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.


Anonymous said...

I saw a documentory on tv about those foxes.
And you are right we don't need another dog breed when there are more than enough to go around.

Wendy said...

National Geographic magazine has an article on these foxes this month, too. Interesting experiment in genetics, but I think there will be a lot of people wanting them as pets after reading it.

Julie W. said...

I really like your blog about these domestic foxes. I am doing an essay at school about the article in National Geographic, March 2011, Vol. 219 No. 3, Designing the Perfect Pet issue,with the article, Taming the Wild, and am on the side of staying away from this. You present valid points about doing research before you get a pet. I, being a pet lover, agree. It would be a huge injustice in the life of an animal, to have unprepared owners. Also, I saw no mention of the fact that these animals mark,(can be quite smelly) have partially retractable claws and are mostly nocturnal. Thanks for your Blog. It was a welcomed site! :)

Norm Mackey said...

I don't understand the fear of adding another domesticated canid, I think that domesticated dogs are a pretty good idea and I rather like them. The rabies concerns sound more like an excuse for not allowing them than a real question on whether rabies vaccines are available. I'm pretty sure there are oral ones they drop from planes designed for foxes.

But I don't see how someone with a dog, or in favor of dogs, can think they have the right to criticize these just because they are new or their owners a small minority.

HAWS said...

Hi Norm -- thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog and comment.

I did check and you are right that they are using aerial vaccines to eradicate rabies in some parts of the world. However, I don't know that this vaccine would be available to a veterinarian. I know that the rabies vaccine used on dogs is not the same used on people. It's reasonable to expect that since dogs and foxes are a completely different species that a fox would require a different vaccine than a dog.

You did not comment on the other issues I had with having foxes as pets. Again, foxes and dogs are completely different species. We don't know how they behave as pets other than what we are told by the company selling them.

Purchasers are not given an opportunity to meet either of the parents of the fox cub they'll be purchasing -- something that anyone knowlegeable about purchasing a dog puppy would recommend. There also does not seem to be an opportunity to contact people who already have one of these foxes as a pet.

And again, we already have a tremendous number of domesticated animals as pets, including dogs. Unfortunately there are way too many dogs in shelters and rescues waiting for homes, and many in the US being euthanized simply because the shelter has limited space. Instead of selling a newly domesticated animal that is similar to a dog as a pet, why don't we just focus on finding homes for the dogs that are already out there?

Norm Mackey said...

I do think it is quite important for the domesticated foxes that they be limited, and I think those marketing the foxes have good excuses besides profit to export only ones that are neutered or spayed. The dogs do give a warning here. So many times a breed becomes "popular" and deteriorates. The brother of the neutered movie dog "Strongheart" was savage and sired many bitey german shepherds.

Imagine how horrible it would be if greedy people bred these foxes to undomesticated ones. Even nice resulting ones would result in more wild foxes in their next litters. And they would, they're just too valuable, half the buyers would end up with the vulpine equivalent of a 350 pound miniature pig.