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Love me - love my fox, tamed and trained

By 0 and 0 and 0
05 December 2012


Playful: Nyuta the fox enjoys her training with Irina Mukhamedshina. Picture: The Siberian Times 

The experiment was on her own initiative, though she used foxes from a special Novosibirsk Institute of Cytology and Genetics farm, where research into taming the animals have provided remarkable insights into how - over many thousands of years - man domesticated wild animals into pets. 

'I had seen these foxes daily, wiggling their tails and jumping to get a tiniest bit of human attention, and got really curious about the possibility of working with them the same way as I used to do with dogs', said Irina.

Through her teens she had trained dogs and for several years has been doing so professionally. 

'I asked my tutors if I could try, got permission and went to choose myself a couple of baby foxes. 

'I needed them to be young, because then I could use food motivation to train some basic commands. 

'Later on, the constant hunger stops prevailing over other instincts, and you have to work with game motivation, which is also possible, but slightly more difficult. I took two foxes, and started working with them at the farm. 

tamed foxes, Siberia

I-i-its ticklish! Irina Mukhamedshina, PhD student of Novosibirsk Institute of Cytology and Genetics pictured with the fox she trained. Picture: The Siberian Times 

'My first task was to make them forget about digging the soil and running around, but instead to encourage them to consciously come close to me. 

'It was quite easy and we got to this stage within several work sessions. 

'Then I moved on to the classic commands, such as 'stand up', 'lie down', 'sit down'. It took me about three weeks of daily 15 minutes sessions to teach them do these commands.'

The foxes recognised their own names. In fact, Irina called Anna by the fond Russian version of the name, Nyuta, who has been since sold to America, as a pet. The other fox she trained was called Elma.  

'Both foxes worked very well.

'At one point, I had a Japanese film crew coming to film my work with foxes  - they were truly amazed at how this was possible.'

tamed foxes, Siberia

tamed foxes, Siberia

tamed foxes, Siberia

tamed foxes, Siberia

Time to work now, foxy! Irina gets Nyuta the fox to work on basic commands like 'come here' and 'lie down'. Pictures: The Siberian Times 

Irina, too, was surprised at how much she could achieve and how quickly. 

'Then I made a mistake. When you are working with animals, you must see further then them and understand their potential. 

'If they are good at something and bad at something else, you can only get so far, according to each animals limits, without breaking the trust. I performed a very complicated trick, which was too difficult for them to comprehend. 

'In brief, I broke the 'command-execution-reward' chain and tried to make it more difficult. But the foxes were by then so used to the 'if I've done this so I will get my food', that the disrupted ritual has also broke their trust in me. Both animals refused to keep working.'

Irina set to work writing her essay on an experience that has left her intrigued about the possibilities of working with foxes, and, indeed, of foxes becoming pets.

'Psychologically I understand them better now. Tamed foxes are not quite like dogs, they are more in between dogs and cats in how they respond to humans. Going back to it, I would understand much better how to go about it, and how far to go.'

tamed foxes, Siberia

Silver fox is begging for Irina Mukhamedshina's attention.  Picture: The Siberian Times 

Irina's experiment was only possible thanks to  remarkable research that began deep in the Cold War in Akademgorodok, the academic town in Siberia's largest city, Novosibirsk. 

Here are several hundred tamed (but not necessarily trained) foxes, believed to be the only such population in the world. 

They were not caught in the forest and somehow befriended: these animals were deliberately bred for domestication. 

How and why? More than half a century ago, a leading Soviet biologist Dmitry Belyaev worked with researchers from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics to gather 130 foxes from nearby fur farms. 

He began breeding the foxes, using only the friendliest and least aggressive from each generation. In this way, he compressed into a short time span something that had taken many thousands of years in evolution, recreating the way wild wolves became domesticated dogs.

tamed foxes, Siberia

As safe as that: Irina says that domesticated foxes starve for humans' attention. Picture: The Siberian Times 

The the mid-1960s, foxes made the leap from being afraid of humans to courting their attention and seeking to bond with them.  But his aim was not to produce foxes as pets, it had a more serious scientific purpose. 

The experiment allowed scientists to test a theory examined by Charles Darwin - that domesticated animals of many types are altered from their original form through contact with humans: they under a molecular change, for example, being smaller, with floppy ears and curlier tails.

Sometimes the foxes get white patches on the forehead - just like children's favourite horse Black Beauty.  

It has been called the domestication phenotype; in essence they become more appealing to man. 

tamed foxes, Siberia

Hello, world! Nyuta the fox gets inquisitive about the camera. Picture: The Siberian Times 

As Irina noted, for example, the foxes wag their tails as she praises them, behaviour said to be unknown in wild foxes. They lick the researchers to get attention. 

There are many other changes: wild vixens are receptive to sex only once a year, but some of the tamed females become receptive more often.

Belyaev carried on his work in Soviet times under difficult circumstances, hiding from the authorities what he was really doing amid official disapproval of genetic research. After his death, the pioneering study was taken over by his former student Dr Lyudmila Trut, who is Irina's scientific mentor. 

In an article in The American Scientist, Trut described the foxes as 'good-tempered creatures, as devoted as dogs, but as independent as cats'. 

tamed foxes, Siberia

Irina Mukhamedshina, 22, PhD student of Novosibirsk Institute of Cytology and Genetics with Nyuta the fox. Picture: The Siberian Times 

Today the breeding programme has reached more than 50 generations and continues despite having come through a tough period after the collapse of the USSR. Their were real fears the project would have to be closed at one point as researchers worried about feeding the foxes.

Some foxes were sold to Scandinavian fur breeders 'who were pressured by animal-rights groups to develop animals that do not suffer stress in captivity', while some like Anna have been sold as pets. 

'We have compressed into a few decades an ancient process that originally unfolded over thousands of years,' Dr Trut has said. 

'Before our eyes, the 'Beast' has turned into 'Beauty,' as the aggressive behaviour of our herd's wild progenitors entirely disappeared'.

Comments (2)

That is absolutely amazing
Belkis , nj
17/01/2017 00:52
That's beautiful!
Derrick, Arkansas
26/03/2014 00:57

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