Monday, June 28, 2010

Domesticating foxes for fun and profit

The Thoughtful Animal has been writing about domesticated foxes and has pointed out that they are commercially available.

Dude! I want one right now! For the low price of $5,950, why not?

Let’s assume the cost isn’t actually an issue. (I want one of these guys badly enough that I would probably find the money somewhere.)

It’s just like a dog, and we know all about taking care of them. It won’t be like owning an exotic animal. It will be like owning an extra cute dog.

Well, it isn’t exactly just like a dog; they aren’t closely related enough to interbreed, for example. One thing vet school has impressed upon me is that species differences jump out at you when you least expect them. We have lived with dogs for a long, long time. In fact, I will hazard a guess that veterinary medicine was practiced on them very early. We know a lot about what makes them tick. We don’t know all that much about foxes.

Well, I live just up the street from a wildlife clinic. They could provide veterinary care.

Actually, in my case, this is true. However, the approach to veterinary care at a wildlife clinic is different from the approach at a small animal veterinary clinic. Ask me again after I have done my wildlife rotation, but I imagine they are not as used in that clinic to the kind of care we expect to give to our pets. For example, I had cardiology specialists caring for my cat when she was in heart failure. They knew all about how cats respond to heart failure (differently from dogs). Cardiologists wouldn’t have the first idea about species differences in foxes, but the wildlife clinicians would be much less skilled at reading a cardiac echo. Neither would be quite able to provide complete care for a pet fox. And the number of foxes a wildlife veterinarian sees a year is much, much smaller than the number of dogs a small animal veterinarian sees a year. It would just not be the same as getting veterinary care for a dog.

My guess is that your local vet would refuse to see the fox at all, with good reason. If you know someone who owns a bird or bunny, ask them how hard it is to find a vet to see one of those animals! And if you can only find one vet who’s even willing, you will have no choice of where you get care.

This will be a young, healthy animal, so I’m not worried about veterinary care.

Are you worried about behavior?

It’s domesticated. That means it’s just like a dog.

In this case, the foxes were “domesticated” by being bred to not be afraid of humans. They weren’t bred to be good house pets, though. They have been maintained as laboratory animals since their strain was developed, living in runs. They won’t bite you. But they may chew up your house, kill your cat, pee inappropriately — actually, a dog will do any of those things. Who knows what else a fox might come up with? We don’t have all the experience with their quirks that we have with dogs.

I’ll take him to a good trainer and make sure none of those things happen.

I’m betting you will have trouble finding a dog obedience class which will allow him in. You will have to shell out for private lessons.

Well, I’ll get him lots of exercise. A tired fox is a good fox.

Who will play with him? Will you take him to the dog park? Will his unusual smell and unusual body language (I’m just guessing here that a different species speaks a slightly different language) make it harder for dogs to accept him? Is it OK with you that he will never see another member of his species for the rest of his life?

And what will you feed him?

Dog food, of course.

There’s a lot of debate over what’s healthy food even for a dog these days. Again, we don’t know as much about foxes. And remember, they are only maintained in the laboratory for a few years, so the researchers don’t have experience with what is healthy for them as they get old. How hard is it to feed an animal right? Well, before we discovered that taurine was a required nutrient for cats, cats which ate commercial cat food tended to go blind as they got older. What might we be missing in a fox’s diet?

We take a lot of things for granted with dogs, and even so, they can be a big commitment. I really, really want a domesticated silver fox. But it is not a good idea for me or anyone else to have one. We have plenty of species of domesticated animals already which make excellent pets about which we know a great deal. We have a much better chance of providing good husbandry for a dog or cat. The foxes make for fascinating research animals, and I am glad that they exist (though I am sad that they have to live in a laboratory in order to be studied). But turning them into pets is not a responsible thing to do.

32 comments:

  1. "Is it OK with you that he will never see another member of his species for the rest of his life?"

    I find myself wondering: With the exception of dogs in almost all cases, this can be a question for any sort of domestic pet - cats, birds, gerbils, fish, anything. So how do people usually cope with that question? Are dog (and dog-ish) species sufficiently more social to make it a different sort of question?

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  2. Great post. As far as the issue of other conspecifics, I would hope that the responsible dog owner would at least go to the dog park every once in a while.

    Differential communicative and play behaviors notwithstanding, I bet a domesticated fox could get on decently with dogs. But then, i suppose that's an empirical question to be tested.

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  3. alphacygni: Dog owners (the good ones) seem to get that dogs should be around other dogs. You see a lot of dog owners making efforts to schedule play dates, or go to parks where they know there will be other dogs. This is one of the important issues in having off-leash areas available, in my opinion.

    Cat owners also seem to sort of get this, because in my experience, most cat owners own at least two cats. Cats don't like meeting strange cats, of course, so I think in this case it's really important not to let them live without a cat friend if at all possible.

    I know that bunnies need friends, and it is highly recommended that one own two, not one.

    I don't actually know about other species, and of course socialness varies by species (so you can't generalize to "all birds"). If I were to get a pet of a different species, I would do my research and see if it needed a friend. My guess is that a lot of people don't do this for smaller animals, partly because they are less valued than dogs and cats for whatever reason, partly because they are less well understood, partly because people don't have the traditions around them that we do around dogs and cats and just don't think about it. (Most people are used to the idea of owning two cats. They may not have any idea how many gerbils "most" people own.)

    Dogs are extremely social, but I bet you company is really important to some other species as well.

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  4. Jason: how awesome would it be to see a study about communication between domesticated foxes and dogs? I have no idea how much body language and communication style varies among canids. This would be a great way to find out (since obviously it would be awfully hard to do with wild foxes, even in zoos). Of course, there is the issue that domesticated foxes might communicate differently than non-domesticated ones, so you would also want to test domesticated fox communication with non-domesticated fox communication.

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  5. Was there an ancient version of you standing around the campfire clicking his tongue and saying, "I don't really think it's safe or ethical for you to be bringing that wolf into your cave and treating it like a member of the family"?

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    1. I was thinking something similar. Isn't this exactly how we domesticated dogs in teh first place?

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  6. Hopefully there were always people talking about all sides of an issue! Happy to discuss your viewpoint if you want to share it.

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  7. I think a good book that has domesticating wild animals in it is The Clan of The Cave Bear. And if you have seen any videos on it, it shows the foxes not only getting along with cats and children but also them being carried and played with by kids. The site (SibFox) also talks about their diet, which is a little differant from dogs.

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  8. I understand where you are coming from, and it is very true that they should not be pets for most people. However, I don't think that the socializing it too big of an issue for foxes, seeing how most live by themselves or in pairs. I know of a few people that have half wolves as pets, and the dogs are huge and intimidating, but like huskies if trained.
    Now the three people I know that had them were experienced with wild animals. Wolves are far more social than foxes, and the wolf/dogs were more than happy to play with others.
    For the foxes, it may be hard to have them socialized. They may be like the Asian dog breed Jindo of Korean or Akida of Japan. Smart dogs that need time and patience to train. Jindo are not sold outside of Korea, but they are more or less like the Siberian Foxes...

    To own any pet you need the time to care for it and knowledge to take care of it. Most of what I have heard about this topic is that you can't find someone that knows about it for Vet care, but that doesn't stop the sell of Ginny Pig. My boyfriends little sister knows more than most vets would. That is because she studied by looking up books on how to care for them.

    You can do the same for any animal, my boss feed their five dogs homemade dog food, rice meat, and veggies that are good for them. It isn't too hard, stinky and time consuming, but not hard.

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  9. Anonymous: a thoughtful answer, thank you. Honestly, I would probably personally be OK with someone adopting a fox who approached the project as carefully as you seem like you would.

    About guinea pigs and vets: I suspect that you are thinking about general practitioners, who aren't generally highly trained to care for guinea pigs. Your boyfriend's little sister may not live in an area with an exotics practitioner (they aren't all that common), but if she did, she would probably find that they know a great deal about treating guinea pigs.

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  10. I don’t see an ethical issue with owning or having a domestic fox as a pet for the sake of it being a fox or that we don’t have vast tracks of knowledge about them as domesticated animals. I do see a problem with anyone getting any pet without carefully considering it and taking the time to learn as much as they can about it. We own weimaraners, and even though they are dogs and have been domesticated for a long time they would be a very poor choice of pet for most people because of their energy level. They will happily eat your house and knock over your children if they don’t get to run a whole lot (heck if you don’t really socialize them they will probably bite your neighbor too).

    I don’t think people should be making pets out of wild animals, if you are a rehabilitator or a sanctuary than okay you know how to care for them in an appropriate way, but nobody needs a tiger in their kitchen just because it’s cute. But these are no longer wild, and I hope anyone who would obtain one would understand this and not think it’s ok to just set it free when they get sick of it (I know we are talking about people and they are crappy and do stuff like this all the time, but at $6000 I HOPE people would resist the urge).These foxes are cute and if it didn’t cost a small fortune to obtain one I may consider it. I would take the time to research my decision just as we did for our dogs. The greater ethical issue is not owning a recently domesticated animal, but rather taking the time to make an educated decision about pets.

    From what I read about this research center and their distributer they tend to not want to sell to the US because they see us as tending to be irresponsible with our pets… go figure… At least they will only sell them already neutered preventing that idiot want to be breeder from making a fox mill in his backyard… As it is I am a-ok with this being an expensive and controlled operation at the moment, I just wish more people could be responsible with their animals, but as long as we are imperfect then I say... Let them be expensive, and let them be already fixed!

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  11. I only see a few things I do not agree with in this post. Everything else is fine by me.

    Regular veterinarians would not know much about foxes but there are many farm veterinarians who would be able to care for them and these vets not uncommon in most places in the US.

    I don't see how it would be difficult to feed a fox either. They require some form of meat, vegetables, and other vitamins. Canned dog food would even do because it contains all of that. Their coats are good indicators as to whether or not they are getting the right nutrition. Most pets seem livelier when they are fed right and have good environments too. Foxes would be the same way.

    Also, foxes are not as social as dogs are. I know someone already pointed this out so I will not repeat it in detail.

    No one needs to play with a fox to get them to exercise. They do that enough by themselves, whether indoors or outdoors. They are not like like dogs in this sense.

    And I don't know if you intended to use the term laboratory animal in the same way as a lab rat, but that's the tone I got from that. They are not laboratory animals. They have not been tested in any way other than to see their behaviors towards humans. (I'm not sure if there is any other research facility like the one in Russia that actually studies specifically foxes, but that's what I am referring to right now.) If anything, call them research animals.

    As for the ethics of it, Only people who are responsible and devoted enough for exotic pets Should care for them. Most of the time that is true but there will always be someone who will get one for the sake of having one. I am alright with people owning foxes. They already have lived alongside humans, not exactly as pets but neighbors to human towns and cities, for so long that they are not as afraid of us as other wild animals. Research is even trying to prove that they have the right genes to be able to become domesticated. Whether or not that is true about all animals with that gene can become domesticated is up for debate but foxes can be domesticated. And domesticated animals can be good pets.

    No matter how long debates go over the ethics of it, people can't entirely be stopped from doing it anyways. That's why we have all of our domesticated species now. The same will go for finding out about creatures like foxes. We will find out, by whatever means, how their bodies function and what is best for them in nutrition, physical exercise, curing their diseases, and social interactions. If we don't try to find out, we will never know.

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  12. Wow, who knew that this post was going to be so controversial? I wonder how you guys are all finding it.

    I think the main place where I differ from the people who have commented is that I have a gut feeling that we should not add to the array of animals we already have available to us as pets. I am engaging in some introspection to try to figure out why I feel that way -- since I definitely don't think it is wrong to have pets in general, so long as you take good care of them. Maybe I'll have a post about the ethics of exotic pets and domesticating new species at some point.

    I did want to address one statement from this most recent commenter, who said that the foxes "are not laboratory animals. They have not been tested in any way other than to see their behaviors towards humans." Actually, there is ongoing research on them to discover thing about how their chemistry works and what actually makes them act the way they do. It's very interesting stuff and I have been meaning to blog about it! But yes, they are definitely kept as a research population, and they are sacrificed just as other research animals are, to better see changes in their brains and things like that. I'm not going to get ito the ethics of that here, just say that it is indeed what they are currently used for.

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  13. FYI foxes are solitary, plus they love you so much they may not feel bad not seeing another fox. But larger dogs may be a problem if you take them to dog parks. To bad the Russians are underfunded to study their foxes more. =(

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    1. Not true, foxes are social creatures, often live in groups. They only hunt solitary since their prey items are of such a small size that they can't be shared with other members.
      Besides; only 5% of the breed is selected as a petfox, what happens to the other 95%? I don't think they'll end up in a happy home, by buying a petfox from these people, you actually support this insanity.

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  14. This article is just down right ridiculous. Your sending the "f*** this whole idea" vibe and the "well this could work" vibe. Pull your head out of your a$$ and realize that this is for the sake of science; So not only are you ignorant to say it's for fun and profit, you are also pathetic for thinking anyone gives a damn about your scrambled up opinion.

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    1. FYI : the origins of this study was comissioned by the fur trade to see if they could make furfoxes more 'handable', and since every organisation (the furtrade aswell as the russian goverment) pulled the plug on this 'science project' for beeing unimportant they now sell their 'petfoxes' to fund their business. So technically yes, it is a science project, but of no actual benefit.

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    2. FYI : it wasn't commisioned by the fur trade, it is an investigation on the topic of domestication of species and the retention of juvenile traits initiated in soviet russia

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  15. Anonymous: You may be interested in a post I wrote about some of the things we have learned from our research on the silver foxes: http://dogzombie.blogspot.com/2011/07/repost-learning-from-domesticated-foxes.html. The discussion in this post wasn't about use of the foxes for science, but whether it's a good idea to keep them as pets (which is a separate enterprise, for the most part).

    If you post here again, it would be lovely if you could moderate your tone a little, though. It's totally fine to disagree with me, but it's nice to present your disagreements in a constructive and polite way.

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  16. I respect your opinion,but still think you're mistaken in some of your points. I think it's good that people are looking to other species to make pets, it will only add diversity to our world.

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    1. Foxes are doing very well without any help, so what's the point of tamiong them other then for your own private pleasure?

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    2. the question is not Why?, the real question you should be asking is: Why not?
      If we can do it, there is no reason not to.

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  17. My honest opinion? Taking a fox out of the wild to be your pet: this is wrong. You would be forcing them into living conditions they are not accustomed to and they will feel somewhat threatened. Buying a fox that was born domestic and raised by humans: this is not wrong. They are well adjusted to living with humans and sometimes even enjoy this association. It should also be taken into consideration that an animal born captive might not survive in the wild because of its dependence on humans since birth. As for care, many of the exotic breeders and current or previous fox owners have quite a bit of information.

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  18. In direct reponse to The Dog Zombie: You shouldn't feel as though having foxes as pets is a bad thing by any stretch. What about the other animals which were domesticated over short to long periods of time? The only problem I can see for them, or really any other dometicated animal is having abusive/careless owners. Unfortunately there is little that can be done to prevent this issue. Anyways, if you do infact feel so strongly on not having foxes as pets, why not try to find an owner of a fox and ask them about whether or not they have any real problems with their fox and wether or not they believe the fox is happy in it's environment.

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  19. A very interesting fact about the domestication process of the foxes is that scientists think that a lot of parallels can be drawn not only between them and other domesticated animals, but also to us humans. It is believed by some that humans are in the process of “self domestication” to some extend. This makes us able to live in close quarters with each other, be more sociable and tolerate stressful situations ( social demands, little private room, conforming to social rules, noise levels etc.) without resolving to aggressive behavior or fear responses. All these attributes have been seen in the tamed foxes. People/ animals who can tolerate these conditions are more successful in larger city environments which is required of pets. A very simplified example could be that overly aggressive people go to prison and have less kids. This comment might not be very relevant for an ethical discussion but the scientific research is rather interesting and valuable I think. A scientific reason why the foxes should become house hold pets is that it could help preserve this project by spreading out the genetical material of the foxes. Right now the foxes are mostly kept in one location which means that if a disease were to hit it could in the worst case scenario wipe out the population of tame foxes and the work of 50 years of selective breeding.

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  20. Owning a domesticated fox has been a nightmare. We have been bitten several times. Never have an animal this high strung around a child. Bad idea to make a fox a pet.

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    1. I would suppose the vertict will ultimately depend on feedback from private owners as to how well they behave as pets. If they all behave as badly as the above fox owner claims, the pet idea will probably fizzle out really fast.

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  21. (Different Anonymous)

    I don't see anything inherently wrong with the idea of domesticating new species. With the way humanity is destroying the habitats of the world, it may be the only way to save some species from extinction at our hands. However, the idea of inbreeding animals from the start in order to make them more attractive as pets, or the idea of allowing those with no experience in handling semi-domesticated or wild animals can only end in disaster (mostly for the animals involved). Sadly, you just have to look at the way society reacts to certain breeds of dog who have been mishandled by humans to see proof of this. Until humans can prove themselves capabale of being mature and sensible about keeping animal companions, I think it's only right that the breeding of certain animals should be left to the experts, and that pets that are not to be part of the breeding stock should be neutered before being handed over to the public (regardless of the price tag). Otherwise you end up with irresponsible (and currently unregulated) breeders who compulsively breed for certain physical attributes regardless of the effects on the health and wellbeing of the animals involved. Unless the animals are being bred for a purpose which requires you to selectively breed the strongest and healthiest animals (as with most working breeds) you will end up with distorted "breed standards". These are decided by cretins who put appearances over health, selling overpriced animals to more cretins who don't do their research and want to own the animal because they think it looks "cute". If currently wild animals are to be domesticated, it should be done by experts with an eye on genetic diversity, NOT by people who just want to exploit animals for money.

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  22. It is absolutely unethical to domesticate a fox. We have enough problems with pet overpopulation as it is. Want a pet that looks like a fox? Find a dog that needs a home from a shelter. Save a life, don't make another species dependent on humans.

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  23. This is definitely today's version of the guy who stood around the fire saying "that wolf is wild for a reason, stop trying to train it." And for everyone else who thinks its wrong, i guess scientific research is wrong. I guess the education of humanity should just take a back seat to your personal ethics and beliefs. The bottom line here is that they have domesticated an animal whether you approve or not. If someone who loves animals is looking for a pet and would give one a loving home, saving it from living in a lab all its life or worse, being euthenized for population control, then the lot of you people who oppose these animals as pets are just not animal lovers at all. Any animal lover would welcome a domesticated animal that was as beautiful and well behaved as these seem to be, and aside from the cost, I would be a silver fox's best friend without hesitation.

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  24. Personally I think the greatest problem with a pet fox is the animosity from other pets. Unless constant contact with people and domestication somehow changes the "scent" of the fox, it's likely to trigger predator/prey reflexes in other animals. Also, with wild, urban foxes around, what would happen to the reaction of cats (amongst other pets) that become used to the pet fox? Would it then lose its flight instinct and become a tasty treat for the wild fox?

    This is of course after the usual concerns of suitable pet ownership, etc...

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  25. Interesting discussion. As a part of my study of the domestication process in plants and animals during graduate school 20 years ago I read about the Russians' work on silver fox domestication with great fascination. Now that they have shown that a species can be domesticated in a very few number of generations simply by selecting for friendliness to humans, attempts will no doubt be made to do the same for other species, especially canids. I agree with the commenters who noted that this represents a human-induced increase in genetic diversity (though minor in contrast to the morphological and behavior changes) within a species, and could actually improve the prospects of survival for some species - especially large predators that need lots of space - as humans take over more and more of the world's space and resources with our burgeoning population. Imagine a domesticated version of the maned wolf, african wild dog, asian dhole, or channel islands fox, for example, desired and loved in human homes, carrying the genes of their wild ancestors into the future, and even ultimately "returning" to the wild should conditions for survival become available again. We have seen such a reversal of the domestication process in the case of the Australian Dingo, and feral dogs, pigs, and cats have no problems living on their own. Presumeably a similarly small number of generations would be required to "undomesticate" a species as "tameness" is selected out of the population.

    I agree also with the idea that humans show signs of self-domestication, such as retention of juvenile traits into adulthood (e.g. playfulness, large head, flattened face, smaller nose), naked body (a la Chinese crested, Mexican hairless, and now rat terrier dogs), dampened fight or flight instincts.

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