Recent news: Tragedy with tame fox in Russia: “In Dobryanka home Fox attacked paralyzed child”
We see foxes on National Geographic or as children, we watched cartoons with friendly fox characters. Most of us want to think of foxes as lovable, cuddly creatures, especially when we see real pictures or videos on the internet of fox cubs. What many people do not realize is these cubs mature and are born to instinctively hunt and kill for survival. They are highly destructive of their environment and urinate all over everything to mark their territory with urine that is much more pungent than the urine of a cat. In fact, some even say the odor is similar to that of a skunk. With foxes, dominance plays a key role in the survival and a small percentage of cubs are killed underground by their siblings during conflict and are later eaten by the rest of the pack.
Surely, one could not tame a wild animal to permanently behave like a household pet. However, animal characteristics can change over the course of several generations. If so, is it really possible to turn a ferocious, carnivorous wild fox into a docile, friendly and affection-starved household pet?
Someone was brave enough to put this thought into action. In fact, Dmitry K. Belyaev was a Russian geneticist who dedicated 65 years to secretly attaining this goal. Dmitry was dismissed from his position as head of the Department of Animal Fur Breeding due to persecution on followers of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and genetics. An article in National Geographic titled, ‘Taming The Wild’, stated that in 1958 Belyaev called upon his graduate student assistant, Lyudmila Trut, to visit various Soviet fur farms and to “select the calmest foxes she could find, to serve as the base population for Belyaev’s experiment” at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics. In 1963, he became Director of the IC & G where he continued his work until the end of his life. He began his experiments with Vulpes vulpes, also known as the red fox but also includes numerous coat color variations including the melanistic form known as the silver fox. After Belaev’s death in 1985, funds dwindled and the experiments were in danger of shutdown. Few years later a Russian post-doc in molecular genetics at Cornell followed the experiment’s struggles. Her name was Anna Kukekova and later, with Utah’s Gordon Lark and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) financial support she joined effort with Trut to continue Belyaev’s experiments. Unfortunately, we still don’t have any solid scientific conclusions or answers … only theories. In fact, these “tame foxes” could be a simple dog breeds and you’re really wasting your money to buy one. Despite internet advertisement of fox sales on various internet forums and commercial claims that these foxes are tamed … the sad true is that this is next to impossible even under the supervision of a genetic scientist (NIH should really verify the science behind this “research” before wasting our taxpayers money again). A good question to ask is: why there are so many recent reports of problems with these tame foxes?
According to an alarming 1972 article by Hans Kruuk in the Journal of Zoology titled, ‘Surplus Killing By Carnivores’, carnivores, foxes and Spotted hyaenas killed more prey than they actually ate. This observation might make it seem like this is a behavioral trait within those particular animals, however surplus killings also occur so the animal can collect the most nutritionally beneficial aspects of their prey to bury and save for later when food is scarce. In short, this instinctive behavior is an inherited survival trait.
Foxes also may carry diseases such as mange, distemper and rabies. Both distemper and rabies are deadly diseases for humans. Sympoms of these diseases include extreme aggression for no reason, impaired movement, paralysis or wobbling when walking or uncharacteristically bold behavior. Mange (a parasite) will cause scabbing skin, hair loss and extreme itching, while distemper (a viral infection) and rabies can kill you if not treated quickly and efficiently.
You might remember a fable from your childhood about the scorpion and the frog. In this story, the scorpion asks the frog to carry him over the river; however, the frog is afraid of being stung. The scorpion replies that if he stings the frog, they would both drown. The scorpion defended himself saying this is its nature, illustrating the fact that certain aspects within an animal’s instincts cannot change. Most animals need these vicious instincts to survive. Foxes, in particular, must establish their dominance and create some type of hierarchy within their environment. They also need an outdoor enclosure to run, jump, dig and play which serves the double purpose of keeping a home neat and orderly since they are much more active and destructive than dogs. Wild, tamed and domesticated foxes are naturally successful diggers as well and have a higher likelihood for escape.
The ‘survival of the fittest’ nature of the wild does not have room for domestication. Any that escape will eventually die, either at the mercy of a larger, more vicious animal or simply from the extreme psychological changes caused within a ‘tamed’ animal.
Furthermore, what are the odds of survival for a seemingly tame omnivorous fox released into the wild?
Before you get your feathers all riled up, it’s important to know there is a vast difference between ‘domestication’ and ‘taming.’ Dmitry K. Belyaev’s domestication process changed genetic predisposition for aggressive and fearful behavior within foxes after several generations and now the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Syberia continues his legacy. However, most foxes sold within the United States are only ‘tamed’ and not bred. They might appear curious or even friendly, exhibiting no fear or aggression whatsoever. They might walk up to a person and not attack or even bare its teeth. With animals like this, they primarily only stay that way while they are cubs and then they are predisposed to leave the pack; however a domestic environment eliminates this possibility. This might mess with the fox’s natural need for hierarchy and a struggle might ensue for it to dominate it’s owners, causing the fox to attack.
So many stories permeate the documentary world of seemingly friendly ‘tamed’ wild animals who end up biting off the hand that feeds them; from crocodile hunter Steve Irwin’s death to a crocodile or orca named Tilicum who performed at Sea World and was involved in three deaths at the family park. Some research ‘fox attacks on humans’ and you will find numerous reports especially on the most vulnerable kinds…children and babies. Animal trainers might boldly say, “a fox won’t attack a human unless it’s afraid or rabid.”
Tell that to Sue Eastwood and Peter Day, the parents of a 14 week old baby, Louis, who was attacked in his sleep in Dartford, England. Chilling screams of Louis and Sue who were sleeping on the couch sent Peter running into the living room to find the baby covered in blood and the fox simply sitting there looking at him. The fox had come in through an open French window while mom and baby were sleeping. Luckily, baby Louis survived even though deep bite marks scarred his temple and forehead. His parents believe the fox was trying to drag the baby out of the house to eat later.
On February 6th, 2013, five-week-old Denny Dolan was mauled by a fox who walked through the badly latched front door. The fox began to drag the baby out of the house and Miss Cawley, Denny’s mother heard his cries and kicked the fox to let go, fearing that each kick deepened the animal’s grip. Denny recovered from the attack, but they never went back because of the traumatic ordeal which left Denny’s finger severed. His finger was reattached and miraculously, he still survived.
Nine-month-old twins, Lola, and Isabella Koupparis were mauled in an upstairs bedroom by a fox who entered from the downstairs front door. Upon hearing of this incident, pest controllers setup fox traps in the family garden and a few days later, a fox was caught and destroyed by a vet. Urban wildlife expert John Bryant believes the predator was a three or four-month-old cub attracted to the scent of the babies’ nappies. Foxes have over 200 million scent receptors in their nose and can likely distinguish between scents with acute detail like we see things with our eyes. Upon seeing the babies with the nappies, the animal saw the babies as competition for its food. They both survived but will have to live with the traumatic scars for the rest of their lives.
A fox bit lawyer named Annie Bradwell of Fulham, London on the ear when it entered through an open window which she left open for her cat. She chased it out of the room in the dark, thinking it was her pet, but a few minutes later she saw the fox right in front of her face, just a few inches away. At that point, she was afraid she might be infected with a disease from the fox. Luckily, the only thing doctors felt she needed was medical glue to keep her ear intact.
According to Martin Hemmington of the National Fox Welfare Society, he says of these attacks, “I can only imagine the fox has found itself in a situation and it has become distressed and panicked. They are wild animals and will bite if cornered. Perhaps it was injured or had concussion from a car accident.” This is why he advises people to keep their distance. The Centers of Disease and Pest Control touts foxes as one of the four leading animals carrying rabies in the United States. They advise that wild animals, such as foxes or wild animal hybrids should not be kept as pets. According to their graph, “Rabid Skunks Reported in the United States in 2010,” the highest concentration of rabid foxes occurs in the East, South and Northeastern states. Nonetheless, do not conclude this cannot happen in your area; there are sporadic cases recorded throughout all the regions.
Turning a wild fox into a domestic fox takes decades of selective breeding and nurturing specific types of foxes. And even then, there are no guarantees about the safety of the behavior of these later generations. What is clear is that a fox is still a fox. Unless the buyer raised the animal and spent decades doing the research themselves, they cannot know for sure how safe the fox will be in a home environment or even a neighborhood with small children. By purchasing animals that normally belong in the wild, people are endangering their lives and the lives of those they love most for the thrill of owning an exotic pet. Are the risks really worth it? You decide.
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