Last month’s National Geographic cover featured a fox with the headline “Designing the Perfect Pet” in a story about what we’re learning about domesticating animals. A great deal of what we now know comes from an experiment in Russia that’s been breeding foxes for tameness since 1959. The farm has to sell its excess foxes to support itself. I wrote to the lab to ask how and they gave me the low down on buying your own pet fox.
The NatGeo story mentioned that the translator ended up with a fox pet after learning excess foxes end up on fur farms. The Novosibirsk Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Siberia has been selecting progressively tamer silver foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and each year only 4-5% of males and 20% of females make the cut to breed. The staff is heartbroken when they have to decide which ones are sent to fur farms from the outpost in Novosibirsk, Siberia. So head researcher Lyudmila Trut explained how the adoptions work:
Domesticated foxes only breed once a year (like the wild ones, and unlike dogs). The puppies are born right about now (March-April) and the institute will evaluate them and pick out who stays and who becomes a pet in about 3-5 months. But, you have to get the paperwork going now. It starts with a letter of request from your veterinarian.
You pay the institute $1,500. She estimated that transport costs about $1,500 and all the documentation and permissions may run another $750. “Therefore the minimal cost for obtaining the fox directly from the Institute would be not less than $3,750. We don’t know and can’t include here possible expenses on the import of the fox to the U.S. territory (quarantine etc.),” Trut says.
Don’t get any ideas about becoming a fox breeder yourself: “The Institute distributes only neutered (sterilized) animals,” Trut says.
Contact the institute directly if you’re interested. I also found a company based in Nevada, Sibfox, that says they can handle the paperwork for you and deliver you a fox in 90 days from Siberia. Sibfox says the main barrier is state laws on exotic animals. Mostly the red neck states you expect think that’s fine. Sibfox lists the nine states that let you have one almost without trouble (AL, ID, MO, NV, NC, OH, SC, WV, WI), the 12 where you need a permit (AZ, DE, IN, ME, MS, MT, ND, OK, PA, RI, SD, TX) and divide the other 29 into hard and impossible. They link to one current but anonymous owner of two pet foxes, who has pictures on her page and says the foxes always sleep on the top of their cages.
Trut herself has kept a fox as a pet and is excited about learning what foxes raised as pets act like (the ones at the farm specifically don’t have human content so they can be judged by their genetic tameness). “They have
shown themselves to be good-tempered creatures, as devoted as dogs but as independent as cats, capable of forming deep-rooted pair bonds with human beings….” she wrote in a 1999 paper in American Scientist. “If our experiment should continue, and if fox pups could be raised and trained the way dog puppies are now, there is no telling what sort of animal they might one day become.”
At the time she also wrote that the center faced a funding crisis and had to cut its population from 700 to 100 in three years. The center was “increasingly dependent on outside funding at a time when shrinking budgets and changes in the grant-awarding system in Russia are making long-term experiments such as ours harder and harder to sustain.” They sold some foxes “to Scandinavian fur breeders, who have been pressured by animal-rights groups to develop animals that do not suffer stress in captivity.” At the time she mentioned the hope of selling the pups as pets, which she said “should lead to some interesting, if informal, experiments in its own right.”
The center seems to have survived. It’s provided invaluable research on domestication: first, that it can happen much quicker than anyone thought, second that tameness seems to have ties to physical traits. The recently domesticated foxes have traits that look more juvenile. They handle stress differently. And they are starting to have elongated and sometimes double breeding cycles.
I’m not a big fan of animal research for frivolous purposes (and have two beagles that were rescued from a research lab.) But research completely changes our understanding of evolution, domestication and the ties between physical appearance and tameness–although many of the details are still being worked out. It also has implications in the reverse: if only animals that are terrified of humans can survive hunting, are we creating more aggressive predators?
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