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Animals
1:41 pm
Sun March 18, 2012

Domesticated Foxes: Man's New Best Friend?

For thousands of years, dogs have been our companions. After countless generations of selective breeding, they've become hard-wired to follow human commands: sit, lie down, jump, even shake.

So far, most other animals don't come close. But what if they could?

In 1954 a Russian geneticist named Dmitry Belyaev wanted to isolate the genes that make dogs so easy to train. He started a fox farm in Siberia and set out to do with foxes in one lifetime what took dogs thousands of years.

Belyaev died in 1985, but others carried on his work; 50,000 foxes later, the project isn't complete, but it's close.

"So close. It's the last step," Ceiridwen Terrill tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

Terrill is associate professor of Science Writing and Environmental Journalism at Concordia University of Portland, Ore. She's also the author of Part Wild: One Woman's Journey with a Creature Caught Between the Worlds of Wolves and Dogs, a book about raising a dog-wolf hybrid.

Terrill recently visited Belyaev's fox farm, which she says looks like dilapidated army barracks.

"What you have are rows and rows of sheds that house about a hundred foxes each," she says. "There's about 3,000 foxes on-site."

Those foxes are so tame, Terrill was able to reach into one of the cages and give a fox a good belly-scratching.

"They're genetically designed to crave human contact," she says, "so that fox loved having its belly scratched."

Terrill says there are individual foxes who have been able to sit and fetch on command. But to prove true domestication, "it's really important that we see it on a large scale. It has to be in a systematic way," she adds.

"The experiment demonstrated that these foxes are indeed genetically tame," Terrill says. "Now what we don't know is if these foxes are truly domestic. And that can only be done by socialization and training. We won't know if that's possible unless foxes and humans are living together."

The experimental Siberian farm is selling fox cubs to allay its financial difficulties, but Terrill says they're not going to make good house pets.

"They promise that for just under $7,000, that you can get a fox on your front door that's four months old," she says. "Well, at four months old, the fox's socialization window has closed.

"They haven't been socialized to life in a human household in the way that a dog has, for example."

Better by far, Terrill says, to choose one of the many millions of dogs and cats who end up in American shelters every year.

"We have so many companion animals in desperate need of homes," she says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

From an unseasonably warm winter to a place where winter never seems to end: Siberia. And it was there outside a small town in 1954 where a Russian geneticist named Dmitry Belyaev set out to isolate the genes that make dogs so easy to train - well, most dogs.

Anyway, Belyaev decided he'd work with wild foxes. He wanted to compress 50,000 years of evolution into a few decades, basically breed foxes to fetch and roll over and cuddle up at the foot of your bed. Belyaev died in the mid-1980s, but the project continues at that same fox farm in Siberia.

Ceiridwen Terrill, a researcher and professor at Concordia University in Portland, recently visited the fox farm and told us all about it.

CEIRIDWEN TERRILL: It looks like a rundown army barracks, actually.

RAZ: In the middle of Siberia.

TERRILL: Yes. It's outside of a town called Akademgorodok, which means academic town. It's the scientific center of Siberia.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TERRILL: And the farm itself is quite dilapidated, so what you have are rows and rows of sheds that house about 100 foxes each in three-by-three wire cubes each one.

RAZ: Hundred foxes in those small, confined spaces.

TERRILL: That's right. There's about 3,000 foxes on site.

RAZ: We have some audio from your time there. You can actually hear the foxes. Let's listen to this for a moment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Mm-hmm. Yes.

TERRILL: A little bit. This one worked.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Mm-hmm.

TERRILL: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOXES HOWLING)

RAZ: When you see the video, they're literally pressing up against the fence. They want to lick you. You're kind of petting them. The cage opens up and there's a fox that just lies on its back and you're scratching its belly like a dog. This is a fox.

TERRILL: It's a fox, and it really is desirous of human contact. They're genetically designed to crave human contact. So that fox loved having its belly scratched.

RAZ: Fifty-four years on, how close are they to domesticating and taming wild foxes?

TERRILL: So close. It's the last step, the last step. We are at a genetically tame population right now. What would be required at this point to see if they are truly a domestic population of foxes is to take fox kits as pups and begin socializing them to people and then beginning a training program of the like that we would put dogs through.

RAZ: I mean, could they - do any of these foxes seem to be willing to fetch or to sit on command or do anything like that?

TERRILL: There have been individual foxes, yes, who have demonstrated the ability to sit and the ability to fetch. The thing with domestication is we can't just rely on a handful of individual cases. It's really important that we see it on a large scale. It has to be in a systematic way.

RAZ: Professor Terrill, some people listening to this, some people, they're going to say I want a pet fox. Where can I get one?

TERRILL: Personally, I hope that this doesn't become another pet industry because for the reason that we have so many companion animals in desperate need of homes. I mean, in the United States alone, six to eight million cats and dogs enter our shelters every single year. So you can buy a pet fox through...

RAZ: This fox farm has actually sold some foxes, right?

TERRILL: Yes. Because the experiment is broke, and so one of the ways to try to recoup some costs has been to sell a few of the foxes into the exotic pet trade. And there is a company in the United States that acts as a private distributor. You know, they promised for just under $7,000 that you can get a fox on your front door that's four months old.

Well, at four months old, the fox's socialization window has closed. So those adult foxes, they arrive on the doorstep and, you know, it's advised that they're kept in a cage. So they haven't been socialized to life in a human household in the way that a dog has, for example.

RAZ: Has this project in any way shed any light on how dogs became domestic? I mean, do we have a better sense of how that happened based on the experiment that the Russian scientists have done with foxes?

TERRILL: The experiment demonstrated that these foxes are indeed genetically tame. Now, what we don't know is if these foxes are truly domestic. And we won't know if that's possible unless foxes and humans are living together.

RAZ: That's Professor Ceiridwen Terrill. She is the author of a book called "Part Wild: One Woman's Journey with a Creature Cut Between the Worlds of Wolves and Dogs," speaking about her recent visit to a fox farm in Siberia. Professor Terrill, thank you so much.

TERRILL: Pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.