By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
Most biologists believe that Man’s Best Friend evolved over thousands of years from the gray wolf. For husky owners, the link might seem fairly obvious. Those of us with dogs who bear little resemblance to wolves might wonder why our wolf-descendants are so different from their ancestors.
In the early 1950s, Soviet geneticist Dimitry Belayev decided to explore this question. He was in charge of breeding silver foxes for the lucrative state-run fur industry. Foxes do not like people. They bites. They run. They growl. Belayev’s idea was to selectively breed the calmest foxes to each other to see if, over time, the animals could be domesticated.
How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) chronicles six decades of research initiated by Belayev and largely overseen by his assistant, Lyudmila Trut, the book’s co-author. What Belayev and Trut discovered is that the hormones that regulate an animal’s response to humans can also change the appearance of a species over time. The experimental foxes not only began to wag their tails and seek human company, they also developed new coloration, shorter snouts, and floppy ears–all within decades of the experiment’s start.
As a piece of pop science, How to Tame a Fox is well-written and easy for the layman to follow. It’s also full of Cold War history, political peril, and fascinating people (and animals). You may find yourself wishing you could travel to Siberia and return home with your own domesticated fox.