Why are humans against domesticated pet foxes?
The taming of the fox
The founder of the long-term experiment was the Russian geneticist Dimitri Beljajew. To avoid sanctions - at that time Stalin had banned genetics as a "fascist and bourgeois" science - he and his team worked in Siberia under the guise of fur farming. In reality, they went to fur farms to select the least aggressive foxes and continue breeding with them on their own farm near the city of Novosibirsk. The researchers wanted to understand the mechanisms of domestication by domesticated themselves.
The first participants in the experiment were 130 silver foxes, a gray-black color variant of the red fox that was very popular on fur farms. The researchers - one of them was Lyudmilla Trut, who took over the management of the fox farm after Beljajev's death in 1985 - selected only one characteristic: tame, by which they meant tolerance for and adaptability to humans. The most trusting foxes from each generation were selected for further breeding. Changes soon became apparent: after four generations, puppies appeared who wagged their tails like dogs and after six generations there were those who happily sought contact with people, Trut wrote in a study published in 2009. Although the goal of the biologists was to quickly complete a process that had taken thousands of years in wolves, they were surprised by the speed of the results.
Over the decades, the foxes began to change even further, with ever larger parts of the population adopting the new characteristics. In addition to changes in behavior that became more similar to that of dogs and the fact that they suddenly had more and more cubs, the animals also changed outwardly. Among other things, they got a spotted coat, some had floppy ears, as we know them from dogs, their legs, tails and snouts became shorter, their skulls wider - in short: they became sweeter.
Foxes as pets in America (Video: Jonathan Reynaert):
Questionable in terms of animal welfare
Today, over 60 years and many generations of foxes later, the fox experiment belongs to the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences and is still run by Trut. While it has been praised by scientists and the media as a unique opportunity to research the genetic basis and mechanisms of domestication, it is a disaster from an animal welfare point of view. As can be seen on several videos, the foxes are kept individually in cages that are much too small. They have little human contact because you want to make sure that the tame of the fox is innate and not acquired, as the ARD reported in 2015. Breeding an animal to need human affection and then denying it seems almost cruel.
Employees justify the small cages by saying that it is the only way to control the breeding and with the scarce resources. Although the experiment survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, it repeatedly ran into financial difficulties, including in recent years. Various sources have spoken of several thousand foxes on the farm in recent years. Last year the BBC reported 340 completely domesticated animals. Of course, this causes great costs. "The situation is not catastrophic, but also not stable," said a project worker to the BBC. Since the beginning of the experiment, those foxes that were not selected for breeding were sold to fur farms. This is still happening today. As the magazine “National Geographic” wrote in 2011, Lyudmilla Trut has long since given up the task of choosing who is allowed to stay and who is in for a bad fate and stays away from the farm during this time. "It's very difficult emotionally," she said at the time.
The video from “Galileo” shows what it looks like on the fox farm. However, the article contains some errors, so that its seriousness can be doubted. For example, the white foxes are not arctic foxes as claimed, but white red foxes. Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) belong to a different species than red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and were never used in the experiment (Video: Pro7 / Galileo):
To add to the budget, the late 1990s began to sell the tame foxes as pets - for an impressive 8,000 to 9,000 dollars per animal. Initially hardly noticed, the foxes seem to be slowly establishing themselves as pets, as numerous videos on Youtube show. "We're doing our best to preserve the whole population," said Trut to National Geographic.
Report of the American news channel ABC about the Russian foxes (Video: ABC News):
Still wild animals in Switzerland
Anyone who is considering getting such an extraordinary pet should first take a look at the Swiss animal welfare ordinance. This regulates the keeping of wild animals. As such, the fox is still considered a wild animal in Switzerland, no matter how domesticated it is. Fox keepers must therefore complete a “subject-specific, non-professional training”. You can do this at the Working Group for Hunting Dogs. A second hurdle is import. The import of animals from countries like Russia is “extremely difficult”, says the Federal Office for the Environment (Bafu) when asked by “Tierwelt Online”. Hunting law does not prohibit the importation of a fox, but since rabies still exists in Russia, it can become a lengthy process.
In addition: Their foxes are probably not quite as domesticated as the Russian researchers claim. Owners report destroyed facilities and excessive activity, and the animals don't really want to walk on a leash either. In contrast to dogs, they do not form packs and do not accept hierarchies with humans. For a reward, however, they still carry out commands, as the ARD video shows. The dog does this even without treats - the praise of his humans is reward enough for him.
The ARD video shows, among other things, how doctoral student Irina raises her vixen (Video: ARD):
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