How To Tame a Fox—and Build a Dog

How to Tame a Fox
How To Tame a Fox—and Build a Dog
The amazing true story of how a pair of scientists condensed the domestication process by thousands of years and made foxes every bit as loyal and tame as dogs

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Suppose you wanted to build the perfect dog from scratch. What would be the key ingredients in the recipe? Loyalty and smarts would be musts. Cute would be as well, perhaps with gentle eyes, and a curly, bushy tail that wags in joy just in anticipation of your appearance. And you might toss in a mutt-like mottled fur that seems to scream out "I may not be beautiful, but you know that I love you and I need you." 

The thing is, you needn't bother building this. Lyudmila Trut and Dmitri Belyaev have already built it for you. The perfect dog. Except it's not a dog, it's a fox. A domesticated one. They built it quickly—mind-bogglingly fast for constructing a brand new biological creature. It took them less than sixty years, a blink of evolutionary time compared to the time it took our ancestors to domesticate wolves to dogs. They built it in the often unbearable minus 40F cold of Siberia, where Lyudmila and, before her, Dmitri have been running one of the longest, most incredible experiments on behaviour and evolution ever devised. The results are adorable tame foxes that would lick your face and melt your heart.

Many articles have been written about the fox domestication experiment, but a new book, How To Tame a Fox {and Build a Dog} (2017, University of Chicago Press), from which this article is adapted, is the first full telling of the story. The story of the lovable foxes, the scientists, the caretakers (often poor locals who devoted themselves to work they never fully understood, but would sacrifice everything for), the experiments, the political intrigue, the near tragedies and the tragedies, the love stories, and the behind-the-scenes doings. They're all in there.

It started back in the 1950s, and it continues to this day, but for just a moment travel back with us to 1974. 

One clear, crisp spring morning in that year, with the sun shining on the not yet melted winter snow, Lyudmila moved into a tiny house on the edge of an experimental fox farm in Siberia with an extraordinary little fox named Pushinka, Russian for "tiny ball of fuzz." Pushinka was a beautiful female with piercing black eyes, silver-tipped black fur, and a swatch of white running along her left cheek. She had recently celebrated her first birthday, and her tame behaviour and dog-like ways of showing affection made her beloved by all at the fox farm. Lyudmila and her fellow scientist and mentor Dmitri Belyaev had decided that it was time to see whether Pushinka was so domesticated that she would be comfortable making the great leap to becoming truly domestic. Could this little fox actually live with people in a home?

 

Dmitri Belyaev was a visionary scientist, a geneticist working in Russia's vitally important commercial fur industry. Research in genetics was strictly prohibited at the time Belyaev began his career, and he had accepted his post in fur breeding because he could carry out studies under the cover of that work. 22 years before Pushinka was born, he had launched an experiment that was unprecedented in the study of animal behaviour. He began to breed tame foxes. He wanted to mimic the domestication of the wolf into the dog, using the silver fox, which is a close genetic cousin of the wolf, as a stand-in. If he could basically turn a fox into a dog-like animal, he might solve the long-standing riddle of how domestication comes about. Perhaps he would even discover important insights about human evolution; after all, we are, essentially, domesticated apes.

Belyaev's plan for the experiment was audacious. The domestication of a species was thought to happen gradually, over thousands of years. How could he expect any significant results, even if the experiment ran for decades? And yet, here was a fox like Pushinka, who was so much like a dog that she came when her name was called and could be let out on the farm without a leash. She followed the workers around as they did their chores, and she loved going for walks with Lyudmila along the quiet country road that ran by the farm on the outskirts of Novosibirsk, Siberia. And Pushinka was just one of the hundreds of foxes they had bred for tameness.

By moving into the house on the edge of the farm with Pushinka, Lyudmila was taking the fox experiment into unprecedented terrain. Their 15 years of genetic selection for tameness in the foxes had clearly paid off. Now, she and Belyaev wanted to discover whether by living with Lyudmila, Pushinka would develop the special bond with her that dogs have with their human companions. Except for house pets, most domesticated animals do not form close relationships with humans, and by far the most intense affection and loyalty forms between people and their dogs. What made the difference? Had that deep human-animal bond developed over a long time? Or might this affinity for people be a change that could emerge quickly, as with so many other changes Lyudmila and Belyaev had seen in the foxes already? Would living with a human come naturally to a fox that was so domesticated?

Lyudmila had chosen Pushinka to be her companion within moments of first setting eyes on her, when she was an adorable little three-week-old pup frolicking with her brothers and sisters. When Lyudmila looked into Pushinka's eyes, she felt an intense sense of connection, more than with any fox before. Pushinka also showed a remarkable enthusiasm for human contact. She would wag her tail furiously with excitement whenever Lyudmila or one of the farm workers came near her, whimpering with glee and looking up eagerly at them with an unmistakable request that they stop and pet her. No one could walk by her without doing so. Lyudmila had decided to move Pushinka into the house after she had turned one year old, mated, and was carrying a litter of pups. That way, Lyudmila would be able to observe not only how Pushinka adjusted to living with her, but whether pups born in the company of humans might socialize differently than other pups born on the farm. On March 28, 1975, ten days before she was due to deliver, Pushinka was taken to her new home.

The 700-square-foot house had three rooms in addition to a kitchen and bathroom. Lyudmila had moved a bed, a small couch, and a desk into one room to serve as her bedroom and office combined, and she had built a den in another room for Pushinka. The third room was used as a common area, furnished with a few chairs and a table, where Lyudmila ate her meals and where, on occasion, research assistants or other visitors could gather. Pushinka would be free to roam throughout.

When Pushinka arrived early in the morning of the first day, she began racing around the house, in and out of rooms, highly agitated. Normally, pregnant foxes so close to giving birth spend most of their time lying down in their dens, but Pushinka paced and paced from one room to the other. She'd scratch at the wood chips that lined her den floor and lie down briefly, but then she'd jump right back up again and make another circuit of the house. Though she was comfortable with Lyudmila and came over to her often for some petting, Pushinka was clearly unsettled. These strange new surroundings seemed to be causing her extreme anxiety. She wouldn't eat anything all day except for a small piece of cheese and an apple that Lyudmila had brought with her for her own snack. That afternoon, Lyudmila was joined by her daughter, Marina, and Marina's friend, Olga. The girls wanted to be there for Pushinka's big move-in day. At about 11:00 p.m., with Pushinka still pacing around the house, the three of them turned in for the night, the two girls lying down on the floor under blankets next to Lyudmila's bed. To their great surprise and Lyudmila's relief, as they began to drift off to sleep, Pushinka silently sneaked into their room and lay down right alongside the girls. Then, she, too, finally relaxed and went to sleep.

As Lyudmila would discover over the course of many months with Pushinka, the lovable little fox would not only become perfectly comfortable living with her, she would become every bit as loyal as the most loyal of dogs. Pushinka's tale was only beginning. She and Lyudmila would live through much together, as would many of the other foxes and many of the other researchers working in Siberia, for this bold experiment in domestication was only just starting to reveal all the wonders it would serve up for science.

For more, see Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut's new book How To Tame a Fox {and Build A Dog}. 

Excerpt modified from Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut's 2017 book How To Tame a Fox {and Build A Dog}, The University of Chicago Press

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