Yeah, you heard me right. The domesticated fox is a thing. It's also known as the Siberian Fox and the Novosibirsk Fox. In 1959, in Soviet Novosibirsk Russia, Dmitri Belyaev set up a secret fox breeding program. Well, the program wasn't a secret, but the purpose was. He wanted to see if foxes could be bred for friendliness to humans the way scientists thought dogs were bred from wolves. Lucky for us, it worked!
So freaking cute!! They started out with run-of-the mill fur farm red foxes. While still a young kit, the researchers would approach the animal's cage. If it acted less threatened than its peers, it was bred with another courageous fox. After generations of breeding, the foxes are not only friendly; they have different physical traits from their plain-ol' fox ancestors. Their snouts are shorter, eyes larger, ears floppier, and different coloring emerged: like spotted coats and blue eyes. They also naturally recognize the meaning of a pointed finger, a trait shared with domesticated dogs. (And incidentally, not shared with some of our closest primate relatives, like chimps.)
The breeding program is still going on. It's now called The Institute of Cytology and Genetics and it's run by Lyudmila Trut. Here she is with one of her adult foxes:
Remember the way they filtered out the friendliest foxes for breeding? Well, if a fox showed aggressive tendencies it was... well... destined to be a coat. Or maybe a hat. Anyway, that's how these folks have been funding their research. Now, they also sell the friendly foxes as pets! A domesticated fox currently cost around $8,000 according to their website. A bit steep, for sure, but it's near the top of my list of things I'd blow tons of "extra" money" on if I ever had such a thing.
Photo from National Geographic
Even if you're poor like me, (or more wealthy, but not that much more) you can still help these lovely creatures find loving homes. It is currently illegal to own foxes as pets in some U.S. states. (Probably because most foxes would not make great pets.) There is a petition you can sign to ask U.S. legislators to change this policy, and they desperately need signatures. And here's one more cute photo to motivate you to sign:
The Domestic Fox is an English-language portal to the The Institute of Cytology and Genetics. Go here if you have that extra $8000, or if you'd just like to see more pictures.
I first heard about the domestic fox on a Radiolab podcast from October 2009.
Here's the fox story exerpt. (18 min 31 sec)
Here's the full episode. (1 hour)