Foxes, Habitat & De-Wilding

Five red fox kits around the tree.jpg

I recently received some photographs showing a family of foxes that had taken up residence near a home in the countryside an hour away from Kansas City. The foxes were wild, but even in this semi-rural landscape the foxes did not appear wild to me.

Vixen near the lakeIt was something about the context, seeing them in a yard I recognized well, that made me think about the essence of wildness. In the last year I have seen a number of grey foxes in the forests of Chan Chich and like most of the wild animals they do not seem to be afraid of humans; neither attracted to nor repelled by fear.

Vixen Apr 27 2017.jpgThe animal-human dynamic in both cases, the semi-rural home (of my in-laws, as it happens) setting of the foxes as well as those at Chan Chich seem to be one of peaceful coexistence, even apparent disinterest.  The human-animal dynamic is anything but disinterested, which the photos illustrate and that we see evidence of every day among Lodge guests. People want to see animals in their natural habitat. The animals’ apparent lack of fear of humans is related to the fact that there has been no hunting in the surrounding half million acres of forest for a couple generations.

It may also be that the foxes around the yard of the home in these photos also have not been hunted but something tells me that the foxes that seem habituated in and around human populations are different from those in these wild forests. I cannot quite articulate why I think that but today this book review got me thinking differently about the essence of wildness:

zuk-master180Imagine a time when scientists worked in secret, wondering if government officials would declare their research counter to state interests, endangering not only the personal liberty of the scientists themselves but their ability to let the experiments take them where the facts led. A time when how good a scientist you were was not all that mattered — what was important was how well you fit into political and ideological dictates. No, this is not a setup for a book ripped from yesterday’s CNN feed. Instead, it is the backdrop to a story that is part science, part Russian fairy tale and part spy thriller.

“How to Tame a Fox” sets out to answer a simple-seeming question: What makes a dog a dog? Put another way, how did an animal that started out as a bloodthirsty predator become one that now wants nothing more than a nice belly rub and the chance to gaze adoringly at a member of another species?In the late 1950s, a Russian scientist named Dmitri Belyaev decided to address this puzzle by taking the unheard-of tack of replicating the domestication process in real time. He and his colleagues took silver foxes, widely bred in vast Siberian farms for their luxurious pelts, and made them into friendly house pets. It was a deceptively simple process: Take the puppies from only the friendliest foxes, breed them and repeat. Lyudmila Trut, the current lead researcher of the silver fox experiment, who began work as Belyaev’s intern, along with Lee Alan Dugatkin, an American scientist and writer at the University of Louisville, documents their monumental effort in this sparkling new book.

Belyaev died in 1985, but the experiment is still ongoing, with 56 generations of foxes bred to date — a far cry from the snarling creatures that used to snap at the hands of their caretakers when the research began. The new foxes run toward people, jump on the bed and nuzzle one another as well as their human caretakers. Such a behavioral transformation was to some degree expected, since they were bred from the tamest members of their groups. Perhaps more intriguing, they also look more doglike, with floppy ears, wagging tails and piebald fur. Recent work uses modern genomics to understand the genetics behind the foxes’ changes in personality and appearance. The results are not nearly as widely known among scientists, not to mention the public, as they deserve to be…

Read the whole review here.

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