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 or silver fox - 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. While the UK no longer farm fur, the silver fox is still bred here for companionship and education. The terms "farmed silver fox" and "North American farmed fox" are much more apt for it's description, allowing the other party an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the situation and the animal in question. While they have been considered vulpes vulpes since 1959, the North American red fox was originally classified as it's own species, vulpes fulva, and new research has been able to confirm that this original classification was correct; vulpes fulva is a divergent species of vulpes vulpes.
- The native wild European red fox - Which man can legally kill as part of land management practices in the UK, is also kept in captivity by organisations and private individuals when rehabilitation and release are not possible. The terms "rescued red fox" and "rescued wild fox" are much more suitable for foxes that fall within this category. In contrast to the European red fox, the sparse populations of wild, native North American red fox (or Montane foxes) are so threatened, that they are offered support under species protection laws.
Both farmed silver foxes and rescued red foxes could be described as "pet foxes" or "exotic pets" when kept at home by an individual for the purpose of education and/or 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, instead they have been domesticated for their fur 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" (Bastounes, 2018)
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 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 it's extinction. As is thought to have occurred with at least three other species of domesticated fox throughout history, including:
In Poland today, the Georgian and Pastel colour morph of silver foxes are already considered protected agricultural resources, 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, especially when it's wild kin are considered a threatened species today. While we do feel their place is limited and that keeping silver foxes ought to be a licensed activity (as occurs in other parts of the world), we feel strongly that they are owed some 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 are known to suffer a condition called Toxoplasmosis. It is a parasite the infects the brain and as a result, can alter the fear response and make such animals appear tame. While humans cannot catch toxoplasmosis off foxes due to the nature of the parasites life cycle, it is a zoonotic disease, meaning it is a condition that humans can suffer also. 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, The Fox Man or The National Fox Welfare Society. 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, (if the animal is in need of veterinary treatment and is over 1 kg, contact the RSPCA for a case reference number - prior to calling the vet - and they may be able to cover £50 towards any necessary veterinary costs).
"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 captive 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. If neutering is not possible, then it is advised that they are kept in same sex groups in order to prevent breeding.
What does "captive bred" mean?
The law permits the breeding of "captive bred" animals, such as the farmed North American red fox. The term "captive bred" is generally taken to mean 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 captive bred animals, 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 doesn't have the same benefit. Instead, it reduces their "fitness" to their captive environment;
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 breeding and to promote ethical keeping.
"The secret of improved breeding... apart from scientific knowledge, is love"