Dogs have been evolving as human companions for at least about 14,000 years. Cats have lived with us for 12,000. But if you want something a little more cutting edge–and you’re willing to pay up– a pet fox might be just the thing.
Domestication started just 55 years ago, but because Russian geneticists methodically bred just the friendliest foxes, a handful of charming, domesticated and trainable foxes are available today.
While foxes are the most common carnivore in the wild, this new pseudo-breed is one of the rarest domesticated animals in the world, with only a hundred or so in existence, all of them bred from animals in Russia. Importing a fox currently costs about $9,000.
But the money isn’t going to a kind of fox puppy mill: That hefty sum supports science and rescues the sweet animal (which looks like a cross between a wolf and the fluffy Shiba Inu but only weighs about 10 pounds.)
Mitch Kalmanson, a Florida exotic pet owner and insurance agent with all the right, obscure licenses, has exported 10 foxes, keeping three for himself. He’s the only one selling them in the U.S. and has also exported them to Europe. Russians buy domestic both domestic foxes and mink from the lab. “When these puppies are lying there with their eyes still closed, they’ll whimper for you.” Kalmanson says. “The wild ones will hiss and really snarl at you.”
In dark corners of America, people have been capturing, breeding, and raising foxes for years, but these are almost not the same species as the Russian foxes. “People who buy them at a flea market are basically getting a farm animal. They’re cute and cuddly at first, but after a year, they turn nasty,” Kalmanson says. His pet foxes curl around his feet, eat a diet halfway between that of cats and dogs, and enjoy treats of marshmallows. One, Dante, “will roll upside down and let you scratch his belly and laugh.” Prada and Pusha like to untie shoelaces, jump up on people’s backs.
Kalmanson himself flies to Siberia to retrieve the foxes personally and escort them through a visit to the Russian national veterinarian in Moscow and then through U.S. Customs. Before him, two companies collapsed under the weight of the paperwork of bringing what could variously be classified as a wild, farm, exotic, or companion animal. In December he’ll fly to Siberia again for three to five fox pups–one for “someone very well known for what he does.” (Let’s hope it’s not Justin Bieber, a famously terrible exotic pet owner.)
The whole project to domesticate foxes started in 1959 on a scientific outpost near Kazakhstan where geneticist Dmitry Belyaev wanted to see how quickly humans could tame a species by breeding on behavior alone. In what became one of the most famous biological experiments of the 20th century, Belyaev showed the world showed that domestication–and by extension, evolution–could work faster than anyone imagined.
Belyaev started with a population of fur farm foxes and chose the friendliest 10%–the 130 animals that were rated the least likely to attack or run from people. Within four generations, some foxes were wagging tails. By generation six, 1.8% were deemed the “elite of domestication”; they eagerly sought human friends. By generation 10, it was 18% and by 20 it was double that. Curiously, the friendly gene came attached to some other physical genes that made the foxes look like other domestic animals: curly tails, white faces, droopy ears. It took only about 35 years to completely domesticate the species.
Perhaps most surprising of all, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia, is still breeding and improving the animal. After around 50,000 foxes, they are now releasing them to the public. Several years ago they turned to the international public as an alternative source of funding. They only take the most friendly to breed the next generation. The rest (besides those in the evil twin version of this experiment, in which biologists picked the ones that treat humans the worst) may be sent back to the fur farm next door–or just for more breeding experiments. Kalmanson says that about 15 to 25 foxes are available each year.
He pays the lab $3,200 for each fox. Shipping the fox in a custom-designed crate is $1,700. He also pays for all the vaccines and neutering (so you don’t run your own domestic fox experiments at home). The foxes arriving now in the United States are even more pet-like than those just a few years ago, Kalmanson says. The experiment protocol calls for only “time dosed” interactions with humans to select animals to breed on traits that are innate, not trained. That’s the big distinction between individual “tame” wild animals and a species selectively bred–domesticated–to live with people. When those foxes that only had brief human interactions came to the U.S., they lived in outdoor, digging-proof pens.
Kalmanson asked that the ones destined to be pets be given longer interactions with people. He supplied harnesses for long walks. Some Russian graduate students have adopted them as pets. Now when the foxes arrive here, they are treated much like a dog, even going on trips to stores.
But even if you can buy a domesticated fox, should you? Kalmanson’s business is controversial. He keeps pet tigers and insures other exotic pet owners (including someone privately holding a gorilla and Bubbles, the chimp best known as the
former BFF of Michael Jackson). But even he says these foxes are a world apart from the ones sold around the United States by backyard breeders for $400 to $600. Many of these animals have the same telltale white faces as those bred for domestication. But, the Russian experiment proves, Kalmanson says, that what it takes to truly domesticate an animal is thousands of years. Or when you can’t wait that long, thousands of animals and a massive breeding program.