Why I went to Siberia:
I was writing my book Part Wild, my personal story about raising a wolfdog, an animal both dog and wolf, who turned out to have a very “wolfy” brain. No matter how much I enriched her environment, no matter how much I trained with her, she remained driven by wild instincts including the constant urge to roam and to defend territory and resources, more or less indifferent to my human agenda. She braved fences reinforced with 5,000 volts of electricity. She hunted neighbors’ pets and livestock. She reprimanded me with her teeth for breaches of wolfy etiquette. By contrast, the two pound puppies I brought home wanted nothing more than to stick close and please me. They acted impulsively at times; they had drives of their own. But because they were domestic animals, they could–with training, most of the time–inhibit those drives in favor of doing what I wanted them to do. I wanted to understand why my dogs were so different from Inyo, my wolfdog, and I wondered whether Belyaev’s foxes, who are genetically tame, might represent an intermediate step, a kind of “missing link.”
Dmitry K. Belyaev was clear: Along with achieving certain physiological benchmarks of domestication, which included the ability to reproduce outside a strictly seasonal pattern, the foxes would be fully domestic when they obeyed human commands as dogs do.
In every paper he wrote, Belyaev insisted on dog behavior as the benchmark his foxes must achieve in order to be domestic. Not cat behavior or horse behavior or the behavior of any other domestic animal: dog behavior, including both eagerness and capacity to obey human commands.
What I found when I got there:
A population of genetically tame foxes, selectively bred over 51 generations to welcome, even crave, human contact. These animals were not “tame,” which is learned tolerance for the nearness of people and cannot be passed to offspring. These were “genetically tame” animals whose tame behavior is inherited and passed on to the next generation. However, major obstacles stand in the way of classifying the foxes as “domestic.”
- Belyaev considered the dog’s semi-annual breeding cycle a benchmark of its domestication, and in 1969 he noted hopefully that “those foxes which behaved most like dogs showed signs of reproductive activity outside their characteristic season.” Yet in the forty-three years since, the experiment has yielded only a few out-of-season matings and a somewhat lengthened breeding season. Overall, Belyaev’s foxes are still bound by the reproductive cycle of Vulpes vulpes, becoming fertile only once a year.
- They live in 3×3 wire cubes, not with people. The foxes are not socialized or trained. Results of testing by anthropologist Brian Hare and his team have shown that Belyaev’s foxes respond to pointing cues almost as well as dogs. But although we have the occasional anecdote of a fox walking on a leash or another sitting for a treat, Lyudmila Trut tells me that the friendly foxes are not as submissive to people as dogs, her remark suggesting that the foxes may not be as eager to comply with commands as dogs are. Nevertheless, they’ve never been given a chance to show what they can do. “If the fox kits could be raised and trained the way dog puppies are now, there is no telling what sort of animal they might one day become,” she said.
- The classic definition of “domestic” is this: A domestic animal of any species is a representative of a wild species, differing from its ancestor by a set of morphological, physiological, ethological, and behavioral traits, by which it is reclassified as a separate species from its wild ancestor. We might also add “ecological niche” to the set of characteristics that separate domestic animals from their wild cousins. For example, domestic dogs live with people. Living with humans is the domestic dog’s ecological niche. They are no longer suited to life in the wild. When and if Belyaev’s foxes reach a state of domesticity, Vulpes vulpes will be reclassified as Vulpes familiaris. Belyaev hoped one day to have a population of domestic foxes, but as Lyudmila Trut put it: “So far [Belyaev’s foxes] still belong to Vulpes vulpes…For now, the differences between tame and wild foxes haven’t yet reached ones between species. We need to set [the] foxes free from their cages and settle them with humans.” A 3×3 wire cage is not an ecological niche.
- Referring to Belyaev’s foxes as “domestic” is a pervasive error—one perpetuated in the popular media (and even among some scientists who carelessly interchange the terms “tame” and “domestic”). We may, in fact, require a whole new term for these foxes. They embody something between genetically tame and domestic. They are beyond the former but not quite the latter.
- Dogs and humans co-evolved, mutually influencing and changing each other. For now, the fox experiment runs one-way—intellectual stimulation and influence runs only from researchers to foxes. Perhaps the foxes are stuck in a seasonal reproductive pattern because they are confined to cages. Interrupting the seasonal cycle might only happen when foxes live with people. (This may have happened with dogs. We don’t know.)
Could foxes be our next pet trend?
Personally, I hope not. We have enough companion animals in desperate need of homes. In the United States, 6-8 million cats and dogs end up in shelters every year. Dogs have been designed to do so many things for us: serve as companions, hunters, herders, guards, disability assistants… They’re a miracle! Martin Luther said: “The dog is the most faithful animal, and it might be held in great worth, if it were not so common.” And he was right.
The scope and ambition of the project is impressive. But I found the conditions personally very distressing, and hardly slept during my visit. Over the course of my visit, many foxes shoved their noses against the doors when I opened their cages, trying to push past me and get out. Each evening, when I returned to the Golden Valley Hotel, picking fur out of my teeth and smelling of fox musk, the guard at the door, his Nikonov assault rifle slung over his shoulder, wrinkled his nose as I passed. I would spend all night recalling the dilapidated shed rows, containing hundreds of bare wire cages devoid of stimulation, where genetically tame foxes, selectively bred to need human touch and affection, would spend their whole lives alone. Frankly, the situation distresses the experimenters too.
And then, what are the so-called “pet” foxes really like? Their window of socialization is long over by the time they arrive from Russia at 4 months old. They can’t be left alone in the house; they must be caged. Even if it’s a larger cage, it’s still a cage. According to wolf-behavior specialist and dog trainer Beth Duman, Belyaev’s foxes still have to pass the “Can I Stand to Live with These Critters?” test. And of course the test also applies in reverse: Can the “critters” stand to live with us?
What does the future hold:
Director of the Canine Cognition Lab, Clive Wynne, has been trying to secure grant money for testing “to clarify once and for all if the foxes are analogous to dogs.” Establishing control groups for comparison, he would like to hand-rear and socialize the foxes. There may be more surprises to come, but financing is needed to push the experiment forward and to ensure that the foxes are more humanely housed and provided with the regular human contact they were designed to need. The foxes are begging us to think outside the box.