Old World vs New World Foxes
Until 1959 the North American red fox was considered a New World species (Vulpes fulva), separate to the European red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which is an Old World species.
Between 1959 and 2009, the North American red fox was categorized as vulpes vulpes. However, in 2009, with the use of modern gene mapping technology, scientists were able to confirm that the North American red fox separated from the European red fox family tree around 400,000 years ago and is a divergent form of the European red fox (as an idea, it is thought to be before modern humans evolved).
"Prior to European settlement, native populations of the red fox in North America comprised... 2 lineages, which currently dominate red fox populations in the western mountains and in eastern Canada, together comprise the Nearctic clade. The 3rd phylogenetically distinct lineage, the Holarctic clade, was isolated in unglaciated portions of Alaska and the Yukon during the last glaciation, and is the dominant lineage in Alaska and western Canada. The Nearctic and Holarctic clades diverged about 400,000 years ago and represent 2 separate colonization events by the red fox across the Bering Land Bridge from Eurasia during Pleistocene glaciations"
It was the native North American red fox that early European settlers began trapping for the fur trade, before they began island farming and eventually, commercial fur farming within farms. The 2 distinct Alaskan and Canadian lineages are still recognized within breeding pedigrees today, knowledge of which is important for understanding inheritance of the different colour and patterns and the resulting combinations produced.
As with the native foxes, the farmed foxes (collectively termed 'silver foxes', after the melanistic animals the practice started from) are comprised of varying subspecies from the vulpes fulva line, a species that is considered under threat in the wild today.
"The secretive the Sierra Nevada red fox... is one of the rarest mammals in North America... Already highly vulnerable to extinction due to its perilously small population size and reduced genetic diversity, this fox faces many dire threats to its habitat... in April 2011 the Center petitioned for its protection under the Endangered Species Act"
Notable subspecies of red fox in North America includes;
- British Columbian fox (Vulpes vulpes abietorum)
- Northern Alaskan fox (Vulpes vulpes alascensis)
- Cascade Mountains red fox (vulpes vulpes cascadensis) - Listed Endangered 2022
- American red fox (Vulpes vulpes fulvus)
- Wasatch or Rocky Mountain red fox (Vulpes vulpes macroura)
- Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) - Listed Endangered 2021
- Sacramento Valley red fox (Vulpes vulpes patwin)
- Northern plains fox (Vulpes vulpes regalis)
- Nova Scotia fox (Vulpes vulpes rubricosa)
Post 1959, Vulpes fulva has been considered Vulpes vulpes. However, both scientifically speaking and in our own opinion, they are divergent enough to be considered separate species in their own right, as was originally classified and is confirmed with modern genetic technologies.
The North American farmed fox or silver fox was also the source supply for the Russian domestication experiment. Only recently domesticated as a farmed species when the experiment began, they were an ideal animal model of choice to study domestication, in an era where it was thought domestication took millennia and with a dominant scientific theory of inheritance that believed parental traits were inherited through blending. The Russian Domesticated foxes are classified as Vulpes vulpes forma amicus, (a vulpes fulva lineage, as is the farmed fox).
The Russian scientists were able to demonstrate they could utilize selective breeding to produce foxes that displayed both tame and aggressive behaviour towards humans, which confirmed Mendel's theories of inheritance and suggested that it may also play a role in the inheritance of behavioural traits also. As a result, it was an important experiment that aided our scientific understanding of domestication, behaviour, genetics and epigenetics.
"The foxes at Novosibirsk, Russia, are the only [scientifically recognized] population of domesticated [pet] foxes in the world. These domesticated foxes originated from farm-bred silver foxes... whose genetic source is unknown. In this study we examined the origin of the domesticated strain of foxes.. to identify the phylogenetic origin of these populations... results are consistent with historical records indicating that the original breeding stock of farm-bred foxes originated from Prince Edward Island, Canada"
There is no method for making taxonomic changes and scientific discoveries known to the world immediately, it often takes around 20 years for the knowledge to filter through to the wider community, unless the story is picked up by the world's mainstream media outlets (as occurred recently for the Red Panda and the Gentoo Penguin), however new knowledge is beginning to filter through;
"Historically, red foxes were classified as two species: Vulpes vulpes in Eurasia and Vulpes fulva in the Americas (Tesky, 1995). Since 1959 they have been considered to be a singular species of Vulpes vulpes, with Vulpes fulva one of the ten subspecies... Some authorities give it full species recognition as Vulpes fulva. It is the largest of the true foxes and one of the most widely distributed members of the order Carnivora, occurring in North America...
The North American red foxes have been traditionally considered either as subspecies of the Old World red foxes or subspecies of their own species, V. fulva. Due to the opinion that North American red foxes were introduced from Europe, all North American red foxes have been seen as conspecific with V. vulpes;however, genetic analyses of global red fox haplotypes by Statham et al. (2012, 2014) indicates that the North American red foxes have been genetically isolated from the Old World populations for 400,000 years, prompting possible application of V. fulva to all North American red foxes. Castello (2018) has formalized treatment of Vulpes fulva as a separate species from the Old World Vulpes vulpes"
"Vulpes fulva, a New World fox often considered an Old World fox"
A Statement Regarding Pet Foxes
The terms 'pet fox' and 'exotic pet' mean little in reality but can conjure very strong emotional reactions in people when mentioned. Here, we will address the two main types of fox kept privately in the UK as companion animals and animal ambassadors:
- The non-native farmed North American red fox - The farmed North American red fox is known as the silver fox. It is a generic name that originated from the melanistic animals the line was created from and allows the other party an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the animal in question. It is a domesticated farm animal that exists in over 70 different colour variations, after being intensively bred for it's fur since the late 1800's. The UK no longer farm fur, but the silver fox is still bred here for companionship and education. While they have been considered vulpes vulpes, prior to 1959, the North American red fox was classified as it's own species and new research has been able to confirm that this original classification was correct.
- The native wild European red fox - UK law does not permit the keeping of native red foxes or their offspring. However, the law does permit organisations and private individuals to provide the necessary care for a wild fox when rehabilitation and release are not possible. The term 'rescued wild fox' is much more suitable for foxes that fall within this category. It is important to note that wild foxes which cannot be rehabilitated and released are not the same as the silver foxes that exist as a result of the fur trade. If you are concerned about the welfare of a wild fox or wish to assist wild foxes in need of rehabilitation and release, then please contact The Fox Rescuers or The Fox Project for more information.
Both silver foxes and rescued wild foxes could be described as 'pet foxes' or 'exotic pets' when kept at home by an individual for the purpose of education and companionship. And while the age-old rhetoric 'they belong in the wild' may seem the ideal response to the situation, the reality is, that neither type of fox mentioned above can legally be released from captivity and someone needs to take responsibility for their captive welfare.
In general, those rare few people who do decide to dedicate their lives to the care of a fox, do so because they want to learn more about them, because they want to assist them in times of need and because they want to help raise awareness of the plights of their kind. While fox keepers may refer to such animals using the word 'pet' the term is used because they endear the animal they keep. It is the word we use to describe an animal that makes us feel this way.
For private keepers, these foxes are not a farm animal, a wild animal or a tool. They have become a member of the family.
"Love, you see, Changes us"
A Statement on Keeping Foxes
The keeping of farmed North American red fox or silver fox is a legal specialist hobby for those with specific interests in exotic animal management, welfare and behaviour. Silver foxes are extremely difficult to manage compared to other animals and their behavioural needs are complex. They are not like cats or dogs but are in fact, uniquely vulpine.
They are tenacious animals that have behaviour towards man that differs slightly from that of their wild kin. There are also several things that cannot be portrayed correctly, without the other party having met a silver fox first hand - from their possessiveness and destructive tendencies to their independence and how strong they smell.
But aren't they domesticated?
Silver foxes are not domesticated for tame behaviour like those of the Russian experiment. Russian experimental foxes are considered scientifically domesticated pets and are only available from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics. Instead, farm foxes have been domesticated for fur traits only.
"Although within Canidae only the dog has an ancient history of domestication, the farm-breeding of red foxes began in Eastern Canada in the late 19th century. Conventional farm-bred foxes live in close human proximity, yet they typically respond to humans with fearful aggression"
The terms 'domesticated' and 'tame' are not synonymous. Domestication is a process, the other is a trait we select for in that process. The terms 'pet' and 'tame' are synonymous. Thus, a domesticated farm animal (an animal domesticated for physical traits) being kept as a pet, is not the same thing as a domesticated pet (an animal domesticated for tame behaviour towards humans).
A wild animal can be tamed or made a 'pet' given nurture, but it is not a domesticated pet (domesticated specifically for tame behaviour; where the nature of the animal has been changed on a genetic level, that is then passed down to subsequent generations).
No-one would recommend keeping a silver fox as a pet, even those that keep them. It takes a special sort of person to dedicate their life to ensuring the welfare of such an animal. But for those rare few, it's possible for a mutually beneficial relationship to be nurtured, allowing the rest of us a window into their world.
So why do people keep silver foxes?
Man's history is intertwined with the stewardship and domestication of animals, including foxes. Today, the keeping of silver foxes comes in many forms; be it for farming, research, as educational ambassadors or as a pet. There are many reasons why any of these groups may keep these animals, but quite simply; because they exist, because they need homes and because people can.
Should people keep silver foxes?
We do not have an answer to that question, as there is much that needs to be taken into consideration. At Black Foxes UK we accept they exist and that people do, that there are benefits and downsides to doing so, which is true for every species man keeps. We only hope those who choose to keep silver foxes, do so responsibly and with the highest welfare goals in mind.
As part of man's responsibility towards any species kept (for any reason), the provision of information, education and support systems are necessary to ensure the highest welfare of the animals involved. The information and support systems necessary to ensure silver fox welfare are severely lacking, but this is where we aim to assist.
What is the future of the domesticated silver fox?
We do not know, but if the silver fox is to continue to exist, why can't it exist for companionship or education instead of for farming or research, providing the necessary infrastructure is implemented, minimum standards are set and good welfare can be maintained?
The alternative would be to cease keeping them. If man was to cease breeding and keeping this domesticated animal, it could mean their extinction. As is thought to have occurred with at least three other species of domesticated fox throughout history, (not to mention the historical near-extinction of our own native fox, which exists as an 'imported saviour' today), including:
In Poland, the Georgian and Pastel colour morph of silver fox was once considered a protected agricultural resource, in order to prevent loss of diversity and their extinction. Part of a larger World Strategy for the Conservation of Genetic Resources of Farm Animals, developed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
After all the silver fox has done for mankind, calling for it's extinction doesn't seem right. While we do feel their place is limited and that the keeping of silver foxes ought to be a DWA licensed activity, especially given their complicated and threatened status in North America, we feel strongly that they are owed a place within our society. Education on these animals is vital for their welfare and survival.
What about keeping wild European foxes?
The law on keeping rescued wildlife differs from how it is interpreted for captive bred animals like silver foxes. Wild foxes can only be kept in captivity when there is a welfare need to do so, which is usually when rehabilitation and release are not possible, following sickness, injury or abandonment (should something occur to the mother).
Wild foxes also suffer a condition called toxoplasmosis. It is a parasite the infects the brain and as a result, can alter the fear response and makes them appear tame. Infected foxes can be treated, but the damage and resulting behavioural changes can sometimes be permanent, meaning such animals cannot be released. The future for such animals is either euthanasia or finding them a knowledgeable home in captivity.
If you have found a wild fox in need, please do not take on the responsibility of caring for the animal yourself, seek professional advice immediately by contacting The Fox Project or The Fox Rescuers. You can also contact your local wildlife charities or your local vet for advice regarding sick, injured or abandoned wildlife, but bare in mind their ability to assist may be limited.
"You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed"
A Statement on Breeding Foxes
While it is legal to breed the red fox in captivity, it is a complex topic that warrants further explanation;
- The farmed North American red fox or silver fox, is a non-native, domesticated species. It is because of the historical practice of fur farming in the UK that the law permits the breeding of these foxes, accepting their captive bred status. While the North American red fox was recognized as vulpes vulpes, it has recently been scientifically established as a divergent species (vulpes fulva). The only way the North American red fox exists in the UK is through the historical practice of captive breeding, which continues legally to this day.
- The native European red fox is kept in captivity when people provide homes for wild foxes that cannot be rehabilitated and released. To protect the welfare of native wildlife, the law does not permit the breeding of wild caught foxes or their offspring, due to unnecessary suffering. As a result, rescued wild foxes cannot legally be bred in captivity. In contrast to the North American farmed fox, there has never been a common practice of breeding lines of European red foxes in captivity in the UK and thus, there are no historically captive bred lines of European red fox to be continuing to breed from today.
Any offspring of wild foxes born in captivity should have the opportunity for rehabilitation and release. If release is not possible, it is advised that the fox is neutered on welfare grounds.
What does 'captive bred' mean?
The law permits the breeding of 'captive bred' animals (such as the farmed North American red fox), which is generally taken to mean 'animals born in captivity, of parents that were born in captivity'. This definition is used to protect the welfare of native wildlife and to allow room for the permitted breeding of lines already bred in captivity.
Should the breeding of a fox come into dispute, the burden of proof (for proving captive bred status) falls to the owner. Black Foxes UK has previously had to assure veterinary surgeons foxes were captive bred and not candidates for release, before they would agree to treat animals, so it is important to bare in mind.
Hybrids between wild and domesticated foxes?
We have seen cases over the years where organisations and individuals have bred hybrids between native European red foxes and farmed North American foxes, claiming captive bred status of both species. While we understand the confusion about captive bred foxes makes it difficult to understand the taxonomy and law surrounding them, we would like to make it clear that we consider the breeding of native European red foxes in captivity, highly unethical.
European red foxes are not a captive bred species, they are native wildlife. It is not legal to breed 'rescued' or 'wild caught' native wildlife or their offspring. Their is also no benefit in creating hybrids between native wild species and non-native domesticated species of red fox in the UK, not to mention the ethical and welfare concerns of breeding hybrid animals.
If the first time and second time the captive breeding of a wild animal occurred it was not considered legal, subsequent breeding from that line is a legal grey area and is not considered ethical, despite the technicality of the line then coming under the heading of 'captive bred'. The law is there to protect native wildlife from this type of abuse of their welfare.
While hybridisation in captivity can improve performance traits such as better quality pelts, and hybridisation between wild species can improve fitness in a changing environment, adding wild fox genes back into domesticated fox lines and vice versa, does not have the same benefit. Instead, it reduces their fitness to both a captive or wild environment;
"Hybrid foxes perform either tame or aggressive behaviour toward people, and very rarely display intermediate attitudes to them" Trut, 1980; Plyusnina, 1991
It is recommended that all native foxes, their hybrids and foxes who's breeding history is not known, are neutered when kept in captivity. If neutering is not possible, it is recommended they are kept in same sex groups, in order to prevent bad breeding practice and to promote ethical keeping.
What is inbreeding and why does it occur?
Inbreeding is a technique used in the process of selective breeding. It involves the pairing and mating of individuals that are closely related, as opposed to outbreeding, which is the mating of unrelated animals. Inbreeding is useful for professional breeders to ensure the retention of desirable traits or the elimination of undesirable ones. It often results in decreased vigour, size and fertility of the offspring, due to the combined effect of harmful recessive genes presenting in both of the parents.
Inbreeding can also occur unintentionally, between unneutered siblings or closely related foxes that are maintained together over breeding season. Foxes are sexually mature by 8 months of age and we strongly recommend they are neutered before breeding season begins in December, in order to manage and reduce the probability of inbreeding and many other issues going forward.
There are very few breeders of silver foxes in the UK and most of today's stock originates from the same few imported animals and ex-farm stock that began the initial hobby breeder lines when the practice became popular, around 10-20 years ago. This means the gene pool is very small and as a result, linebreeding may sometimes be used to maintain certain traits.
Linebreeding is an established practice and a form of inbreeding. It involves the selection of mates on the basis of their relationships to a 'superior' ancestor with certain desired traits. Backcrossing (crossing a first-generation hybrid with one of the parental types) is a common method of inbreeding used within this linebreeding process. However, it must be kept in mind that homozygosity can become an issue when there are deleterious recessive alleles involved, as inbreeding increases the risk of recessive gene disorders.
What are homozygous lethal alleles?
"A pair of identical alleles that are both present in an organism that ultimately results in death of that organism are referred to as recessive lethal alleles. Though recessive lethals may code for dominant or recessive traits, they are only fatal in the homozygous condition."
Whitemark and platinum are examples of homozygous lethal morphs in foxes. Both possess incompletely dominant genes which are lethal in the homozygous condition and thus, these foxes should not be bred to one another, as this results in reduced litter sizes and embryonic death.
If you are planning to breed foxes; unless you have knowledge in silver fox genetics, UK silver fox lineages, red fox socalisation windows and animal welfare, we strongly recommend that you don't.
"The secret of improved breeding... apart from scientific knowledge, is love"