Russians Are Trying To Turn Foxes Into Pets—But They Noticed A Weird Side Effect

Stories of the Cold War-era Soviet Union always read like they're straight out of a science fiction movie, and this tale of strange animal experiments is no exception. In the 1950s, a Soviet scientist named Dmitry K. Belyaev wanted to see if he could accelerate the domestication process of animals. He hoped to prove that it was possible to take 1,000 years of evolution and streamline the process into one that would span a hundred years or less. He chose to cross-breed dogs and foxes because of their similar gene structure, and carefully selected his breeding subjects in an attempt to replicate a perfect combination of traits and appearance that humans wanted in pets. The goal was to eventually domesticate foxes, using the personality and character of dogs matched to a foxy aesthetic.

It wasn't easy to be a scientist in Stalinist Russia, although things did let up after Stalin passed. Although Belyaev managed to survive and continue his research, he passed in 1985 before his project was completed. Scientists have continued Belyaev's work in genetics and now, after more than 50 years of work Russians have successfully created tame foxes. It took more than 30 generations of animals, and things haven't turned out exactly as predicted, but domesticated foxes are now on the market.

  • The Domesticated Foxes Are Physically Different Than Original Foxes

    Most foxes have pointy ears and look more predatory than the average dog, but not these new domesticated foxes. They have adopted physical characteristics more associated with their canine cousins and are quite different from their wild ancestors.

    For example, their ears are floppy when they're puppies, but unlike dogs, those ears tend to stay floppy even when they're grown. Domesticated foxes also have curved tails, and their coats feature spots. These aren't how wild foxes look, but the genetics have pooled out and these are the traits that have remained in non-threatening, tame foxes.

  • Their Genes Are Entirely Different From Wild Foxes

    Dmitry Belyaev passed in 1985 and never got to see his fully domesticated foxes. Still, his work in genetics carried on without him. In the years since, the foxes in the experiment showed signs of being similar to dogs, yet adopting their own hybridized look. They look to people as companions and are not scared or aggressive around them. The resulting research shows that their genes have been completely and uniquely separated from wild foxes, assuring that domesticated foxes will be able to be bred in their own right, just like dogs. Between 1999 and 2017, the percentage of foxes that would make good house pets went from 35% to 70-80%, leaving a lasting legacy of Belyaev's work.

  • A Soviet Scientist Risked His Life For His Research

    Although suspicions of science is now commonplace in the United States thanks to misguided fears and corporate campaigns to discredit investigations, scientists in the Soviet Union were actually slain in the 1950s for their studies. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was especially wary of geneticists and even carried out a policy called Lysenkoism. This was putting them in jail or ending their lives for fear that they would be an enemy to the state. Despite these threats, Dmitry Belyaev stayed under the radar under the government and continued his study of genes. Luckily for him, Stalin passed and the government relented on many of its harsher restrictions surrounding scientific research. Belyaev was never caught and carried on his study in peace. 

  • It All Started With A Desire To Know More About Dogs

    It All Started With A Desire To Know More About Dogs
    Photo: Sirozha / Wikimedia / CC by SA 4.0

    Dogs and humans have been together for millennia, but how that process took place is a mystery. Domestication of dogs was a long, drawn out process involving genetics that were unknown for centuries but that the scientist Gregor Mendel famously championed. It took generations to occur and while dogs eventually were able to live with people, foxes weren't. Soviet scientist Dmitry Belyaev tried to domesticate foxes in order to show that it was possible. He also hoped to answer questions about how the dog became domesticated and thought that by repeating the process with a fox -- which shares characteristics with dogs as well as a scientific family, canid -- could do just that. Plus, foxes have characteristics that the scientist thought would be popular as domesticated creatures.

  • The Experiments Used Foxes From Fur Farms

    The Experiments Used Foxes From Fur Farms
    Photo: Kayfedewa / Wikimedia / CC by 3.0

    In order to design his experiment and prove the presence of genetic selection in how foxes became friendly, Belyaev decided to start breeding friendly, docile foxes. He wanted to prove that personality characteristics were able to be singled out because of genes. 

    Belyaev went to fox farms where the animals were bred for their fur. When he found a fox that wasn't frightened of him, or less frightened than the others, he took it for the experiment. The "cage door" test meant he could determine which foxes to choose based on how they reacted when he opened their cage door. In the beginning of his experiment, only about 10% of the foxes responded favorably.

  • The Rigorous Fox Selection Process Has Been Controversial

    The Rigorous Fox Selection Process Has Been Controversial
    Photo: Kayfedewa / Wikimedia / CC by 3.0

    The original population for the experiment had 130 foxes: 100 females and 30 males. Those foxes mated and Belyaev began determining which of those foxes were the best ones to continue the experiment. The results were less than promising. When the fox pups were born the scientists would try to make them familiar and comfortable with humans. Still, less than 10% of the animals were able to handle being around people, the rest were sent back to the fur farms. The rigorous selection process has been controversial. According to the BBC:

    If the cubs continued to show aggressive or evasive responses, even after significant human contact, they were discarded from the population – meaning they were made into fur coats.

    They were also kept in cages and had minimal human contact, because training them wasn't the goal of the experiment. This has also been controversial, which may explain why fox genetics hasn't been a more widely spread research topic.