Foxes have been described as “cat software running on dog hardware”, because although they’re from the canine family (dogs, wolves, coyotes, foxes, et al.), unlike dogs they’re behavior is independent and aloof if not outright unfriendly, untrusting and unpredictable, with an over-abundance of nervous energy as if they’ve had too much caffeine.
Numerous dog experts in various parts of the world have attempted to domesticate foxes and have failed, even if socialization begins within days of birth. Even if such socialization successfully produces a tame adult fox that trusts a particular human or group of humans, that fox is still not a domestic animal. If it was, its offspring would be born tame like dogs are. Dog puppies automatically trust humans. They’re born tame. Not so with foxes.
Dmitry Beylaev [or Belyaev, or Belyayev, depending on source] (1917-1985), a Russian genetic researcher, wondered why dogs were tame and how they came to be domesticated. He theorized that as ancient peoples began to build relationships with wolves, humans tamed them first, then (unwittingly) selectively bred them for other desirable traits and characterstics such as: companionship, loyalty, hunting ability, guarding and protecting instincts, and so forth. But tameness (friendliness) was their first concern. Beylaev hypothesized that foxes could be domesticated in the same way, albeit wittingly and purposely. Sometime in the 1950s, he began breeding foxes in secret due to Soviet politics: Mendel’s theories on genetics were prohibited, and scientists who disagreed found themselves on their way to a gulag.
To prove his theory, Beylaev collected a number of wild foxes and tested each one for its natural level of friendliness toward humans. Those that displayed more fear when their cage was opened were judged to be less friendly. Conversely, those that showed the least fear were judged to be more friendly. Only the friendliest animals were bred. If a particular fox did not exhibit sufficient friendliness, it was not allowed to breed. In this way, genetic predisposition toward tameness was passed on to offspring. This breeding program has continued ever since, even after Beylaev’s death. In the six or seven decades since he started his experiment, numerous generations of ever more friendly foxes have been born. Each new litter of fox pups were tested for friendliness, and the process repeated. Gradually, fear of humans has been (mostly) bred out of this genetic line of foxes as they inched toward domestication.
An interesting thing happened on the way to refined fox friendliness. Over time, they started demonstrating affection towards humans by wagging their tails, barking, and licking. The animals not only became friendlier and thus tamer over successive generations, their physical characteristics changed, too. Their ears became floppy or droopy, their coats changed colors, legs and tails became shorter, and their skulls became wider, among other changes in physical appearance. Selective reproduction was based solely on tameability (friendliness), yet all these physical changes came right along with the behavioral changes!
It took thousands of years to turn wolves into dogs, as we know them now. Beylaev’s foxes have only been on this path for a few decades. They may be tame, but they have quite a ways to go to be considered fully domesticated, like dogs – and even cats – are today. By the way, it’s possible to purchase a tame Russian fox from Beylaev’s genetic line. However, at nine grand apiece (2018 prices), they aren’t cheap. A California couple own five of the estimated ten to fifteen (at the time this video was made) tame Russian foxes in the United States. See what you think: “We met the world’s first domesticated foxes” (9:58):
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