— by Susan Eirich, PhD —
A few weeks ago we received a phone call from a woman named Amanda. Could we take a baby domesticated fox? Could she come visit to judge for herself if he would be well taken care of? We had lost our beloved Feather the fox to a gentle old age and did have the space. We said sure.
Amanda had purchased Loki from a breeder as a pet, and discovered that she could not legally keep him once she moved to Idaho. She obviously cared for him. She gave him up reluctantly, quizzing us about how we cared for animals, leaving, coming back to ask more questions, then calling several times later asking after his welfare.
Loki arrived in her arms along with a huge red stuffed dog, several stuffed animals and a squeaky bee. We were startled by his strange coloring. He was mottled black and white with enormous ears that were spotted in black and white. He had black rimmed eyes and a white face; black markings around the bottom of the tip of his nose like a mustache, and a black and white body. Definitely not a wild fox. But definitely a fox.
Loki taking a nap – Photo by Earthfire
I had heard about a breeding experiment started in Russia some 40 years ago by a researcher named Belyaev. He was interested in how wild wolves became domesticated dogs. He believed that the key factor selected for their domestication was temperament, or “tameability,” and that selecting for tameness would mimic the selection that must have occurred in the ancestral past of dogs. He chose to experiment with foxes as a near relative. He selected the friendliest foxes from many litters and bred them to each other for several generations, each time selecting exclusively for temperament. In six generations he had foxes who were friendly towards experimenters, wagging their tails, and whining. They displayed this kind of behavior before they were one month old. They also developed spotted or mottled fur.*
The breeding experiment fell on hard times, and they began selling some of the friendlier foxes as pets to sustain their work. Some of those domesticated fox must have come to the United States, and breeders saw an opportunity. My guess is that Loki is the result of that history.
Another word for tameability is submissiveness, a quality we humans prize in animals. It is convenient. Wild animals are not submissive or convenient. They have to think for themselves – a trait we are not known to prize in humans either! As happens often when we interfere with animals for our own ends, Loki is between worlds. He is friendly, completely unafraid of humans, can be very sweet, but he is still very much a fox. That means wild, uncontrollable energy. The faint scent of skunk. Not a house animal unless you don’t value the contents of your house. The wild, fierce possessiveness around food, something I don’t think can ever be bred out of a fox and have it still be a fox. (The only other animal in which I have seen such fierceness is in baby bobcats. There you see the true origin of the term “wildcat.”) In fact you can’t touch anything that he decides is his. To get anything away from him you have to outfox the fox. In other words, distract… only sometimes successful.
But along with the inconvenience there is great joy and pure fun in having this vibrant creature in our lives. Everything in sight being explored, and shredded if possible. Exquisite grace and agility. After racing around the office terrorizing everything within reach – papers, cords, ankles, he collapses into a deep sleep under his favorite chair in his favorite corner. And we have peace until he awakes and it starts all over again. He spends part of the day in the office with three adoring females keeping watch. When we really need to get work done, he goes out into our currently unoccupied squirrel enclosure to terrorize the grass, rocks and squeaky toys. Loki has unplugged the computers once too often.
When we feed him whole chunks of food he takes so much into his little mouth he is unable to chew it and races around desolate. Foxie Whitefoot does the same thing. It is a true fox trait – greed. Sophie, the Buddhist nun who spent time here last summer, watched Foxie Whitefoot in amazement as she ran around with several pieces of beef heart hanging out of both sides of her mouth, unable to chew or swallow; unable or unwilling to put any down. Sophie cried in delight, “I am going to use fox as an example of greed and grasping when I teach! She can’t enjoy the fruits of what she is trying to hang on to!” And so fox antics pass into Buddhist lore…
Loki in the snow – Photo by Michael O’Neal
Loki has made quite a splash in his few short weeks here. He arrived at a time when we were doing three consecutive retreats; California Institute of the Arts, Creative Soul Writing Retreat, and Heart to Heart, and he was quite a distraction. Everyone wanted to ”hang out” with Loki, play with Loki, feed Loki, film Loki. He has not lacked for human attention.
Soon we will try to introduce him to Foxie Whitefoot and Sage and see if he can have fox companionship, but we have to have time and peace to give it the best chance of succeeding. Meanwhile, this is one pampered little being. When his former “mother” called she anxiously asked “have you fallen in love with him?” Because as any woman knows, that is the best guarantee for a good life. Not money or fine facilities. Fierce mother’s love will do it every time. This is not to negate the power of father love which has also happened, though it may not be as freely admitted…
* There is a common pattern to many domesticated animals suggesting a common biological process. In a wide range of mammals—herbivores and predators, large and small—domestication seems to have brought with it strikingly similar changes in appearance and behavior, changes in size, and changes in coat color. Because behavior is rooted in biology, selecting for tameness and against aggression means selecting for physiological changes in the systems that govern the body’s hormones and neurochemicals. Those changes, in turn, could have had far-reaching effects on the development that might well explain why different animals would respond in similar ways when subjected to strong selective pressure.
In the case of the dog, one common factor as pedomorphosis, the retention of juvenile traits in adults. Those traits include behavioral ones, such as whining, barking and submissiveness—all characteristics that wolves outgrow but that dogs do not.