The Tame Foxes of Russia

Domestication is interesting.  Consider it for a moment if you will.  Over the course of human history we have formed relationship with other lifeforms, of all sorts (but especially plants and animals) in such a way that we have impacted these species’ developments.  The relationships have largely been to our benefit for food or labor, but it might not be unfounded to consider the benefits to the domesticated life (especially in that our vested interest provides ample opportunity for a continuation of a species).  Yet the very idea that one life form (us humans) would so control the development of other lifeforms is also somewhat strange.  While other life forms mutual or parasitic relationships, none seems to have done what humans have.

In many ways the study of domestication is a study of human civilization itself.  It can be argued that with out the domestication of grain crops, especially wheat, humans may have never settled down in fixed areas and begun building towns and cities.  Furthermore, the domestication of animals like oxen, goats, camels, and the like, provided the workforce to make mass food production more mobile and sustainable (these animals were human kind’s original tractors).  So really we owe a lot to our species ability to domesticate other life.

I think that some of my favorite consideration of domestication is in regards to animals that we currently consider primarily as pets, especially cats and dogs.  Sure both of these animals were likely domesticated and used purposefully, and in some cases they still are, but very often in our modern world these domestic species exist primarily to provide companionship.  One thing that interests me is the fact that both cats and dogs are descended from wild predators.  To me it is fascinating that we would form such meaningful relationships with animals whose ancestors quite literally may have provided a serious risk to our species.

The domestication of dogs is a subject that has gained a great amount of attention and a number of theories exist as to how it occurred.  Modern genetics and DNA studies have quite definitively proven that man’s best friend are essentially a domesticated subspecies of wolves (hence the scientific name Canis lupus familiaris).  I think that it is pretty undebatable the importance that dogs play in our world. Not only have they provided a wide variety of working benefits, but they are also arguably the most important non-human species in regards to forming companionship.  But if all dogs are merely a domestication of wolves how come we don’t see other domesticated canines?

Well actually we do . . . allow me to offer you the domesticated silver foxes of Russia.  I first learned about these foxes a little over a year ago  and was immediately stricken with absolute fascination.  Really this is a story that I think needs to be made into a movie.  You’ve got 1950s Soviet Russia, a strange scientist with somewhat controversial ideas,a nd fucking foxes that are getting tame to the point of being almost dog-like in characteristic and attitude.  All of it is amazing. 

What I think it is even more interesting is how relatively fast the domestication seemed to take place.  Within approximately ten generations the foxes were displaying a tameness that could easily be argued to be successful domestication.  Furthermore, as the subsequent generations were bread the tame foxes began to display more dog-like behaviors and appearances.  The entire project, with over thirty continued generations of the foxes, has proved to be both a fascinating and valuable study of how wolves may have previously gone through domestication.  It also considers other questions about how genetics and domestication work together.

It is now possible, with a hefty sum of money, to own a domesticated fox.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand I think, “holy fuck it would be amazing to own my own domesticated fox!” While on the other hand the sheer expense, as well as concerns about the ethics of the breeding program, really make me skeptical.  Either way, I would not be surprised that if SibFox works out with a number of people, that domestic foxes might eventually become a more common pet (I mean they really are beautiful animals and being described ”as devoted as dogs but as independent as cats, capable of forming deep-rooted bonds with human beings.” I can’t see why people wouldn’t be interested).

Anyway, really cool stuff.  All science and history and perhaps providing an interesting perspective on our own species fascination with other lifeforms.

Here, YouTube offers some good videos about the foxes.

~ by Nathaniel on July 30, 2010.

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