Taming the Wild

Only a handful of wild animal species have been successfully bred to get along with humans. The reason, scientists say, is found in their genes.

"Hello! How are you doing?" Lyudmila Trut says, reaching down to unlatch the door of a wire cage labeled "Mavrik." We're standing between two long rows of similar crates on a farm just outside the city of Novosibirsk, in southern Siberia, and the 76-year-old biologist's greeting is addressed not to me but to the cage's furry occupant. Although I don't speak Russian, I recognize in her voice the tone of maternal adoration that dog owners adopt when addressing their pets.

Mavrik, the object of Trut's attention, is about the size of a Shetland sheepdog, with chestnut orange fur and a white bib down his front. He plays his designated role in turn: wagging his tail, rolling on his back, panting eagerly in anticipation of attention. In adjacent cages lining either side of the narrow, open-sided shed, dozens of canids do the same, yelping and clamoring in an explosion of fur and unbridled excitement. "As you can see," Trut says above the din, "all of them want human contact." Today, however, Mavrik is the lucky recipient. Trut reaches in and scoops him up, then hands him over to me. Cradled in my arms, gently jawing my hand in his mouth, he's as docile as any lapdog.

Except that Mavrik, as it happens, is not a dog at all. He's a fox. Hidden away on this overgrown property, flanked by birch forests and barred by a rusty metal gate, he and several hundred of his relatives are the only population of domesticated silver foxes in the world. (Most of them are, indeed, silver or dark gray; Mavrik is rare in his chestnut fur.) And by "domesticated" I don't mean captured and tamed, or raised by humans and conditioned by food to tolerate the occasional petting. I mean bred for domestication, as tame as your tabby cat or your Labrador. In fact, says Anna Kukekova, a Cornell researcher who studies the foxes, "they remind me a lot of golden retrievers, who are basically not aware that there are good people, bad people, people that they have met before, and those they haven't." These foxes treat any human as a potential companion, a behavior that is the product of arguably the most extraordinary breeding experiment ever conducted.

Read This Next

Soils found in Antarctica seem to contain no life

The complex situation for immunocompromised people and COVID-19 vaccines

Champions of wildlife and wild places win prestigious awards

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet