National Geographic : 2011 Mar
• IMPROBABLE PETS Foxes bred through generations to be as human-friendly as dogs get a boost from Lyudmila Trut (center) and other sta at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. 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 address- ing 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 an- ticipation of attention. In adjacent cages lining either side of the narrow, open-sided shed, doz- ens 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 over- grown property, flanked by birch forests and barred by a rusty metal gate, he and several hundred of his relatives are the only popula- tion 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 "do- mesticated" 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, "