Monday, February 28, 2011


In 1959 the fur industry in Russia tried to find a solution to the problem of difficult to handle wild foxes being raised for their fur. Soviet geneticist Dmitri Belyaev was enlisted to help with the problem and started a very well known experiment to domesticate the fox. Belyaev felt that the key to domestication was selection for tameness.

Fifty years later Belyaev's experiment is still on-going. Foxes today are 35 generations removed from the original foxes in the study -- with only the tamest foxes being bred. One of the most interesting effects of selecting ONLY for temperament has been the changes in the domesticated foxes physical appearance. Coats developed a piebald appearance, tails shortened and in some cases curled, and ears flopped instead of sticking straight up.

This is significant since it indicates that the diversity in appearance of our domestic dog could have originally developed as a result of selection for behavior. While in modern times dog fanciers select for appearance, long ago dogs were bred for function, and the ear carriage, coat color and length would have been a much smaller, if not irrelevant consideration.

True domestication is the result of animals being bred over many generations in such a way that they have been genetically altered to not only appear different than their wild counterparts -- but to be much more tractable than them. This differs from tameness -- which merely means that an animal has been raised in such a way that makes it easier to handle than it's wild relatives, however it has not necessarily been genetically changed and still retains it's wild behaviors, instincts and appearances.

Roy Horn of the duo Siegfried and Roy was seriously injured when he was bitten in the neck by a 7 year old tiger he'd raised from a cub that was part of his Las Vegas act. While the tiger had a relationship with Horn, it was still a wild animal.

Recently Belyaev's foxes have offered for sale in the United States through a distributor in Las Vegas, NV called Sibfox. For only $5,950 a person can have their own domesticated fox transported from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Russia.

While these foxes truly are domesticated animals, I have a problem with this for many reasons. First of all -- not much is known about keeping a fox as a pet. We don't know what their natural behavior is, nor do we know if a rabies vaccination developed for dogs is effective for foxes. The website states that there are very few fox owners out there, and so not many people have yet experienced them as pets.

This brings me to the next problem. On Sibfoxes FAQ page it states: "...none of our clients expressed interest in sharing their contact information with the public for any purpose. However, we can e-mail questions that you may have to them and determine whether they want to respond by email or telephone." So a potential purchaser does not have an opportunity to directly contact a current fox owner to ask questions.

The FAQ section also indicates that a prospective buyer has no opportunity to meet the fox they are purchasing prior to purchase, much less meet it's parents. Animal welfare professionals recommend that when purchasing an animal from a breeder the parents be met since the parents behavior is indicitive of what the temperament of it's offspring will have.

While I'm fascinated by the research results of Belyaev's foxes, I am very unhappy about having even domesticated foxes become pets. While the FAQ section indicated that all foxes will be neutered before being shipped to the United States (most likely as a way for them to remain the only source of the domestic fox pet trade), I see no reason for a new canid to become pets -- after we are very familiar with the behavior and care of dogs. And there are so many of them out there in need of a home.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Research and Responsibility

One of the things I attempt to teach children about being responsible pet owners is that the responsibility begins even before you bring the pet home. Learning as much about a the required care, behavior and handling of an animal before you get it helps a person be prepared to be a good pet owner and be able to provide for the needs of the animal.

Guinea Pigs, for example, are decended from the cavy in the Andes Mountains in South America (cavia aperea). Since they live near the equator the temperature is consistent and fairly warm -- with only about 12 degrees in variation from season to season. Guinea Pigs can very easily become sick if exposed to drafty or cold weather, and it's recommended that they be kept inside in an area away from open windows or air conditioning ducts.

Recently HAWS had some Guinea Pigs surrendered to us, and it was obvious that the owners hadn't done even rudimentary research before they brought them home.

The previous owners told us that they thought Guinea Pigs were outdoor pets, and so they housed them in a fenced in yard with a dog house for shelter and a heating lamp. When he called he said that he thought he had 8 of them to bring in, however after he rounded them up discovered that there were 11 total. It's amazing that they were still alive after being housed outside in Wisconsin in January!

The reason for surrender was that the owners decided that Guinea Pigs just weren't the right pets for them --mainly because they weren't social, however HAWS was told that the guinea pigs weren't ever handled either. Animals can only learn to be social if someone makes an effort to socialize them.

After being treated for lice, mites and fight wounds the males were neutered and are currently being socialized by our small animal volunteers. They are available for adoption -- but will require an adopter who understands that patience will have to be practiced since they are still afraid of people. The females are in foster care for a few months while we wait to see if any are pregnant.

While this scenario is a bit extreme, surrenders because of a lack of education are one of the biggest reasons shelters get animals. People purchase pets because they are cute or cool, and then get home and reality sets in. Shelters will continue to exist as long as there are people who obtain pets they don't know much about.

Monday, February 7, 2011

This is Why I Do It

I just received a card with thanks from the Lad Lake boys who participated in last semester's PETS program. It was really a great start to a Monday, and I wanted to share it. I've removed the names signed at the end.

Thank you for everything you did for us and the dogs. I learned a lot about dogs. Plus I’m not as scary of dogs. I love pit bulls and any dogs that look mean and strong. Your teaching was good – when I could not do something you were there to help me. Thanks for the time you did with us. You were one of the best teachers. Thanks for everything, so Yea Thanks,
Bye Bye
Bark Bark

When I came in I had no idea what to do but I met Naya and got to work. I didn’t do the best at first but I got a hang of it and I had some real fun times. I learned a lot of new stuff and what to do and what not to do.
Thank You

The dogs were a great time. You taught us to know if it is friendly or mean. I had a great time. I hope you had a great time too. Thank you. Even though I did not work with Naya, she is so nice. I hope Mystic and Belle have a good time.

I liked the dogs a lot. I want to go again. I liked training the dogs how to sit and shake and roll over. And I loved Jenna and working with her. I like Mystic, and he was my favorite dog. I also really working with Tommy. I hope I can come again and work with Jenna, I want her to be a bomb dog and get adopted.

I love you. Good bye,

Thank you Khris for all the hard work you’ve done for us! I appreciate that you would go out of your way to teach us how to train dogs. We had lots of fun and I hope you did too!

I liked to hang out with Naya and Mystic. I think those two dogs are very special and they have a lot of potential. I think they both are good dogs. I hope Naya is having a good time, just like Mystic.

You are a good inspiration, and you encourage me to not buy from puppy mills, and to believe that I can take care of pets just like you do. I hope you and Mystic and Belle have a wonderful day.

Your friend,

Khris, I thank you for letting me work with the best dog trainer. I thank you for letting me work with Naya. I loved Naya.

I wish I could have Naya.