Faux Foxes: Fox Domestication and Pet Ownership | Chapter I: Introduction



The dog, Canis familiaris, has become one of the most popular companion animals since it was domesticated from the gray wolf, Canis lupus, its sole progenitor (Wayne et al. 1997). Because of its incredible versatility and variety, the dog can adjust and accommodate to fit the lifestyle of his owner. Young and Bannasch (2006) report that the dog has the greatest diversity recognized within any single species. Dogs vary in body size and type, ear and tail length and carriage, coat patterns and colors, craniofacial features, and even limb formation. Virtually any and all combinations of traits can be manipulated in dogs through selective breeding, creating a variation in morphology, anatomy, physiology, and behavior.

Not only do dogs have great diversity, they also have an unusual ability to communicate with humans in comparison to other animals, such as primates and wolves (Hare et al. 2002, 2005; Sandøe et al. 2008). In the absence of language, communication must heavily rely on signals conveyed by motions, body language, positioning, and even sounds. Dogs can read human intent and analyze the invitation to entertain a physical relationship involving a reserved trust (Hare et al. 2002, 2005). They can use signals through actions such as their distance, location, position, ear carriage, tail activity, and vocalizations to non-verbally communicate with humans. Hilary Bok (2011) explains that dogs are willing to enter into genuinely reciprocal relationships with humans that involve efforts from both parties to accommodate the other. Most animals are not willing to develop this kind of relationship with humans. “A wolf does not refuse friendship, because for the wolf it isn’t there to be refused in the first place,” writes Vicki Hearne in Animal Happiness (1994, p. 225). “The problem with the wolf is that she does not care for your love…Human love and praise are alien to her.” Dogs care about what we think of them and adjust their conduct consistently to coexist with humans (Bok 2011). They have the ability to communicate with and understand humans that allows us to develop a trusting relationship together. We can generally have confidence that a dog will follow our commands and fit in our society and will not act unpredictably or dangerously without reason.

For these reasons, we have welcomed dogs into our homes as companion animals. Is it possible that another species could react positively to the stressors and selective pressures of domestication and happily live in human households and welcome human companionship? Sandøe et al. (2008) suggests that animals of any species can be kept as companion animals. “It is the nature of the relationship, not the species, which identifies an animal as a companion animal” (Sandøe et al. 2008, p. 122).

Since 1959, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ICG) in Novisibirsk, Russia has attempted to domesticate the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, in order to better understand the domestication of the dog, from the gray wolf. The foxes from this experiment have demonstrated an eagerness to establish human contact and the desire to please. “They have shown themselves to be good-tempered creatures, as devoted as dogs, but as independent as cat, capable of forming deep-rooted pair bonds with human beings-mutual bonds,” explains Dr. Lyudmila Trut (1999, p. 169), head of the research group at the ICG. Interest in owning these newly-domesticated animals as pets has increased, adding to the controversy of exotic pet ownership. Unfortunately, pet foxes in the United States have come across negative community attitudes and have been relocated, confiscated, and even exterminated as a result.

This study investigated existing participant attitudes toward dogs and pet-dog ownership compared to their attitudes toward domesticated foxes and pet-domesticated-fox ownership and analyzed how the manipulation of canine physical attributes by domestication can affect participant perceptions. The purpose of this study was to improve our understanding of attitudes about domesticating wild foxes and selling them as pets. After reviewing the history and progress of fox domestication, scrutinizing personal cases regarding the ownership of foxes as pets, comparing wild, ranched, and domesticated foxes, and understanding attitudes toward dogs and foxes as companion animals, the potential of the fox to become man’s new best friend becomes more clear.

<- Acknowledgements | Faux Foxes | I: The History of Fox Domestication at the ICG ->

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