Forget the henhouse, the fox could be in your house.
Various news agencies around the globe are carrying a story about wacky Russian “scientists” breeding foxes toward domestication and the eventual pet market.
“We will infiltrate the evil capitalistic Americanski pet market with an irresistible little killer,” said Igor Vodka Wilkovich.
Okay, I made the quote up. The fact remains a program started in 1959 to determine how wild foxes — kept in captivity and fed an unnatural slurry of ground animal organs — might become domesticated canines.
First, here’s a word for my wildlife and exotic animal veterinarian friends: You are right, we need to domesticate another wild species for our self-centered pet market like we need to test nuclear weapons above ground again. For anyone who has ever watched a wild fox play in a meadow jumping straight up in the air to catch grasshoppers, the joy that sight brings far, far outweighs any desire to see them bred and sold as pets.
The next issue is that foxes have been reared and cross-bred in captivity for decades, if not centuries, for the fur industry. Instead of selecting for “friendly” foxes, fur farmers selected for fur qualities and later disease resistance, too. There is plenty to study and learn from there.
If you really want to look at an animal species that switches from domestic to feral and can go back again, check out swine. The feral swine problem is a real plague in many states. Domestic pigs that escape, can revert as a matter of survival to a feral form, complete with developing tusks, in a matter of months. Their remarkable reproduction rate and extraordinary intelligence enables them to avoid shooters and predation to quickly overpopulate and destroy valuable and important environments.
Once established, feral swine control is about the only possibility with extermination being almost impossible. This is one reason that if you want to see a Western game agency jump up and get to work, mention there has been a swine escape or that you spotted feral swine somewhere.
Back to the foxes, understand that so far the Russian experiment has been a lot like baby squirrels. People often find and rear juvenile squirrels which are at first a cute novelty pet. Some even go to the expense of having one spayed or neutered hoping to make it a permanent pet. What really happens is about the time they reach early adulthood, spayed or not, they start getting a lot friskier than most people can tolerate. And, when they don’t want to be your toy anymore, they like to bite and scamper away.
When Soviet geneticists Dmitry Belyaev and Ludmila Trut launched the fox experiment at a scientific research center near Novosibirsk, the goal was to understand how the domestication syndrome worked by domesticating foxes. They made the mistake of saying they wanted to know how they “could have evolved into the loyal and loving dogs” we know now.
Fact is, they didn’t. The two are at least 10,000 to 16,000 years apart, too long to study in real time.
Belyaev died in 1985, and the experiment was all but kaputski when the USSR fell in 1991, and the Red Army had to sell off tanks and guns for bread and coal. Current researcher Yuri Gerbek told news outlets, “We are trying to understand which genes change and how they change.” He is one of about 15 scientists working currently at the 1,000-head fox farm.
My guess is they still sell off pelts to stay in business.
Bottom line? Leave wildlife wild.
Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service.