Born Free USA Blog
by Will Travers,
Chief Executive Officer
What can you say about a big-hearted bloke who has rescued dolphins, tigers, elephants and more and whose parents once helped a lion cub from a department store by caring for him in their backyard and engineering his rightful return to Africa? You can safely say that he's got great animal instincts! In 1984, Will Travers joined his parents — "Born Free" film stars Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers — to form what became The Born Free Foundation. With knowledge, passion and compassion dripping from his every word, Will's blogs are sure to make you embrace our crusade to Keep Wildlife in the Wild ®.
Note: Will Travers yields his space this week to colleague Melanie Scheible, Born Free USA’s executive assistant. Melanie writes:
I was walking with a friend the other day when we passed a woman with two large, grayish dogs on leashes. I commented on the unusual animals and she informed us that the animals were wolves, pure-bred. She didn’t elaborate on how or why she obtained the animals. As we walked past, my friend remarked that it was sad to see someone confining these wild creatures to her urban environment when humans already had spent tens of thousands of years domesticating a hundred other species of perfectly suitable pet dogs.
I thought of this conversation when an article by Ceiridwin Terrill hit the front page of Slate’s website, lamenting the impending failure of a Russian experiment to domesticate foxes. In 1957, scientist Dmitry K. Belyaev bought a group of the tamest foxes he could find from a fur farm. He bred these foxes to each other and kept breeding for dozens of generations. When Belyaev died in 1985, Lyudmila Trut took over the operation and continued breeding the animals. The facility has produced 45,000 animals and is housing the 52nd generation of foxes.
Originally, the experiment started as a scientific endeavor to understand the domestication process better, and to answer the question, “How did cows, pigs, dogs and cats come to be so different from their wild cousins?” But now, this “farm” provides animals to the horrifying fur and exotic pet industries.
The foxes who are part of this experiment live in rows of small cages, about 3.5 square feet each. The cages have wire floors, walls and ceilings. They are barren, except for a bowl of water. For the first year of their lives the foxes are tested frequently for “tameness” through hand-feeding, handling and exposure to new objects. Ironically, as the foxes are bred to be more tolerant and even desirous of human attention, this living situation becomes more miserable as the small staff cannot attend to hundreds of foxes individually.
At a few months or a year old the foxes who weren’t deemed tame enough to breed are disposed of. Some are simply killed. Some are killed and their pelts sold to fund the research. Others are sold to fur farms and pet brokers. As you know, foxes on fur farms are often packed into cramped spaces, over-bred, and skinned alive. Trut says she sells more foxes to fur farms than pet dealers, which is largely to do with legal regulations. Last time she tried to sell the animals as pets in the United States, the animals were confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because her American broker was attempting to import the animals illegally.
The researchers have, essentially, run out of money. Terrill says, “If nothing is done to save [the project], we'll have missed an opportunity to understand the mechanisms of domestication, of which genetic tameness — friendly behavior that is not learned but inherited — is only one component.” But if nothing is done to halt the project, many more animals will suffer at the hands of these experimenters.
Continuing this experiment is pointless and cruel. Scientists might be interested to know the morphological and genetic changes that occurred over the generations of fox-breeding, but the information cannot be used to any productive end. Some have made weak claims that the research will lead to advances in autism treatment, but it has lead to none in the past 50 years. It is doubtful the research will be of value to anyone wanting to do more than simply satisfy curiosity, but comes at the cost of animals’ lives. Instead of mourning the loss of this “unique population” we should all be saying “good riddance” to the fox domestication experiment. Foxes and other wild species belong in the wild.