Russians Are Trying To Turn Foxes Into Pets—But They Noticed A Weird Side Effect

Stories of the Cold War-era Soviet Union always read like they’re straight out of a science fiction movie, and this tale of strange animal experiments is no exception. In the 1950s, a Soviet scientist named Dmitry K. Belyaev wanted to see if he could accelerate the domestication process of animals. He hoped to prove that it was possible to take 1,000 years of evolution and streamline the process into one that would span a hundred years or less. He chose to cross-breed and foxes because of their similar gene structure, and carefully selected his breeding subjects in an attempt to replicate a perfect combination of traits and appearance that humans wanted in pets. The goal was to eventually domesticate foxes, using the personality and character of matched to a foxy aesthetic.

It wasn’t easy to be a scientist in Stalinist Russia, although things did let up after Stalin died. Although Belyaev managed to survive and continue his research, he died in 1985 before his project was completed. Scientists have continued Belyaev’s work in genetics and now, after more than 50 years of work Russians have successfully created tame foxes. It took more than 30 generations of animals, and things haven’t turned out exactly as predicted, but domesticated foxes are now on the market.

The Domesticated Foxes Are Physically Different Than Original Foxes

Most foxes have pointy ears and look more predatory than the average dog, but not these new domesticated foxes. They have adopted physical characteristics more associated with their canine cousins and are quite different from their wild ancestors.

For example, their ears are floppy when they’re puppies, but unlike dogs, those ears tend to stay floppy even when they’re grown. Domesticated foxes also have curved tails, and their coats feature spots. These aren’t how wild foxes look, but the genetics have pooled out and these are the traits that have remained in non-threatening, tame foxes.

Their Genes Are Entirely Different From Wild Foxes

Dmitry Belyaev died in 1985 and never got to see his fully domesticated foxes. Still, his work in genetics carried on without him. In the years since his death the foxes in the experiment showed signs of being similar to dogs, yet adopting their own hybridized look. They look to people as companions and are not scared or aggressive around them. The resulting research shows that their genes have been completely and uniquely separated from wild foxes, ensuring that domesticated foxes will be able to be bred in their own right, just like dogs. Between 1999 and 2017, the percentage of foxes that would make good house pets went from 35% to 70-80%, leaving a lasting legacy of Belyaev’s work.

A Soviet Scientist Risked His Life For His Research

Although suspicions of science is now commonplace in the United States thanks to misguided fears and corporate campaigns to discredit investigations, scientists in the Soviet Union were actually killed in the 1950s for their studies. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was especially wary of geneticists and even carried out a policy called Lysenkoism. This was putting them in jail or putting them to death for fear that they would be an enemy to the state. Despite these threats, Dmitry Belyaev stayed under the radar under the government and continued his study of genes. Luckily for him, Stalin died and the government relented on many of its harsher restrictions surrounding scientific research. Belyaev was never arrested and carried on his study in peace.

It All Started With A Desire To Know More About Dogs

Dogs and humans have been together for millennia, but how that process took place is a mystery. Domestication of dogs was a long, drawn out process involving genetics that were unknown for centuries but that the scientist Gregor Mendel famously championed. It took generations to occur and while dogs eventually were able to live with people, foxes weren’t. Soviet scientist Dmitry Belyaev tried to domesticate foxes in order to show that it was possible. He also hoped to answer questions about how the dog became domesticated and thought that by repeating the process with a fox — which shares characteristics with dogs as well as a scientific family, canid — could do just that. Plus, foxes have characteristics that the scientist thought would be popular as domesticated creatures.

The Experiments Used Foxes From Fur Farms

In order to design his experiment and prove the presence of genetic selection in how foxes became friendly, Belyaev decided to start breeding friendly, docile foxes. He wanted to prove that personality characteristics were able to be singled out because of genes.

Belyaev went to fox farms where the animals were bred for their fur. When he found a fox that wasn’t frightened of him, or less frightened than the others, he took it for the experiment. The “cage door” test meant he could determine which foxes to choose based on how they reacted when he opened their cage door. In the beginning of his experiment, only about 10% of the foxes responded favorably.

The Rigorous Fox Selection Process Has Been Controversial

The original population for the experiment had 130 foxes: 100 females and 30 males. Those foxes mated and Belyaev began determining which of those foxes were the best ones to continue the experiment. The results were less than promising. When the fox pups were born the scientists would try to make them familiar and comfortable with humans. Still, less than 10% of the animals were able to handle being around people, the rest were sent back to the fur farms. The rigorous selection process has been controversial. According to the BBC:

“If the cubs continued to show aggressive or evasive responses, even after significant human contact, they were discarded from the population – meaning they were made into fur coats.”

They were also kept in cages and had minimal human contact, because training them wasn’t the goal of the experiment. This has also been controversial, which may explain why fox-genetics hasn’t been a more widely spread research topic.

If You Want A Domesticated Pet Fox, It Will Cost You A Premium

With the end of the Soviet Union, public funding for the fox experiment fell apart. There were few resources for the scientists working with the animals, yet they wanted to continue their work. In the 1990s, the lab began selling foxes as fur pelts in order to support their work in genetics.

Now, however, the lab sells foxes internationally to private owners and convservationists as pets in order to sustain itself. But because domesticated foxes are still so unique and rare, they cost a lot: there’s only one domestic fox importer into the United States, and they charge about $9,000 per fox. In addition, many states have laws regarding exotic pets, including foxes. While these laws don’t take into account the new characteristics of long-term specially bred domesticated foxes, they could prevent many people from actually procuring one, at least in foreseeable future.

Domesticated Foxes Are Easy To Care For

Despite having behavioral challenges, like peeing in coffee cups, domesticated foxes are easy to care for. For one thing, their diet is like that of domesticated dogs. Both animals are omnivores and eat a variety of protein and plant sources for nutrients. One thing that is different, is that foxes do require raw fruit and veggies as a part of their diet. There are even some trainers that say they need to eat raw meat to be healthy.

As Pets, Foxes Take “Puppy Syndrome” To A Whole New Level

The most friendly fox pups are known as “elite” pups, and they’re the ones who are the most playful yet fun. While dogs may chew up slippers or eat homework, these pet foxes take things to a whole new level. Rather than just chasing the mailman or trying to sneak food, one pet fox owner says that her animal has a particularly disgusting habit. The fox pees in her coffee cup only for her to learn of it after taking a sip. But they’re harmless – you may take a fox out of the wild but you can’t take the fun out of the fox.

 

There Are Still Genetic Mysteries To Uncover

There aren’t yet reasons that the scientists can pinpoint, genetically at least, as to why domesticated foxes are so friendly but some are not – they haven’t isolated a “friendly” genome yet. Over the years, scientists have mapped the genes of dozens of animals including dogs and humans, but foxes are still relatively new. But once this data is available, it will be possible to more completely explain why some foxes are friendly while others are not.