Texas Government Confiscates Mikhail and Nikolai the Domesticated Foxes
In late 2009, a company emerged within the United States under the name SibFox Inc. with the website, SibFox, located at http://www.sibfox.com. On December 12, 2009, the subtitle of SibFox read, “SibFox is an official distributor of tame foxes from Siberia,” and the front page boasted, “We work directly with the Institute of Cytology and Genetics (Russia) that bred tame foxes for over 50 years” (2009 December b). On its About Us page, SibFox Inc. described itself as “a private company [that] operates as a distributor and a point of contact between North America pet lovers and Siberian tame fox breeders. We work with the farm directly and have Russian speakers on our team” (2009 December a). The website claimed that the company’s purpose was to “introduce tame foxes as pets in North America and establish non-consumptive relationships between foxes and people” (2009 December a).
SibFox claimed to be the exclusive, official United States distributor of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics’ domesticated foxes and stated on its About Us webpage in 2009, “Genuine tame foxes come from Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia and are exclusively distributed by SibFox Inc.” (2009 December a).
The Institute of Cytology and Genetics appeared to back SibFox’s claim as it posted in 2010, “To receive the information about purchasing of our domesticated fox pups as pets, please contact us: in USA – to the SibFox Inc.” on the Laboratory of Evolutionary Genetics of Animals page of its website Institute of Cytology and Genetics, http://www.bionet.nsc.ru.
On its website in 2009, SibFox posted pictures of fox pups ready for adoption on the Our Foxes page and claimed that any fox pup could be purchased for $5,950 once the buyer submitted a payment in full and completed the Purchase Contract that was hyperlinked at the bottom of the page (2009 December c). In early 2011, SibFox included new fox pups ready for adoption on its Our Foxes webpage and updated the website’s homepage to read:
We do not have farm in USA and only help with ordering and transportation of tame foxes directly from farm in Siberia to your door in USA. This is an additional and expensive service where we assume all transportation risks. We will return 100% of your deposit if we fail to deliver a tame fox (of your choice) to your door within 90 days. HOW TO ORDER FOX IN USA? Download file in JPG format (2011c).
By downloading the listed .jpg image, one could view a step-by-step process on how to purchase a fox through SibFox. This image listed three steps with written directions, screenshot images from SibFox’s website, and URLs that linked to various pages on the SibFox website. The How to purchase a fox? .jpg image can no longer be found on the SibFox website.
On June 4, 2011, Kay Fedewa, a fox-lover and freelance artist, posted to the Sybil’s Message Board forum titled, SIBFOX SCAM and domestic fox discussion stating, “I’m getting my baby in mid-August. :)))) SO EXCITED. I think I’m going with the name Viktor.” Several members of the exotic pet community suspected that SibFox was not a legitimate company and was trying to set up a scam. Fedewa responded, “What exactly makes you think it’s a scam? I have a contract from them saying they will be delivering my fox to me in August or I get my money back.” Fedewa was most likely referring to the SibFox Purchase Contract found on the SibFox website. On June 7, 2011, Fedewa included, “I’m in direct contact with David Garside from SibFox (who the Russian institute themselves refer you to if you inquire about purchasing from the U.S.)”
As the months passed, Fedewa explained that vaccination and documentation complications postponed the arrival of her new fox pup, but the institute and SibFox were keeping her updated with the schedule changes (2011 September). On October 5, 2011, Fedewa posted on the forum that she had obtained Viktor’s passports and specimen documentation from the institute. The documents mentioned that Viktor had originally been named, “Antoshka” at the Institute and was born on April 3, 2011, was microchipped on the left side of his neck, and was documented as a “Standard red, with small white tie.” In an interview in 2012, Fedewa later explained that the Institute combines the names of the parents to create names for the offspring which can result in some odd name combinations (Jacobs 2012).
Sadly, on October 30, 2011, Fedewa wrote on the forum, “My heart is broken. The day they were supposed to arrive in the U.S. I receive this in my inbox.” After her statement of sorrow, Fedewa posted a copy of the email that she had received that read:
Foxes arrived in US, but unfortunately there were multiple problems with the foxes and [the United States Fish & Wildlife Service] USFW didn’t allow them in USA. Problems included issues with transportation (cages used) and health conditions – foxes had high temperature and veterinary inspection showed that due to neutering surgery done poorly, foxes are having health complications. At this time foxes are in carantine (sp) and USFW ordered their shipment back to Russia with all associated charges (carantine (sp), veterinary care, transportation to Russia) to be billed to SibFox.
Due to the fact that we are unable to deliver you a fox in a reasonable timeframe – a 100% of your deposit will be returned to you via overnight mail. Please see attached a copy of cashiers check #9438003871 issued to your name, which will be mailed today – a FedEx tracking number is 797680690044.
I would like to sincerely apologize on behalf of SibFox team, but unfortunately there is nothing we can do to change the situation in any way. At this time we are re-considering our business relationship with the Institute as an unreliable business partner.
-David (Fedewa 2011 October 30a)
In the same forum post, Fedewa explained that she responded to David Garside asking him several questions such as where the foxes were located, who was holding them, and how she could get ahold of their captors and pleaded that she was willing and able to provide medical care for the foxes. She then posted the second email that she received from Garside:
Due to medical condition foxes were not allowed on a flight, but due to USFW order they can’t stay in USA, therefore we used the only remaining option and signed a USFW form 3-2096 transferring foxes to be a government property – we were told they will be transferred to a zoo, but we will not have access to information what zoo or any other details. As of now, the foxes do not belong to us anymore.
We feel your frustration and are also deeply concerned with the situation. Unfortunately, SibFox experienced a very poor communication and low reliability with the Institute promises and actions, which resulted in this situation, as well as our severe financial loss (the Institute received a full payment for foxes and their transportation to US).
This is all the information we can provide.
-David (Fedewa 2011 October 30a)
According to the USFW Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement document, the USFW form 3-2096 that Garside referred to is called a Fish and Wildlife Abandonment Form. Stated in Chapter 1 Wildlife Inspection Policy and Procedures, Part 443 Wildlife Inspection, Section 1.17 What do Service officers do after they refuse clearance of a shipment?, Subsection B.3 Seizure of Wildlife with Opportunity to Abandon in the 2008 USFW policy: “Service officers may allow importers/exporters to abandon property interest in the seized items to the Government” (p. 12). Garside’s comment that the foxes were most likely transferred to a zoo also follows the policy described in Chapter 1 Wildlife Inspection Policy and Procedures, Part 443 Wildlife Inspection, Section 1.18 How do Service officers care for and handle seized, abandoned, or forfeited wildlife?, Subsection A. Caring for seized live wildlife in the USFW policy: “Service officers working in ports should develop contacts with local accredited zoos and aquaria, nature centers, and educational institutions to assist in the care of seized wildlife” (p. 13).
Fedewa ended her forum post stating that she once again asked Garside to provide information on where the foxes were located only to receive this response:
Thank you for your letter. Unfortunately, David is no longer with SibFox team.
We will not be able to provide information you’re requesting.
-Alex Smith (Fedewa 2011 October 30a)
In a later post on October 30, 2011, Fedewa posted that she asked Smith why she wasn’t allowed more information on the foxes’ whereabouts only to receive another disappointing email:
Because foxes are not SibFox property anymore and they are not at port of entry anymore. Foxes are government property now and they were transferred to another facility (we do not have any information on what facility, where, etc.). We were told by USFW that there is no and will be no additional information.
Please understand that we (SibFox) have not even seen the foxes – due to condition they arrived. Now we have to reimburse all customers, but the Institute considers this to be a SUCCESSFUL sale (because they believe that they SOLD foxes to SibFox and as long as foxes arrived to US – that’s done deal) and they specifically stated that they will NOT take any responsibility for what happened.
-Alex Smith (Fedewa 2011, October 30b).
On November 22, 2011, Fedewa returned to the forums to post a series of emails that she had sent and received in order to find out what had happened with her fox. On October 29, 2011, she had received an email from the Operations Supervisor of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport located in Texas:
This was rejected by the Texas Department of Wildlife, due to state regulations, Nevada has a similar ruling.
This was not rejected by US Fish and Wildlife. Due to the State regulations we are being directed to send them [the foxes] back to DME. They will be re-exported on BA192/29OCT under new master awb 125-8090 6910. Please advise ok to forward ASAP. The prohibition to ownership of foxes in both Texas and Nevada was a surprise to all but unfortunately there is no possibility of obtaining a waiver and thus the animals MUST be returned (Fedewa November 2011).
The Operations Supervisor referred to the Texas Department of Wildlife’s Parks and Wildlife Code as prohibiting the ownership of foxes in Texas. Under Title 5. Wildlife and Plant Conservation, Subtitle C. Fur-Bearing Animals, Chapter 71. Licenses and Regulations, Section 004. Prohibited Acts the code states:
(a) No person may take, sell, purchase, or possess a fur-bearing animal [wild beaver, otter, mink, ring-tailed cat, badger, skunk, raccoon, muskrat, opossum, fox, or nutria], pelt, or carcass in this state, except as provided by proclamation of the commission.
This law is also stated in the Texas Administrative Code, Title 31 Natural Resources and Conservation, Part 2 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Chapter 65 Wildlife, Subchapter Q Statewide Fur-Bearing Animal Proclamation, Rule 376 Possession of Live Fur-Bearing Animals:
(a) No person other than the holder of a fur-bearing animal propagation license may possess a live fur-bearing animal [wild beaver, otter, mink, ring-tailed cat, badger, skunk, raccoon, muskrat, opossum, fox, or nutria] at any time, except as otherwise provided in this chapter.
Fedewa also reported in her forum post (2011 November), receiving an email from USFW Office of Law Enforcement Wildlife Inspector, Ricky Brooks, on October 29, 2011:
The state of Texas, where the foxes arrived, and also the state of Nevada, said to be their final destination, both require permits to import foxes and these permits are issued for limited purposes. The importer did not have permits from either state and has been offered the opportunity to return the foxes as violating the state laws would also be a violation of federal law under the Lacey Act (Fedewa 2011 November).
Title 5. Wildlife and Plant Conservation, Subtitle C. Fur-Bearing Animals, Chapter 71. Licenses and Regulations, Section 005. Licenses required of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code states:
(c) No person may capture or possess a live fur-bearing animal [wild beaver, otter, mink, ring-tailed cat, badger, skunk, raccoon, muskrat, opossum, fox, or nutria] for any purpose, except as otherwise authorized by this code, unless he has acquired and possesses a fur-bearing animal propagation [person who takes or possesses a living fur-bearing animal and holds it for the purpose of propagation or sale] license.
Title 31 Natural Resources and Conservation, Part 2 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Chapter 65 Wildlife, Subchapter Q Statewide Fur-Bearing Animal Proclamation, Rule 378 Statewide Fur-Bearing Animal Proclamation of the Texas Administrative Code reads:
(a) No person may import live fur-bearing animals [wild beaver, otter, mink, ring-tailed cat, badger, skunk, raccoon, muskrat, opossum, fox, or nutria] into this state from another state or country unless:
(1) A permit has been issued by the department for such importation and a copy of the completed permit accompanies any live fur-bearing animal being imported or is attached to any container used to import live fur-bearing animals;
(2) The imported animals are accompanied by a health certificate signed by a veterinarian accredited in the state of origin; and
(3) If the imported animals are foxes, raccoons, or skunks, a signed letter of authorization issued by the Texas Department of Health.
Because foxes are considered fur-bearing animals in Texas, only those with a Fur-bearing Propagation Permit may possess them. Clearly stated in the Texas Parks & Wildlife’s Guidelines for Propagating Live Fur-Bearing Animals, “A Fur-bearing Propagation Permit does not authorize individuals to possess live fur-bearing animals as pets. This IS NOT a ‘pet permit’” (p. 1).
Lastly, according to Chapter 503 – Hunting, Fishing and Trapping; Miscellaneous Protective Measures, Section 110. Restrictions on importation, transportation and possession of certain species of the Nevada Administrative Code:
1. Except as otherwise provided in this section and NAC 504.486 [A person who holds an exhibitor’s license issued by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture may exhibit in this State wildlife listed in that license, for not more than 90 days, without obtaining any license or permit issued by the Department for the possession, transportation, importation or exportation of that wildlife], the importation, transportation or possession of the following species of live wildlife or hybrids thereof, including viable embryos or gametes, is prohibited:
(9) Foxes: All species in the genera Vulpes, Fennecus, Urocyon, Alopex, Lycalopex and Pseudalopex
USFW Office of Law Enforcement Wildlife Inspector Brooks stated that the foxes were unable to be retrieved because it would be a violation of the Lacey Act. According to the United States Code Annotated. Title 16. Conservation. Chapter 53. Control of Illegally Taken Fish and Wildlife:
The Lacey Act provides that it is unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any fish or wildlife or plant taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law, treaty, or regulation of the United States or in violation of any Indian tribal law whether in interstate or foreign commerce. All plants or animals taken in violation of the Act are subject to forfeiture as well as all vessels, vehicles, aircraft, and other equipment used in the process.
From these emails, it appeared that SibFox Inc. did not have the proper licenses and required documentation to import foxes into the states of Texas or Nevada. When the domesticated foxes from the ICG’s Farm-Fox Experiment were imported into Texas from Russia through the Dallas-Fort-Worth Airport, SibFox was required to sign a USFW Fish and Wildlife Abandonment Form 3-2096 that forfeited the animals to the Texas Government due to a lack of required documentation and proper cages to import foxes. Because of the Lacey Act and Texas’ state laws, nothing could be done to regain possession of the foxes.
At the end of her November 22, 2011 forum post, Fedewa posted a final email that she had received on November 1, 2011, this one again from USFW Office of Law Enforcement Wildlife Inspector, Ricky Brooks: “The foxes have been transferred to a zoo. I think the one fox may need further medical care but the zoo is providing.” Fedewa was desperate for more information as she still didn’t know the whereabouts of the foxes. She pleaded for help from other members of Sybil’s Message Boards in order to scout all of the zoos in the state of Texas for any new red fox arrivals. She was worried that she would lose track of her fox and was concerned by the apparent need of medical condition for one of the foxes (Fedewa 2011 November). Fedewa later explaind in a 2012 interview that custom-built steel transport cages are required by airline regulations to import foxes in order to ensure the health and safety of the animal (Jacobs 2012). One of the foxes was most likely sick because of SibFox’s disregard of using the appropriate transport cage.
Finally, in December 2011, Fedewa found her fox. On December 1, 2011, the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary posted a photograph of two red foxes with a status update on its Facebook social media page that read:
Meet our newest arrivals – Russian Red Foxes Mikhail and Nikolai. Mik and Nik were born in early April this year in Russia at a farm that raises foxes and sells them as pets. Mik and Nik were purchased online and shipped by air to Texas. When they arrived at airport customs, they were confiscated by the authorities as it is not legal to have them as pets in Texas. The authorities contacted us to see if we had space to accept Mik and Nik. Here they are lounging in their temporary indoor enclosure while we complete their new outdoor space.
Mikhail and Nikolai the Red-Colored, Domesticated Red Foxes
Mik and Nik have become permanent residents at the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary in Austin, Texas. Photographed by Noelle Brooks in June 2014.
Fedewa was thrilled to learn of her fox’s whereabouts and tried all that she could to regain possession of him. On December 6, 2011 after contacting several different agencies about the situation, Fedewa began to lose hope as she posted to the forum, “The problem is that they [the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary] are fully within the law to keep the foxes. I have no legal right to them.” According to the Lacey Act, Fedewa was correct in that the foxes were confiscated government property and could never be repossessed by a private individual.
Later that day, Fedewa changed her focus from reacquiring a fox from the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary with a new forum post. “Its funny timing; today you guys find Viktor for me, and today the institute sends me a photo of a red female who is all ready for exportation,” she wrote, posting an image of a female red fox afterwards. “My [United States Department of Agriculture] USDA guy and I could fly over there next month and get her if I wanted.” In a final post that day, Fedewa decided to allow Viktor to remain with the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary. “I think I need to resign myself to the idea that Viktor will be there forever…” she wrote. “As long as he is in a good place, which he seems to be, I suppose I can move on…”
To this day, the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary is home to Nikolai and Mikhail, the Russian domesticated red foxes from the Institute of Cytology and Genetic’s Farm-Fox Experiment. Oddly, the zoo has not housed Mik and Nik with the other wild, red and gray foxes on display, but instead built them an entirely separate enclosure in a completely different area of the zoo. Attached to the fence of Mik and Nik’s interactive, permanent enclosure rests a yellow informational sign that reads:
Mikhail and Nikolai were purchased by an individual from a website that sold foxes which were bred to be pets. Upon their arrival to the US from Russia, they were confiscated by customs, as it is not legal to own Red foxes in Texas. A warden from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department contacted us for help to provide these foxes a new home (Brooks 2014).
Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary Russian Red Foxes Informational Sign
Photographed by Noelle Brooks.
In a forum post written on January 8, 2012, Fedewa expressed that “the zoo doesn’t fully understand what they have. They probably had never heard of the experiment prior to this and still might not really know.”
In a 2013 video created by the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary titled Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary on Nationwide Syndicated Animal Rescue, manager and guest relations, Toni Alberty expressed one of the most important goals of the zoo: “to educate people as to why they do not want to own any type of exotic animal as a pet. These animals were never meant to live in homes or be pets.” In a 2013 video titled Austin Zoo — Mik and Nik – Russian Red Foxes, she directly comments on the Russian domesticated foxes. Although Alberty explains the experiment performed by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics and addresses the purpose of the Farm-Fox Experiment, to selectively breed foxes for positive reactions toward humans in order to domesticate the species, she ends the video with the final statement, “Beautiful animals, but never meant to be a pet.” Unfortunately, these videos have since been removed from the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary’s YouTube social media page, but the video focusing on Mik and Nik is still available on its video creator, Tiny Courage’s YouTube page.
As for SibFox, on February 27, 2012, Fedewa posted to the Sybil’s Message Board forum, “I got SibFox to take down their site.” In November 2011, SibFox had removed all content from its website that claimed the company to be an importer of the Russian domesticated foxes and then claimed the company to be an “informational resource,” but by March 2012, the site was completely removed and no longer accessible. SibFox has since ceased all business with the Institute of Cytology and Genetics and no longer has an Internet presence.
Currently, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics’ Laboratory of Evolutionary Genetics of Animals page no longer lists SibFox Inc. as the official United States importer of the foxes, and has replaced the previous statement with the following statement: “To receive the information about purchasing of our domesticated fox pups as pets, please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.”