2018-03-08 / Opinions

Book Review

How to Tame a Fox

This one is for animal lovers. Also, readers interested in science or in international cooperation should check it out. How to Tame a Fox begins by introducing Dmitri Belyaev, a genetic scientist in Russia in 1952. He knew that the Stalin-backed Trofim Lysenko had set scientific research back for years with his erroneous theories.

Belyaev believed that he could develop domesticated animals from the wild with careful attention to genetic traits. He had to work, however, in a system that was flawed. He used his success with breeding mink and foxes for fur improvement for pelts to sell for his experiments toward domestication of the fox.

He was looking at important questions about domestication in all species. Why had so few animal species out of the millions on the planet become domesticated, only a few dozen in all? Many of these had developed different coloring and had retained physical characteristics from childhood into adulthood, none of which might be sought by the breeders. All wild mammals breed only once a year, yet in domestic life mating may occur more than once. Belyaev thought that the process of domestication by our human ancestors was aimed toward tameness, and somehow this affected other changes.

Lee Alan Dugatkin is an evolutionary biologist and historian of science at the University of Louisville. His co-author Lyudmila Trut is a professor of evolutionary genetics in Novosibirsk, Siberia. “She has been the lead researcher on the silver fox domestication experiment since 1959.” Together they tell this amazing and charming story of the foxes and their human friends.

“The silver fox was a special breed of the red fox, which is not particularly aggressive in the wild unless backed into a corner by predators.” Foxes in captivity are a different story. Many snarl at care takers, and some are ferocious. The workers with Belyaev approached the foxes slowly. The animals who were less agitated were chosen as parents of the initial work. Results after three years of breeding were encouraging.

Belyaev died in 1985, but the experiment is ongoing. 56 generations have been bred. The new foxes run toward people and become like pets, which a few have been. After many years, the experiment was moved to an experimental farm. In additional to hands-on work with the foxes, the scientists researched how hormones might be involved in the physical and behavioral changes they were seeing. There was laboratory work along with the difficult care of researchers and animals in the cold of Siberia.

It is inspiring to read about the devotion of the care takers and the “friendships” that formed with individual animals. The pictures of some of the foxes are endearing. However, one does not have to be sentimental to enjoy How to Tame a Fox. It is absorbing and is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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