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Domesticated Foxes: Man's New Best Friend?
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Domesticated Foxes: Man's New Best Friend?

Animals

Domesticated Foxes: Man's New Best Friend?
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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.

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