Do a YouTube search for pretty much any smallish animal you can think of and there'll be several videos of a "tame" or "pet" version. Any feline, any canid, any mustelid (weasel), any procyonid (raccoon), any non-bonkers primate (baboons, which are completely terrifying, are exempt). Look at my pet kinkajou, my pet genet, my pet fennec fox, my pet ocelot. And then on the videos of cute furry animals in the wild, you'll see the comments: "omg i want it." When the internet sees a video of a red panda, the internet wants a red panda. Even though a red panda is endangered and a wild animal.
In 1959, a Soviet geneticist named Dmitry K. Belyaev began somewhat secretively experimenting with breeding domesticated foxes. More than five decades, thousands of foxes, and one collapse of the Soviet Union later, the program continues at The Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk, Siberia. Belyaev wanted to unlock the secrets of domestication, the links between behavior and breeding and physical traits, but plenty of non-scientists are aware of the project for a different reason: foxes are adorable, and we want to hug them, and we want them to like it.
But domesticated foxes, which can only be found at that Siberian facility, are not horrible pets. They're a little unconventional, and they require a little bit of extra attention, but if you want a pet fox, you can have a pet fox. All you need is $8,000 and the approval of Kay Fedewa, the exclusive importer of domesticated foxes in the US.
Domestication is not like taming. You can tame many wild animals so they won't try to kill you, by raising them from birth, but that's just learned behavior; that animal is unlikely to exhibit what we know as affection toward you, and the behavior it does have is not passed down to the tamed animal's offspring. Domestication is actually change at the genetic level: an animal repeatedly breeds, either through intentional human effort or not (or a combination of the two), to emphasize certain behavioral traits. In the case of animals that would, in the wild, be aggressive towards humans, those traits are easy to decide on: we want the most docile, least aggressive, and least skittish animal.
The Institute picked foxes on which to experiment for a few reasons. They're canids, like dogs, so it would be easy to compare them to a domesticated species, but they're not particularly closely related to dogs, so there's enough separation to see how forced domestication affects a new species. Also, these foxes were already "tame"--they were picked up from fur farms in Siberia, so they had a jump-start in adjusting to humans. But theoretically, you could domesticate just about any wild animal: mink have been domesticated in Denmark, and some have proposed domestication of certain rare but cuddly animals, like red pandas, as a means to save the species.
The Soviet (and later, Russian) study out there in Siberia did eventually breed a domesticated silver fox (read: a red fox with silver fur) that's pretty close to our dream fox. It loves and craves attention from people, it'll lick your face, it'll cuddle with you, it'll wag its giant puffy tail when it sees you, it'll play with toys in your house while you try to take the perfect Instagram picture of it. Wild foxes will not do this; they will either run away from you or attempt to bite your face off. Tame foxes may not flee or attack, but they also won't cuddle. These domesticated foxes, on the other hand, have between 30 and 35 generations of selective breeding behind them, with careful monitoring to ensure a lack of inbreeding, and they're not even close to wild--in fact, they probably wouldn't survive in the wild.
After a few generations, the results began to get a little weird. The study found that though they were selectively breeding only for behavior, they began seeing new common physical traits. The animals developed different coat patterns, floppier ears, tails that curled over their backs--totally unknown in wild foxes. When we tried to breed a fox that would act more like a dog, we ended up with a fox that looked more like a dog. But they're not as easy to acquire as a dog.
For a brief time, a company called SibFox was selling foxes bred at the Siberian lab. They were selling for about $6,000, but it's not clear that anyone ever actually received one of these foxes. The Daily reported that two foxes that actually shipped to the States ended up confiscated at the US border and shipped to the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary, where they are doing "wonderfully." Apparently these foxes were kept in dog kennels, which is improper, and weren't fed or watered properly--by all accounts, the SibFox people were not licensed and were inexperienced at importing exotic animals. The only upside is that the animals survived the journey from Russia. SibFox refunded the customers' money, stopped responding to emails, and shut down their website. Until now, SibFox was the closest anyone in the US had gotten to receiving a domesticated fox.
Then there are breeders like Tiny Tracks Exotic Animals, located outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana, specializing in several varieties of fox (red fox, gray fox, and arctic fox) as well as supposedly tame raccoons, skunks, and coatis (a Central/South American mammal closely related to the raccoon). Want a pet arctic fox? That'll run you $600. Red foxes are a little cheaper, at $400. That's cheaper than a skunk ($450) and waaaay cheaper than something more exotic, like a kinkajou, which runs anywhere from $1,200 to $3,000. For comparison, a purebred Siberian husky can run you anywhere from $400 to $2,000, depending on its breeding and the reputation of the breeder.
But none of these foxes, the ones that cost a few hundred dollars, are "domesticated." They are wild foxes. Wild foxes are not pets; they are wild animals. The word "tame" means essentially nothing here--it mostly means "nice when it's a baby." The foxes from Siberia are pets. Foxes from Indiana? Wild.
(Tiny Tracks repeatedly did not respond to requests for comment; Kay Fedewa described the people who run it as "not very nice people, really quite rude, even to the people they're selling animals to.")
Indiana is something of a promised land for exotic pet farms and owners, a libertarian wonderland where for a mere ten-dollar processing fee you can have a pet grizzly bear. Neighboring Kentucky, hardly a state you'd think would be prude about wild animals, is a fairly typical example of state laws: anything "inherently dangerous," which includes venomous animals (snakes, lizards), huge animals (hippos, elephants), and animals that would prefer to murder you than let you pat them on the head (big cats, bears, baboons) are all outlawed. But so is any animal that has never naturally lived in Kentucky, mostly to avoid issues with invasive species. Most states simply ban any normally "wild" animal from being kept as a pet.
But not Indiana! Indiana has three classes of wild animals. Class 1 is mostly squirrels. Class 2 includes foxes, beavers, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, and weasels. Class 3 includes "venomous reptiles," and all species of bear, big cat, and wolf. All three classes are legal! In fact, the only thing that separates Class 3 animals, which are banned pretty much everywhere else, is that a letter is sent to the hopeful leopard-owner's neighbors. If 25 or more neighbors respond with a letter saying they are not interested in having a leopard on the block, the leopard is not allowed. Otherwise, no problem, sir. What's your leopard's name?
Even more insane is that Indiana provides no law preventing you from owning an endangered species. Here's what the state document says: "Endangered species of wild animals will be considered Class I, II or III by the division director’s designee and must follow the same procedures accordingly for that class of animal." So, basically, your local bureaucrat will decide if your pet western lowland gorilla is a Class 2 or 3 animal, then you give him a ten-spot for processing, and you're all set, the proud owner of one of about fourteen western lowland gorillas. Maybe you can take it to see the home of former president Benjamin Harrison in the lovely Old Northside Historic District of Indianapolis.
It's worth noting that Maine is even more lenient than Indiana; the only real law in Maine is that wild animals have to have an identification tag. Yet Mainers seem mostly uninterested in owning pet jaguarundis, at least in comparison with Hoosiers.
Foxes are only legal in a handful of states. This is a pretty good guide. In some the laws are a little flexible; in Michigan, where Fedewa lives, you can have only a native species, meaning the various colors of red fox. The grey fox, which is a totally different species more commonly found in the western and southern states, is not allowed, nor is the arctic or fennec fox. A few states simply ban taking foxes from the wild. But the laws are often vague and open to interpretation, which can lead to trouble for fox owners who may or may not be in violation.single page
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