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Why Animals Do The Thing


Rachel Garner

Oh man. This video.  

 It’s popular, and it’s so completely incorrect. It first showed up on a zoo group I’m part of and the entire thread was people who work with foxes just shaking their heads. Most of the information is wrong, it’s misleading because it totally glosses over what it’s actually like to own a fox, and it encourages unsafe behavior.  Let’s break it down, shall we?

  •  0:05 - “Foxes can be domesticated and kept as household pets.” It’s likely that this meant to say that they can be tamed and kept as pets, since domestication is a process that requires multiple generationsand is genetic in origin. There’s no correct way to domesticate a single animal, because it’s a process and not a singular event. 
  • 0:09 - “The Domesticated Red Fox is the result of a breeding project set up by scientists.” Uh, not really. Silver foxes (a melanistic strain of red foxes originally bred for fur farm production) were selectively bred for a single behavioral characteristic - flight distance - by Belyaev starting in 1959 at the Institute for Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia. Those foxes began to display characteristic behaviors of domesticated dogs after multiple generations - affiliation behavior with humans, floppy ears, piebald coloration, a raised tail, and more frequent heat cycles. The fox shown in the background of this part of the video is obviously not an animal from Belyaev’s SibFox project, because it displays all the physiological characteristics of a while strain red fox and not a specifically-bred silver fox morph. 
  • 0:17 “The program was inspired by domesticated wolves.” Technically true. Belyaev wanted to see if he could replicate some of the assumed genetic changes that would have happened as wolves began the domestication process by hanging around human camps - the ones with the shortest flight distance would have had better resource access and likely more reproductive success. But, uh, they could just say ‘the origin of dogs’ or ‘the domestication of wolves’ rather than making it sound like wolves have been domesticated again and imply that’s related to pet ownership. 
  • 0:20 “The aim of the project was to create a pet (…)” Nope.Completely incorrect. Belyaev was looking to replicate domestication, never to be part of the pet industry. (Russia 50 years ago did not really have the economy to support much pet ownership, much less for exotic pet industries, and Novosibirsk was a huge industrial and science center that supported a large refugee population). The Institute For Cytology and Genetics did end up selling foxes as pets after Belyaev’s death as an attempt to supplement failing funding fro the program, but it was never the goal. 

    Meanwhile, there are multiple projects where red foxes are being purposefully domesticated - bred for tame traits, not just flight distance - in the American south. Most ‘pet foxes’ in the US come from one of them rather than SibFox (and it’s illegal to keep unreleasable wild rescues in most states). 
  • 0:23 “(…) that has the best traits of both cats and dogs.” Oiiiii no, this is one of the worst misrepresentations of foxes that happens with internet videos. Foxes are not ‘catdogs’. They’re the evolutionary result of an environment not having small felidae predators, so canidae filled the gap, but that does not mean they’re going to act like either felines or canines. That would be a massive oversimplification of taxonomy. We don’t expect a chicken to act like a T-Rex because they’re both technically dinosaurs. In the words of @kodathefox“Everyone asks me “so is she like a cat or a dog?” And I say “she’s neither; she’s a fox, she’s hard work and takes up 100% of my time and attention.”
  • 0:27-0:31 “You can train your fox (…)” You can train any animal to walk on a harness and leash, and many to retrieve. That does not speak to their suitability as pets, just to your skill as a trainer. 
  • 0:33 “You can give your fox a bath” Suddenly we’re on to Fennec foxes, which are entirely different from red foxes. There are no projects domesticating Fennec foxes and their husbandry needs and the legality of owning them is entirely different. That’s super misleading. 
  • 0:36 “Your fox can besties with your dog.” Yes, they could get along, but again that’s not guaranteed. That depends very specifically on your dog, your fox, their socialization histories, prey drives, and a lot of other factors. This has nothing to do with domestication or suitability as pets, and it’s often irresponsible and stupid to let exotic pets interact with other mammals. It’s also worth noting that foxes cannot be legally vaccinated against rabies in many places, so you’re in deep shit if your fox accidentally breaks your dogs’s skin while playing (even if you’ve actually had them vaccinated, it won’t count). It’s likely your fox would have to be euthanized and your dog would have to undergo a rabies quarantine.  
  • 0:41 “Your fox can be a portable heater” Please do not create the expectation that wild animals, even specifically ones bred for tame behavior, will allow all people to manhandle them and do things like wear them on their shoulders. This is how people get bit and pet foxes get put down. 
  • 0:44 “Your fox will love you forever if you give it neck rubs” Only if that’s something the fox enjoys, and you have close relationship with it that allows you to touch it in places that make it vulnerable. Again, a stupid and dangerous assumption of that wild animals, even ones bred to be tamer,  don’t have boundaries and will be tolerant of what the internet thinks is cute. 
  • 0:47 “(…) and heaps of hugs”. We’ve already talked on this blog a lot about how dogs are uncomfortable with human-style hugs because they are restrictive and remove their ability to get away. How do you think a much less domesticated animal - and a smaller one at that - is going to feel about being restrained in human type hugs? This video displays a fox initiating a hug but most people will not get that difference and yet again this sets people up to get hurt and foxes up to get put down for having reasonable responses to rude human behavior. 

You’ll notice that throughout this breakdown I haven’t even commented on what’s going on with the fox in the video - either it’s behavior or how it’s being handled. There’s a reason for this: it’s very hard to determine if pet foxes are stressed or not without a lot of context. Many people who work with rescued, rehabbed or captive foxes report that affiliative behavior looks exactly like stress behavior in many cases and it takes a huge amount of familiarity with the animal and each specific situation to be able to accurately weigh in. There’s been some pretty big fights on tumblr before around videos of captive foxes; their behavior looks like stress to people who work with wild foxes and affiliative behavior to people who own foxes and nobody knows enough about the specific situations. So, understandably, we’re not even going to touch that on this breakdown. Some of the people in the videos were interacting with the animals in what I consider personally to be stupid ways - putting their fingers in a young fox’s mouth, or allowing it to romp with a dog, but again that’s so incredibly situational that I won’t speak against it professionally even if I personally don’t approve. 

@zooophagous wrote a beautiful breakdown about the behavioral and husbandry aspects of why getting a fox is not simple or easy or generally a good idea. It’s everything this video left out, and you can read it here. 

This video is just dumb. It twists a lot of information to make pet foxes seem like a great idea (who paid them for this marketing?) and leaves out everything you actually need to know. It perpetuates the stupid romanticized idea of a pet fox ‘catdog’ and sets up so many people and animals to find themselves in bad situations after making an uninformed choice that was influenced by this video.