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Arctic fox black and white

Arctic foxes are what is known as a opportunist specialists. Their diet is mostly meat, but they will get their meat anyway they can.

During the winter months, many Arctic foxes live like jackals, following the polar bears onto the ice and scavenging their kills.

Because of this trait, Arctic foxes are generally not above begging from people, which has proven to be the downfall of countless foxes. Trappers have been known to feed these foxes all through the summer. Then, when the foxes’ pelts have reached their prime, they dispatched them for their fur.

However, I have always thought this trait could mean that Arctic foxes could have been tamed rather easily. I looked for several accounts of them being kept as pets, and I found one that was rather interesting.

The following story comes from an 1874 book by William Henry Giles Kingston called Stories of Animal Sagacity:

Mr [Isaac Israel] Hayes, the Arctic explorer, had a beautiful little snow-white fox, which was his companion in his cabin when his vessel was frozen up during the winter. She had been caught in a trap, but soon became tame, and used to sit in his lap during meals, with her delicate paws on the cloth. A plate and fork were provided for her, though she was unable to handle the fork herself; and little bits of raw venison, which she preferred to seasoned food. When she took the morsels into her mouth, her eyes sparkled with delight. She used to wipe her lips, and look up at her master with a coquetterie perfectly irresistible. Sometimes she exhibited much impatience; but a gentle rebuke with a fork on the tip of the nose was sufficient to restore her patience.

When sufficiently tame, she was allowed to run loose in the cabin; but she got into the habit of bounding over the shelves, without much regard for the valuable and perishable articles lying on them. She soon also found out the bull’s-eye  [A thick, circular piece of glass set, as in a roof or ship’s deck, to admit light] overhead, through the cracks round which she could sniff the cool air. Close beneath it she accordingly took up her abode; and thence she used to crawl down when dinner was on the table, getting into her master’s lap, and looking up longingly and lovingly into his face, sometimes putting out her little tongue with impatience, and barking, if the beginning of the repast was too long delayed.

To prevent her climbing, she was secured by a slight chain. This she soon managed to break, and once having performed the operation, she did not fail to attempt it again. To do this, she would first draw herself back as far as she could get, and then suddenly dart forward, in the hope of snapping it by the jerk; and though she was thus sent reeling on the floor, she would again pick herself up, panting as if her little heart would break, shake out her disarranged coat, and try once more. When observed, however, she would sit quietly down, cock her head cunningly on one side, follow the chain with her eye along its whole length to its fastening on the floor, walk leisurely to that point, hesitating a moment, and then make another plunge. All this time she would eye her master sharply, and if he moved, she would fall down on the floor at once, and pretend to be asleep.

She was a very neat and cleanly creature, everlastingly brushing her clothes, and bathing regularly in a bath of snow provided for her in the cabin. This last operation was her great delight. She would throw up the white flakes with her diminutive nose, rolling about and burying herself in them, wipe her face with her soft paws, and then mount to the side of the tub, looking round her knowingly, and barking the prettiest bark that ever was heard. This was her way of enforcing admiration; and being now satisfied with her performance, she would give a goodly number of shakes to her sparkling coat, then, happy and refreshed, crawl into her airy bed in the bull’s-eye, and go to sleep.

Mr Hayes does not tell us what became of Birdie. I am afraid that her fate was a sad one (205-207).

Isaac Israel Hayes recounts the story of Birdie in The Open Polar Sea: A Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery towards the North Pole, an account of Hayes’s expedition in which he traveled into the Arctic Ocean on a schooner (that had a bull’s eye). It seems that Kingston wrote the story  about Birdie almost verbatim from Hayes’s account.

Most wild dogs that have not been widely persecuted by man are rather like Birdie. It is almost the rule that wild dogs from areas where they have no reason to fear humans are very curious about us.

***

This fox had not been raised in captivity. This fox had lived her life as a wild animal, but she was able to become as tame as any dog.

If wolves had similar proclivities thousands of years ago, domestication would have been very easy.  In fact, I think the reason why people were able to domesticate wolves so easily and so early in our history is because wolves really were easily tamed.

With the advent of agriculture, man began to persecute wolves, and this changed the way they behaved. We selected for nervous and reactive animals in the wolf population, and the animals became nearly impossible to tame.

Today, there are no wolf populations that have not experienced at least some of these selective pressures. Even the ones of the High Arctic, which are more approachable than those to the south, have experienced trapping, poisoning, and even the old Sarah Palin special.

The difference between dogs and wolves is that man selected dogs to become so tame and tractable that they have become like us, while man has selected wolves to be barmy, nervous, and reactive animals. The former was done through careful selective breeding, while the latter happened simply because we came up with lots of different ways to kill wolves.

The original wolf had to have been more like a dog than it is now. I could not have been the same animal that exists today. We simply could never have domesticated such an animal.

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