Siberia Pt. 3: From wild to domesticated in 50 years, the incredible fox farm experiment in Novosibirsk


The incredible fox domestication experiment in Novosibirsk, Russia from Tyler Cole on Vimeo.


I never expected that one of the coolest places I would ever visit in my life would be a muddy, shit-covered collection of animal cages, but there I was, standing in front of five decades of artificial evolution.

How I ended up here starts in the United States, listening to a podcast that I religiously follow called Radiolab from NPR/WNYC. On the shows, they find incredible stories and apply the most recent scientific research to create astoundingly captivating narratives (if you are science-oriented or just curious about the world around you and want to get your mind blown for an hour, I highly recommend you check them out).


They had a show called “New Normal” in which they discussed reframing ideas of normalcy. One of the stories was about a fox farm in Novosibirsk which had been working to domesticate the foxes for over 50 years. It was started by a researcher at the Novosibirsk Institute of Biology named Dr. Belyaev in the Soviet days, during which he had to keep it disguised as a fur farm since the Soviet administration perceived genetic studies like his as a sort of pseudoscience and did not permit it. Starting with a few hundred foxes obtained from Estonia, he selected the ones that were most friendly and most hostile toward humans for continued breeding. This wasn’t just capturing wild animals and trying to tame them, it was an attempt to artificially re-create the evolutionary process of domestication in few generations, a process which took thousands of years for other animals like that from wolves to dogs.

Seeing as I was planning to travel through Siberia and Novosibirsk on my trip, I had furiously sent emails to all of the contacts I could find associated with the project on the internet about visiting the farm. After initially being turned away I got into contact with the head researcher, Dr. Lyudmila Trut. She said my persistence was not unnoticed and arranged to have me meet two of the university students involved in her research. After talking with the students, Olga and Irina, they said they felt really bad about the trouble I went through since my emails got mixed up with other email requests to actually buy the foxes due to a recent National Geographic publication (click to read, it’s far more complete than what I am writing).

They rarely get requests to see the farm since Novosibirsk isn’t exactly a tourist destination, and were delighted to show me around. We had to travel a bit out of the city to the nondescript, fenced-in farm. The results of the experiment were stark; on the approach, the first set of cages contained silver foxes that were kept as wild controls. They were clearly anxious as we neared, and nervously paced the cage as you would expect a wild animal to do.

The next set of cages contained animals that were selected for hostility towards humans, and their deep breathing and lunging at the cage to bite us left no confusion as to which group they were in. The last group was the domesticated foxes and was the most pleasant; they excitedly panted at the cage when we walked up and gently nibbled and licked my fingers as I poked them in the cage.

As we opened the cages it was clear there was a range of friendliness amongst the domesticated foxes, and the friendliest ones gladly hopped into my arms and nestled their head against my chest. I limited my time holding them since the natural smell of their fur coat was quite strong, but petting them in the cage was like petting a dog as they would roll around on their back and lick my hand. Visually, they looked similar to the other foxes with the exception of tails which curved back around and touched their back, floppy ears, and some had different coat patterns with the occasional star pattern on their forehead fur. Olga said that there were more subtle morphological changes like skull size and bone structure, but to my untrained eye it wasn’t apparent. They also had more frequent mating periods. The wild females only mate once a year, but the domesticated vixens (actual name for female fox) were down to get dirty multiple times per year.

I was surprised that the foxes were kept individually in cages and thought it was a little sad, but that was the only way to carefully control the breeding. The only times they were together were for exercise periods and mating. The students that showed me around agreed that it wasn’t the best situation, but considering the Russian government’s lack of financial support they didn’t have many options to take care of the few thousand foxes on the premises. There had been some really incredible discoveries including genetic linkages and differential hormone production regulating stress tolerance in the domesticated foxes that had potentially wide-ranging implications for humans and other animals, but Russian scientific funding was paltry at best.

Besides my time at the fox farm, I had a nice time in Novosibirsk staying with my Couchsurfing host Anton and his wife Anastasia (Nastia). I crashed in their tightly packed kitchen on a couch, and it is the first time that I can say I ate a candlelit dinner and drank Chilean Sauvignon Blanc from the same place I slept.

They were both well traveled (including a road trip across the United States) with stories aplenty from the road, and both were climbing the ladder in their respective careers, Anton as a computer programmer and Nastia as a business administrator. Anton showed me around the local akademgorodok (university area, I describe them in general in my Krasnoyarsk post) of Novosibirsk on his BMX bikes, and they took me to the center of the city to walk around a bit and visit Anton’s mother, who cooked a great meal. They also indulged my request for bliny, a traditional Siberian food similar to a French crepe, which had the globally-common culinary history of starting out as an economical food that was modified and improved to eventually take on a life of its own.

On my last night there I made Anton and Nastia some traditional American baked Mac and Cheese, after which we made a muddy hike through the woods to visit a friend of theirs who was breeding puppies in her apartment. At this point in Russia and staying in several peoples’ homes, I was catching on to the incredible uniformity that exists in the housing developments from the Soviet era.

Several patterns struck me as peculiar. First, toilets are always kept in a separate room from the shower and sink, located just beside it. So I suppose it would be best to say there is a toilet room and wash room. The sink and shower always share a single faucet, which swivels from the sink to the shower and has a lever to turn on the shower head. The knobs are always the same.

Secondly, apartment buildings all have separated layouts where apartments sharing the same vertical stairwell are only accessed from that stairwell. That is, there is no horizontal passage like a hallway to connect apartments (I noticed a similar layout in China). For example, in the US you can typically enter an apartment building from several entrances and just go to the correct floor to find the apartment by passing through the hallway. In Russia, you have to find the correct entrance door on the ground floor, through which only the apartments directly connected to the stairwell above are accessible.

Within the same city apartments tend to share the same layout around an L-shaped hallway. At one end of the L shape is the kitchen, and at the other end is a bedroom and closet or second bedroom, depending on the size. In the middle of the L, the toilet and washroom are positioned, and some larger flats may have an additional room along the middle of the L as well. Anton told me a popular sketch comedy show did a bit about this where the characters thought they were in a completely different city since the apartment they were in was identical to the ones they were used to in their hometown.

The kitchen sink is always the same practical, minimalist style with exposed plumbing. Drying racks for dishes are elevated, and kind of serve as the shelf for the dishes as well. Light switches are not typically located within the room they light, but rather in the hallway (the dual bathroom light switches are always directly beside each other).

I’m realizing this description is dragging on, but suffice it to say that I didn’t realize the extent of the Soviet one-size-fits-all approach. Nowadays people customize their apartments in more ways, but the legacy is still apparent. I suppose there is also an American style of uniformity, seen in the inefficient (on multiple levels) series of sprawling subdivisions, fast food restaurants chains, strip malls, and uber-markets like Walmart that are often indistinguishable from one city to the next. Maybe Soviet planning at the individual, family, and community level was uniform and highly undesirable, but it made me reflect on the incredible uniformity that exists in the United States on the level of urban sprawl.

There are infinite options once you get into a fast food restaurant or uber-market in the United States, but at the same time there is a total lack of creativity and thoughtfulness in the overall layout of suburban areas as to whether they are places that people really want to live in, just like among the Soviet urban plans. It seems like two extremes: the Soviet method for urban design had a disregard for personal preference and was strictly top down from a silly bureaucracy interested in expediency, whereas suburban development post-WWII in the US was (and still is) almost entirely controlled by individual land developers just concerned about turning a profit on land. Neither system really takes into account designing places that are appealing on a long-term basis and integrate space in an effective manner across an entire community, and simply address short-term concerns. I would imagine there is a better way to integrate long-term community concerns with the need of individual developers to make this work better (maybe it’s happening and I just don’t know).

I’m realizing as it write this that a TED talk addresses this: James H Kuntsler dissects suburbia .

Well, this entry for Novosibirsk went far longer than what I was expecting. Leaving Novosibirsk, I took of hitchhiking to Omsk after staying with Anton for a few days, and I’ll cover that soon.

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+2 #1 Eklass 2011-10-05 01:41
Have found your web page. My pal mentioned it to me before, yet never got around to checking it out until now. I must express, I’m floored. I really enjoyed reading through your posts and will absolutely be back to get more. Rohl Farmhouse Sink
+2 #2 robert ruiz 2012-06-10 06:04
where can i see the whole,one hour special. i seen it many years ago,but i would love to see the whole documentary. thank you...robert

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