So what's it like to have a domesticated fox as a pet? Not quite like a dog, says Fedewa--a fox isn't a cool-looking dog, it's a different animal with different behavioral quirks. "Foxes are highly intelligent," says Fedewa, "and because of that they're ridiculously curious." Fedewa's fox, Anya, is not very big--only about 10 pounds, the weight of a mid-sized cat, though with her fluffy winter fur, she appears much larger. Anya is prone to digging up potted plants and chewing on them; foxes have a much stronger digging impulse than domesticated dogs. They also need an outdoor enclosure. Fedewa's cost a few thousand dollars to build and is filled with sand so Anya can dig. And fox urine is a major problem: Fedewa says you should "imagine cat pee, but a million times worse. It smells like skunk, it's the most pungent thing in the universe. If it gets in your carpet, you need a special enzyme to break it down, so if your fox marks [your home], that's pretty destructive." Some foxes can be house-trained to use a litter box, but they will still sometime mark their environment.
Anya is also not quite as trainable as a domestic dog; she can obey some commands, but has a shorter attention span than most dogs. Going for walks is also tricky. Fedewa says Anya will walk on a leash, but doesn't like it much--she thinks Anya feels exposed and is tense and nervous. Neighbors, too, have been a problem. Fedewa had to move once already. A neighbor called the city, who sent over investigators and told her she was not allowed to have the fox. This is not legally accurate, but the legal fees required to fight that battle outweighed Fedewa's desire to stay put. So she moved, to a more forgiving property with about an acre of land in the southeastern corner of Michigan.
Those are minor hurdles for Fedewa, if they even are hurdles. That's what comes with owning a fox. And in truth, those are very minor issues in the world of exotics. Anya is affectionate, which hardly any exotics are; she plays, she recognizes and craves attention from her owner. She has quirks, but she is, distinctly, a pet. Both Fedewa and Kalmanson are vocal about this distinction: exotic, non-domesticated animals are not pets, and during my interviews, both Fedewa and Kalmanson expressed disdain (mild from Fedewa, blunt from Kalmanson) for private citizens who want to make wild animals their pets. But Anya is a pet.
We as humans have a desire to make the cuter wild animals our pets, an impulse sometimes called "Bambi syndrome." It's a very peculiar impulse. Wanting a pet is not peculiar, of course. Stanley Coren, professor emeritus in the psychology department at the University of British Columbia and expert on the subject of the dog-human relationship, reminds us that even though city-dwellers tend to think of domesticated animals in terms of housepet companions, they've been incredibly important throughout human history. "Domestication did not likely begin," he says, "because you really want a cute animal in your house." The prevailing theory is that the domestication of the dog, for example, began as certain dogs found free discarded food around early human settlements. They bred with other dogs that could tolerate being around humans, self-selecting for tameness. Then humans found that these animals could serve a purpose, and bred them accordingly.
Domesticated animals are useful. Dogs are used for hunting, herding, and security; cats are used for pest control, horses for transportation, and a host of livestock animals (cows, sheep, goats, pigs) for food, milk, or fur. But for a large percentage of the first world, that kind of usefulness is mostly a bonus now, in our pursuit of owning a sentient warm cute furry thing that likes us. Your cat caught a mouse? Aw, isn't that cute. Oh, and call the exterminator when you get a chance. Ech, mice.
Domestication of other animals is one of three traits most associated with humans as a species, along with tool use and "symbolic behavior" (language, art, rituals). A study by CalTech and UCLA found that when shown pictures of animals, neurons in test subjects' amygdalas went nuts--regardless of the cuddliness of the animal. In fact, the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes memory and emotion, reacted much more strongly to pictures of animals than to pictures even of people. The theory is that reacting strongly to other animals--be they potential enemy, food, or friend--was an essential development for early man, one that's still found in our brains today.
So, we react strongly to animals. But why do we have the impulse to domesticate wild animals?single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.