The foxes that turned into dogs

In the 1950s a Soviet geneticist began an experiment in guided evolution. He wanted to show how domestication works

From the richly-plumed red fox to the big-eared fennec fox, foxes look adorable. Because of this, people are sometimes tempted to keep them as pets.

However, those who have tried have struggled. Unlike dogs and cats, the different species of fox have not been domesticated.

Domestication only happens over a long period of time through selective breeding. Cats and dogs were domesticated by humans thousands of years ago to be pets and companions. Sheep, goats and other animals were domesticated for food.

But there may be more to it than that. People who have tried to simply tame individual foxes often speak of a stubborn wildness that is impossible to get rid of.

This suggests that foxes harder to tame than other animals.

However, one extraordinary experiment has found a way to domesticate foxes. This one study could help us understand how our ancestors domesticated other animals, and indeed what domestication is.

Biologist David Macdonald studied foxes at close quarters for years. For a time, he had foxes living at home, which he recounted in his 1987 book Running with the Fox.

The foxes did not last long in Macdonald's house. He found that they would tear up the living area and create chaos. Others who have tried living with foxes report the same thing.

Richard Bowler, a wildlife photographer based in Wales, looks after a few foxes in a large outside space at his home. He reports that they are nervous and shy.

The youngest fox, a vixen called Hetty, is extremely shy around people - even though she was captive-bred, and Bowler and his partner fed her through the night from when she was one week old. He describes the temperament of the foxes as "highly wired".

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