Foxes are beautiful. I have loved them for years. Perhaps it began when I was seven years old, when I stumbled across an adolescent fox whilst walking alone in a corn field where my dad was working. I froze, we stared at each other for three magical seconds, and then she disappeared in an autumnal blur. Five years ago two red foxes appeared at the end of my garden, basking in board daylight and suffering from mange. We slipped medicine into broken up honey sandwiches, and they stayed for a few months before moving on. At the time I was doing an illustration project at college and took advantage of their presence by photographing them from my bedroom window.
Recently I have been investigating getting a collie dog, but the thought of having a fox keeps straying into my head. Whilst I have known about tame foxes for many years – I have a fragmented childhood memory of a documentary discussing the breeding programme – I wasn’t aware people could have them as pets.
In 1959, Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev headed an experiment which sought to find out how dogs developed different physical features from wolves during their evolution. He believed that by breeding only the tamest silver foxes physical differences would begin to emerge as a result of their hormonal and neurochemical changes. Starting from one month old, the foxes were tested on tameness based on their friendliness, preferred company of foxes or humans and likeliness to let the experimenter pet them whilst being offered food.
This experiment went on for fifty years and over forty generations of foxes. Just two years into the experiment, the second generation foxes were already showing a genetic lack of aggression towards humans, by the fourth generation they began to wag their tails like dogs, and by the sixth generation they began lick humans and follow them around. Supporting Belyaev’s predictions, the foxes developed physical changes to, which included shorter or curlier tails, floppy years and longer reproductive seasons. They lost their musky smell, and their colouring changed. Many of them developed piebaldism, which is extremely rare in wild animals, and refers to white patches on the fur such as those found in Pinto horses or Jack Russel Terriers.
Part of me questions the ethics of breeding foxes. I’ve always had concerns over the health issues surrounding pedigree animals, but with these foxes I also worry about what happened to the ones that weren’t selected, the ones that displayed neither tame nor aggressive qualities.
Nowadays it’s possible to buy a rather expensive tame fox from www.sibfox.com. If you live in America. Not Britain, apparently. It’s worth a look though, to see some of these beautiful creatures, waggy tails and all.