pet owners to care for them and introduce them into human society.

The ICG also receives criticisms for its methods, especially the intentions to dispose of foxes to be culled for their fur at fur farms. Between 1996 and 1999, the ICG culled 600 foxes from their experimental population for their fur when no longer able to provide for the animals (Trut 1999). Because of the commercialized-nature of the Farm-Fox Experiment, thousands of foxes have been bred, sold, and culled and have spent their entire lives in solitary within small wired cages to be used for experiments and forced breeding (Gogoleva et al. 2010a, 2010b, 2011; Kukekova et al. 2008b; Trut 1999). “No form of breeding can be considered responsible” remarks PETA. Because 6 to 8 million cats and dogs are entered into shelters each year with only 3 to 4 million expecting to be adopted and the remaining 2.7 million to be euthanized (HSUS 2013), perhaps it isn’t moral to invest in a new breed of domesticated animal, especially when it requires the deaths of so many animals in the process.

Even though the domesticated foxes from the Farm-Fox Experiment at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics appear to be fully domesticated and genetically engineered to share their lives with humans, they are still a fox species, not a dog species (Trut 1999) and will most likely be considered a wild or exotic pet in terms of legislation. Several states in the United States do not recommend or allow the possession of wild or exotic animals as pets, often including foxes within those terms. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources warns, “Wild animals, even when raised for generations in captivity, are still wild animals. As they grow older, they can unpredictably revert back to their wild instincts, sometimes biting and attacking for no apparent reason” (2014, p. 9). Even the ASPCA has a position on the ownership of exotic animals:

Species suitable to be companion animals include dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, ferrets, birds, guinea pigs and select other small mammals, small reptiles and fish. Where they may be kept legally and responsibly, domestic-bred farm animals can also be maintained as companions. The ASPCA is opposed to the keeping of wild animals as well as wild/domestic hybrids (ASPCA 2015).

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources lists four specific reasons why the possession of wildlife species as pets is not recommended in its 2014 Form IC1350-1 Permits to Hold Wildlife in Captivity:

1) There is no rabies vaccine approved for use for wildlife.

2) Wildlife pets can pose a serious threat to human safety.

3) The commercial pet trade can encourage the illegal taking of animals from the wild.

4) Some people acquire wildlife species as pets for the wrong reasons (DNR 2014, p. 9).

The first reason, “There is no rabies vaccine approved for use for wildlife” (DNR 2014, p. 9) should be seriously considered by anyone who plans to possess a pet fox, whether ranched, tamed, or domesticated. This fact combined with the general fear and misunderstanding of others regarding foxes can be detrimental to a fox’s safety and well-being.

The Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supports the refrainment of handling wild animals because an approved rabies vaccine does not currently exist:

Because of the risk for rabies in wild animals (especially raccoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and bats), the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV) strongly recommend the enactment and enforcement of state laws prohibiting the importation, distribution, translocation, and private ownership of these animals (CDC 2011, p. 3).

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (2014) further affirms that current immunizations have not been proven effective on wildlife and may even prolong or mask existing rabies infections in wild animals. While the progress and symptoms of rabies and the treatment of such a disease is predictable in domestic animals, it is not in wild animals. The DNR states:

When the animal does become infected, it may not show any symptoms of the disease, while still spreading great amounts of virus. There is no ten-day waiting period, as with a dog. By the time the animal becomes ill, a person who has been bitten could be beyond help. Therefore, if a pet wildlife species bites someone, the animal must be euthanized so that the brain can be tested for rabies (2014, p. 9).

This nightmare became a reality for owners Eric and Tara Hiatt. After their silver-colored ranch-raised red fox, Vader, bit an animal control officer and broke the skin on his hand and wrist, he was immediately euthanized to check for rabies (KX News Minot 2014; Meredith 2014; Minot Police Department 2014; Schramm 2014). It did not matter that Vader was a beloved part of the Hiatts’ family, or that he was a captive-born fox raised to be a pet, or even that he had been vaccinated for rabies. Vader was a fox and foxes are known to carry rabies without an approved vaccination (CDC 2011). Even Valo, another silver-colored ranched fox owned by Chloe Kristensen, was affected by this fear. Because he was found untagged in the urban environment of Fairborn, Ohio, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources declared that he be exterminated for a possible case of rabies. Although Valo had not bitten anyone, foxes are deemed one of the most common carriers of rabies by the CDC and are, therefore, high-risk nuisance animals that should be euthanized on sight (CDC 2008; Crowe 2014; DNR 2014; Moore 2014; ODNR 2013; WHIO Breaking News Staff 2014). They are not known to be pets and are feared by most for the possible spread of disease or attack upon a person. Thus, they must be euthanized when found in our communities, especially after having bitten someone (CDC 2008; DNR 2014; ODNR 2013).

Even Alayna Sitterson, the writer and owner of mypetfox.com and original owner of Swiper, was aware of this fact 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 CDC and recognized by government officials in order to prevent the loss of pet foxes due to euthanization.

So, should foxes be kept as pets? Really, there is no simple answer. In the United States, each state addresses the matter differently. In some states, all foxes are banned, in others only red foxes cannot be possessed as different colors signify that the animal was bred and therefore tamer than a wild fox, and in some states, there is no regulation on the ownership of foxes as pets at all. If a fox is legal to possess as a pet in one’s state, city, and local zones, the moral dilemma falls upon the pet owner. In any case, a pet-fox owner must fully bear the responsibilities of owning a fox as a companion animal. The owner must understand his state, city, and local laws regarding the ownership of a fox as a pet; provide an adequate diet, which is debatable as not much is known about nutrition requirements for foxes; provide appropriate shelter that allows the fox room to roam and play, yet still protects the animal from escaping and being captured and euthanized or killed by a wild animal, such as a coyote; ensure that the animal is clearly marked as a pet; train the animal to obey commands, communicate with humans, and function in human society; and ensure that he can provide the love and affection that the animal desires. Owning a fox as a pet is not as easy as owning a dog as a pet. Not only do we know how to care for dogs exponentially more than how to care for foxes, our society is generally accepting of pet dogs and are not quick to force the relocation or extermination of them. If one is willing to assess his lifestyle before acquiring a fox as a pet and conscientiously attempts to understand and meet the animal’s needs, including the needs for attention, affection, and training, a fox, especially a domesticated fox from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics’ Farm-Fox Experiment, has been to shown to become a rewarding companion animal. However, if a pet-fox owner neglects these responsibilities, it will be the fox, not the owner, who pays the greatest price, possibly even his life. In all the cases demonstrated in this study, it was the fox, not the owner, whom was confiscated, killed, euthanized, exterminated, and rehomed. If the owner is responsible, knowledgeable, and willing to sacrifice in order to benefit his companion, owning a fox as a pet could be a rewarding and enjoyable experience for both the owner and the fox.


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