Saturday, June 11, 2011

Russian Researchers Domesticate Foxes

I tend to be a bit behind recent events, despite my concerted efforts to watch the news and occasionally read the newspaper. Realizing I myself do not have much money to spend on magazines, my dear mother has sent me copies of some of her National Geographic, and this morning I finally took the time to look through one of them. As I lay in bed surrounded by furry blankets, drinking aromatic coffee and staring occasionally at the frosty world outside, I opened up the March 2011 issue of National Geo 'freshly' arrived in my mailbox and found myself reading an article on one of my favorite topics - foxes.

Something about foxes has always intrigued me. We don't get them here in New Zealand, but I have read about them my whole life, and more recently became interested in the legends and folklore surrounding them in Asian countries like Japan and Korea. There is a long history in these places of foxes being regarding as powerful and dangerous witch animals, capable of magic and transformation, sometimes disguising themselves as humans. Whether malignant or benign, the fox is a revered being in nature, and one branch of Buddhism even links foxes (white foxes in particular) with the rice god Inari. Kij Johnson wrote a wonderful novel on this very topic - one of my favorite books actually - called "The Fox Wife", about a Japanese fox who falls in love with a mortal, and creates an illusory world in which they can be together.

All this wild magic and ancient folklore considered, finding myself reading the article in National Geographic I can only describe my reaction with one word - disturbed. Russian researchers have been working for years on a  genetics project, attempting to produce domesticated foxes, that through selective breeding are chosen for their friendly attitudes towards humans. The foxes are not bred for their intelligence - they are bred for "niceness".Over the last fifty or so years the project has managed to produce foxes and kits that behave considerably like dogs: they have floppy ears, they run up to you when you approach or call them, they chase a ball, etc.

They are even able to be sold as pets, to "wealthy homes".

Now, I love foxes. I think they are enchanting, almost mystical creatures with great skill and cunning - but would I still feel that way if one was sitting at my feet, begging for food? Don't get me wrong, I have dogs of my own and I love them to death - but somehow the wild and untamable aspect of a fox is where much of the appeal lies. Much like the appeal of the wolf, the owl, or the wild cat. The animal that is connected with nature and lives by its own means, by its ability to make it alone.

Many, if not most, of our domesticated animals have lost the talent to survive on their own, if they had to.While I love my animals, I regret this aspect of their heritage which appears to be gone forever. They don't mind - they don't know what they're missing. But would it be more natural for them to be out there, hunting, chasing, running through trees?

Interestingly, the domestication of the foxes brings up the question with researchers - are we ourselves simply domesticated animals, that through breeding have become friendly and house-bound? According to this article - yes. The difference between the domesticated fox and the wild fox is the same difference between a human and a chimpanzee. And in saying that, it's a good difference. The fox is aligned with a more evolved and advanced way of being. Humans don't want to go back to living like apes, do we? No, of course not. So surely we would not wish these beautiful foxes to be wild and unfriendly - oh no!

Whether we know it or not, we are still colonizing the world around us. Imperialism may be all but dead in the western world, but is this research project a sign of something more 21st century and just as sinister - a form of scientific imperialism? Do animals have no place in our future if they do not fit into the boxes of pets or food? Perhaps in 100 years the fox will be an expensive form of dog breed - like a husky. Reminiscent of its ancient wild roots, but tame and subservient all the same.

Next on the research block, I assume, will be the wolf - because what "wealthy home" wouldn't love to show off its brass by owning a domesticated, face-licking and ball-chasing wolf? 


  1. Your point about colonisation, 21st imperialism, really drives home. We have evolved scientifically, but what about our ethics? - Dave Gill.

  2. A friend has just brought to my attention that the research into the domestication of wolves is already underway and not a thing of the future at all. Good to know - and I am glad that I started this article off with stating that I am NOT often up with recent events in the world. I suppose I will have to bite the bullet and subscribe to Nat Geo so as to be more aware of these issues.

  3. Hi again Joel. Interesting post - sort of things the Russians would do (I know a few!). I live in the UK in what I would best describe as a suburban-feel village and we have a fox come through our garden most nights. Still wild, but with little fear of humans - I've a had a staring competition with it more than once!

  4. I wish we had wild foxes here in New Zealand!



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