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First Domesticated Foxes Bred in Russia With Dog Traits Like Licking, Tail Wagging

Sep 17, 2016 06:26 AM EDT

Are foxes man's new best friend? In Russia, there's now a choice after geneticist Dmitry Belyaev began a breeding program 50 years ago.

There are plenty of people who would want to take the adorable looking fox home. However, a regular fox from the wild isn't domesticated and will often wreak havoc in the home.

A report from BBC revealed that the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals even officially cautions people from attempting to get a fox as a pet saying, "Because foxes are wild animals and do not fare well as domestic pets, they should not be kept as such. Even the most experienced fox experts have had difficulty in keeping adult foxes successfully in captivity as they have very specific needs."

In the late 1950s, Belyaev didn't just attempt to bring home a fox and tame it - the scientist actually began to create a tame fox population. The ambitious project of guided evolution through selected breeding proved to be successful, and is still an ongoing project even past the geneticist's death in 1985.

Belyaev's goal was to track the evolutionary pathway of domesticated animals through his subjects, the silver-black foxes. He did it with a breeding program at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk in Russia, but operated under the guise of breeding to improve fur coats because of the ban in genetic study in Russia under Joseph Stalin's rule.

He traveled with his intern Lyudmila Trut throughout Russia to select foxes to bring to their Novosibirsk farm. Their selections were based on the animals' initial response to humans; from the original pool, they chose 100 vixens and 30 males as the first generation.

The cubs were hand-fed and exposed to significant human contact, then "discarded" after still displaying aggressive or evasive behavior. Less than 10% of each selection were chosen as parents of the next generation.

"As a result of such rigorous selection, the offspring exhibiting the aggressive and fear avoidance responses were eliminated from the experimental population in just two to three generations of selection," Trut, who took over operations after Belyaev's death, wrote in a report in BioEssays in 2009.

By the fourth generation, the foxes were beginning to act more like dogs. Actions included wagging their tails, seeking contact from humans, whining and licking researchers. Their bodies changed as well with floppier ears, curlier tails, shortened limbs and wider skulls, among others.

The fox farm still exists and now has 270 tame vixens and 70 tame males. Due to financial problems, the foxes are now being sold as house pets.

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