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.
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.
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.
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.
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.