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The Fox: Wild Animal or Tame Pet?

A Dog's Life Alisa, one of two Novosibirsk foxes living as pets in a wealthy home outside St. Petersburg, is friendly with her human companions and with the family's yellow Labrador too. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi

A Dog’s Life
Alisa, one of two Novosibirsk foxes living as pets in a wealthy home outside St. Petersburg, is friendly with her human companions and with the family’s yellow Labrador too.
Photograph by Vincent J. Musi

National Geographic, March 2011

National Geographic, March 2011

In National Geographic’s March 2011 article, “Taming the Wild,” writer Evan Ratliff and photographer Vincent J. Musi travel to the Russian town of Novosibirsk to unveil the scientific discoveries made by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Over the last six decades, the Institute has been selectively breeding silver foxes, a color morph of the common red fox, Vulpes vulpes, in order to discover the relationship between genetics and domestication. Under the leadership of Dr. Lyudmila Trut, the fox farm experiment has carefully bred generations of foxes by selecting only for tameness. Although only a single trait was singled out, several traits began to change throughout the generations until the animals began to act and even look like dogs.

In 1959, Dmitry K. Belyaev, a Russian biologist inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin, became intrigued in animal domestication, particularly the presence of shared traits among different species of domesticated animals, such as changes in body size, fur coloration, and the timing of their reproductive cycle. As director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at the time, Belyaev composed a hypothesis and began an experiment to find a connection between the hormonal and chemical changes. Balyaev proposed his hypothesis to local fur farms who appreciated the idea of caging calmer foxes, agreeing to donate 100 female foxes and 30 male foxes to the cause. Belyaev began his fox domestication experiment with high hopes, but would end up even more surprised than he had hoped.

The experiment began by selecting for tameness and against aggression. Three groups of foxes were bred within the experiment. One group of foxes included the most aggressive around humans, biting and lashing out at researchers as they approached the cage. The second group of foxes was a control group, allowed to breed randomly. The final group was the main focus of the experiment, the domesticated group. These foxes were tested for tameness and only allowed to breed if the fox showed no fear or aggression towards people.

After several generations, the researchers were amazed to find that the foxes were not only calmer around humans than wild foxes, but also acted and even looked similar like dogs. By the fourth generation of foxes, the animals began wagging their tails, licking the researchers, and even coming when called. “All of them want human contact,” explains Trut. They also began showing physical changes as their tails grew shorter and curled over their backs, their ears stayed floppy, and white markings began appearing within their fur. These white markings, commonly found on other domesticated animals, were later found to be a result of a lack of melanin, a control of pigmentation that is directly linked with adrenaline levels. Further research discovered that the foxes with lower levels of aggression also had lower levels of adrenaline, a hormone that is produced in response to stress, in their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axes. An organism with less adrenaline will be less fearful, thus explaining why the foxes were becoming more tame. Belyaev and his colleagues had discovered that changes in behavior, anatomy, and physiology could arise simply by selecting for the single characteristic of tameness towards humans.

Improbable Pets Foxes bred through generations to be as human-friendly as dogs get a boost from Lyudmila Trut (center) and other staff at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi

Improbable Pets
Foxes bred through generations to be as human-friendly as dogs get a boost from Lyudmila Trut (center) and other staff at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, in Novosibirsk, Siberia.
Photograph by Vincent J. Musi

Today, the Institution continues to breed foxes, though Balyaev has passed and leadership of the program has been given to his assistant, Dr. Lyudumila Trut. Unfortunately, the Russian economy has impacted the Institute in a negative way, depleting its funding and its resources. In order to sustain its fox farm, the Institute has resorted to selling its prized foxes to both fur farms and to potential pet-owners, leading to controversy. Although these foxes are said to be similar to dogs in several ways, many people disagree with the decision to sell them as pets. “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,” states Irina Novozhilova, President of the Vita Animal Rights Centre. She and many others believe that the foxes are still wild animals and should not be kept by humans. This counterargument does not stop the Institution, however, as several foxes have already been sold to a number of happy owners.

Kay Fedewa and her domestic fox, Anya

Kay Fedewa and her domestic fox, Anya

“Sales to private individuals support the important and insightful research from the Institute, but more important 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,” expresses Kay Fedewa, a current owner of a domesticated fox named Anya. Determined to introduce these environmental wonders to Americans, she has established “The Domestic Fox,” at www.domesticfox.com, a company and website dedicated to importing the foxes from Russia into the United States. Because of the complex United States importation regulations on exotic animals, Fedewa has teamed up with Mitch Kalmanson, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed expert in Florida who specializes in importing exotic animals. Together, the two offer the successful and healthy importation of a Russian domestic fox into the United States for $8,900 an animal, despite color or gender. Although Texas state law bans the ownership of foxes, whether they are domestic or wild, two Russian domestic foxes can be viewed at the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary, Mikhail and Nikolai.

As an avid fox-lover myself, I continue to support the domestication of foxes and would someday like to help the Institution, myself, by adopting a domesticated fox. I appreciate the effort the Institute of Cytology and Genetics takes in order to ensure that its foxes end up in loving homes and honor the research and data they are providing in the area of genetics. I disagree with statements that these animals are wild because they are genetically different, specifically bred to be pets. These animals strive for human attention and would benefit more within homes than on farms or in coats.

Throughout National Geographic’s March 2011 article, “Taming the Wild,” writer Evan Ratliff and photographer Vincent J. Musi explain the scientific discoveries made by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics through the progression of its fox domestication experiment. Through selective breeding, the Institute has managed to create another perfect pet, the fox. Offering these animals for sale, the world now must decide whether the fox is a wild animal or a tame pet.


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Transforming Foxes in to Dogs: Fox Domestication

Everyone knows what a fox looks like, right? They’ve got luxurious red fur with full, bushy tails that trail along the ground, and big, tall ears that stand upright.

Red Fox

Common Red Fox

But what if I told you there are foxes that are white with tiny black spots that have short tails that curl over their backs and small, floppy ears? What if I told you that these foxes bark and come when called? What if I told you that foxes are being transformed into dogs?

Domesticated Fox

Domesticated Fox

Now, everyone knows what a dog is. Most of us have dogs at home and love their loyal personalities and cute appearances. Foxes, however, are not as well known or loved, mostly because they are viewed as wild and dangerous, but now, they have been domesticated.

Harboring a love of foxes for the past 10 years, I have been researching and studying my favorite animals. Coming across fox domestication, I began to study further, discovering stunning information.

Dmitri Konstantinovich Belyaev (1917-1985), Soviet zoologist, member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and director of the Russian Institute of Cytology and Genetics from 1959 to 1985 with his selectively bred foxes in Novosibirsk, Russia, 1984. Balyaev is famous for the breeding experiments he carried out in the 1950s with silver foxes (Vulpes vulpes). The selective breeding that produced tame foxes destabilized the gene pool, leading to changes in fur color.

Through scientific experiments over the past 50 years in Novosibirsk, Russia by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, foxes have been domesticated, but through the process, have become increasingly dog-like.

Fox domestication is not well known, but by over-viewing the history of the scientific experiments and the dog-like qualities the foxes are acquiring, one can better understand the relevance today.

Of course, to understand any topic, one must start from the beginning and overview the history of how it has all progressed.

Over the last 50 years, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics have been experimenting on silver foxes, a form of the common red fox, to achieve a domesticated fox.

Asked by fur farmers to create a fox that was easier to take care of and that would not react aggressively towards humans, director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, geneticist Dr. Dmitry K. Belyaev created a fox-farm to begin scientific experiments.

“He began with 30 male foxes and 100 vixens, or female foxes, most of them from a commercial fur farm in Estonia.” Selecting the foxes for tamability, Dr. Belyaev would only allow foxes that did not bite or cower when being handled to breed. “Selection is strict; in recent years, typically not more than 4 or 5 percent of male offspring and about 20 percent of female offspring have been allowed to breed” (Trut, 1999).

Class III foxes would flee from experimenters and bite when stroked or handled while Class II foxes would let themselves be petted and handled, but not show emotionally friendly responses to experimenters. Class I foxes were the most tame, acting friendly towards experimenters and wagging their tails and whining to be handled. Eventually, the foxes became so domesticated that a new class was created, Class IE or the “domesticated elite” which contained foxes that were eager to establish human contact and would whimper to attract attention. These foxes would sniff and lick experimenters, much like dogs (Acland 2008).

Class I Class II Class III
Most Domesticated Somewhat Domesticated Least Domesticated
Friendly towards experimenters

Wag their tail

Whining

Let themselves be petted and handled

Showed no emotionally friendly response to experimenters

Flee from experimenters

Bite when stroked or handled

Even these foxes are tamer than the calmest farm-bred foxes

This behavior surprised the experimenters because they were not expecting dog-like qualities within the foxes. When selecting for tameness, however, the scientists were unknowingly transforming the foxes into dogs.

“Having selected only the most ”tamable” of some 45,000 foxes over 35 generations, the scientists have compressed into a mere 40 years an evolutionary process that took thousands of years to transform ancestral wolves into domestic dogs” (Browne 1999). Through the process of domestication, foxes can acquire dog-like attributes, not only physically, but mentally, as well.

While wild foxes are well-known for their luxurious black and red coats, domestic foxes have been found to sport white and silver fur and floppy ears. All species of domesticated animals have been recorded to have drooped ears while no wild animals, except for elephants, have them because they need to remain alert and at attention. (Trut, 1999). Instead of trailing along the ground, a domestic fox’s tail tends to be extremely short, or curl over the canine’s back, much like a husky.

The silver fox domestication project
Changes in the foxes’ coat color were the first novel traits noted, appearing in the eighth to tenth selected generations. In a fox homozygous for the Star gene, large areas of depigmentation similar to those in some dog breeds are seen.

Lyudmila Trut with a domesticated fox

Dr. Lyudmila Trut with a domesticated fox

Whining for attention, a domestic fox will bark and wag its tail when a human approaches, and will lick when given a hand. If named, a domestic fox will respond to the name and come when called. A domestic fox can also develop a strong, loyal bond with a human companion, much like man’s best friend. The reproductive cycle of a fox also changes. The differences between males and females even become less prominent.

With the revelation of these dog-like qualities, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics has become fascinated and has engaged in more scientific experiments at the fox farm. Today, the experiments continue.

With a new breed of fox, the institute continues to study, conduct research, and even profit from the domestication of the vulpes vulpes, or red fox.

Continuing to breed and study the domesticated fox, the fox-farm in Siberia, Russia continues to reveal new information about foxes, genes, and the domestication of animals. “Today elite foxes make up 70 to 80 percent of our experimentally selected population” (Trut 1999).

Working directly with the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, The Domesticated Fox, a private company in the United States of America has been distributing tame foxes from the fox-farm, committed to introducing the animals as pets and establishing non-consumptive relationships between foxes and people.

With tame foxes becoming more common as pets, the domestication of foxes is becoming increasingly more well-known.

Through scientific experiments over the past 50 years in Novosibirsk, Russia by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, foxes have been domesticated, but through the process have become increasingly dog-like. With white coats speckled with black spots, like dalmations, floppy ears, like datschunds, and curled tails, like huskies, domesticated foxes begin to lose their wild appearance and look more like the common pet. But tame foxes act like dogs as well, bonding with their owners, responding to their names, and even barking and whining for attention.

Because of the continuing process of fox domestication, foxes are beginning to transform into dogs. Perhaps someday, a pet fox will be just as common as the family dog.

References

  • Acland G.M., Chase, K., Erb, H.N., Kharlamova, A.V., Klebanov, S., Kukekova, A.V., Oskina, I.N., Shepeleva, D.V., Stepika, A., Trut, L.N., & Vladimirova, A.V. (2008 March). Measurement of segregating behaviors in experimental silver fox pedigress. PubMed Central, 38(2), 185-194. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2374754/
  • Browne, M. W. (1999 March 30). New Breed of Fox as Tame as a Pussycat. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/30/science/new-breed-of-fox-as-tame-as-a-pussycat.html?sec=health&spon=&pagewanted=1
  • Trut, L. N. (1999). Early Canid Domestication: The Farm-Fox Experiment. American Scientist, 87(2), 160-169. Retrieved from: http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/early-canid-domestication-the-farm-fox-experiment/1

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