Animals

What These Rescued Foxes Tell Us About Their Complexity

At Save a Fox sanctuary in Minnesota, fur farm rejects and exotic pet cast-offs find a new home. Thursday, 7 February

By Kristin Hugo
Photographs By Robin Schwartz

When photographer Robin Schwartz visited Mikayla Raines in Minnesota last July, it was a mystical experience. Raines’ property was surrounded by towering oak trees and waist-high, yellow-tipped grass. The photographer and her human subjects were covered in DEET and polka-dot bites from the swarms of mosquitoes. The heat was so intense that the two people who lived and worked there walked around in their bras, and the bright sun painted them with harsh lighting. “It was like a fantasy world,” Schwartz says.

Then, there were the foxes.

The animals

There are two species of foxes that live at Save A Fox - red fox and arctic fox. They have names like “Banjo,” “Todd,” and “Dixie.” Some are affectionate towards humans; others will ignore their caretakers. Some are red, some are black and silver, and some are splotched like dogs. The foxes love toys, and they grin and wag their tails like dogs.

But they are not dogs.

Raines, 23, had studied to be a vet tech, but dropped out of school to start Save A Fox, which became a registered charity in 2017. There, she takes in native animals that can’t be released to the wild, including minks, a bobcat, and a coyote. Some of them come from people who got them as pets but couldn’t keep them because of how difficult they are, or because of changing exotic pet laws, or simply because of unforeseen circumstances.

Other foxes come from fur farms, where farmers raise them to kill and sell their pelts, mostly to clothing manufacturers and sometimes to taxidermists. Fur farmers give her foxes that are injured, have damaged pelts, or whose mothers have rejected them. Even though Raines doesn’t agree with fur farmers, she says she has a good working relationship with them. “All of the fur farmers that I get foxes from actually think what I do is like super cool,” she says. (Read "Are wildlife sanctuaries good for animals?")

Raines doesn’t buy or breed foxes. Volunteers and a live-in animal caretaker provide support for the animals, feeding them, cleaning their cages, and taking care of documents, social media, donations, and the never-ending slew of regulations and inspections with which they have to keep up.

What kind of animal is a fox?

Watch enough videos of pet foxes on Instagram and you’ll see charismatic creatures playing, getting belly rubs, and “talking” in strange tongues. But to others, foxes are a resource, the means to the end of fur ruffs on coats.

Foxes exist at a strange intersection. They are considered wildlife, and Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources regulates the animals at Save A Fox as such. In another context, foxes are functionally agricultural products, like cattle and pigs, and the city of Faribault regulates the foxes at Save A Fox as livestock. Where does the boundary lie?

“There is no boundary,” says Angela Grimes, director of development and operations at Born Free USA, a Maryland-based organisation that fights for wild animal rights. “Foxes and all other wildlife are just that. They might be kept in cruel and unnatural situations like fur farms, or they may be kept as pets, but they are by nature and definition wild animals, even if they’re not living in the wild where they naturally belong.”

Foxes are challenging to understand from a legal perspective as well, says Rebecca Wisch, associate editor and staff attorney at the Animal Legal and Historical Center. In some states, they’re treated as predatory pests that you can legally kill with little oversight. In others, they are regulated for hunters and trappers to target for their fur. In still others, they’re protected native wildlife.

Raines doesn’t consider the animals true wildlife, since they weren’t born in the wild, nor can they ever be released because they don't have the skills to survive in the wild. She doesn’t think of them as livestock either. “If I was a fur farm, then they would be [livestock] because I’d be using them as an agricultural pursuit,” she says. “But I’m not. So I kind of consider them like pets.” (Read about why some animals are easier to domesticate than others.)

While foxes are like pets to Raines, they do not make good companion animals for most people. They require a vast knowledge of fox biology and care and obsessive levels of dedication. They’re very curious and tend to destroy things.They can hop over and dig under fences and escape. Many states regulate, tax, or even ban their ownership. Plus, they pee and poop everywhere. Foxes have a peculiar smell and don’t have the several-thousand-year history of domestication that dogs do. Foxes’ personalities may shine on Instagram, but they tend to make terrible pets.

Domestication

We are in the midst of a long experiment of fox domestication that started with fur farmed foxes in Soviet Russia. Wanting to better understand how dogs became domesticated, a man named Dmitri Belyaev went to a fur farm and selected some of the tamest animals there. For generations (in fox time), he selected the least fearful, most affectionate of the fox kits to try to breed the most friendly animal that he could. The less friendly ones were killed for their pelts. (Read what DNA from pet foxes can tell us about dogs and ourselves.)

The Institute of Cytology and Genetics, where the experiment started, continues breeding foxes to this day, long after Belyaev’s death. They even sell some of the foxes to fund the research, but no longer to the United States.

While the breeding project has produced foxes that are significantly tamer than wild or fur-farm foxes, they still have a long way to go before they’re as easy to keep as dogs.

Creating a fox haven

In spite of all the challenges of caring for foxes, Raines fell in love with them when she was doing wildlife rehab, and that led to her getting her first pet fox, an arctic fox named Fiasco. Ultimately, Fiasco’s popularity on Instagram led to the formation of the rescue.

Fiasco’s followers started contacting Raines, asking her to take in their own pet foxes, so she obtained a game farm permit and permit to exhibit captive wildlife from the state, and a USDA license to allow her to “exhibit” the foxes on tours for the public, transport foxes, and to adopt them out to qualified homes.

She moved to a bigger facility in a different town to keep more after she lost her permit to keep foxes in Lakeville for keeping too many, and now she has a Rice County conditional use permit. She maintains an Instagram account with videos of the charismatic animals playing, pouncing, squealing, and snuggling. The account has 200,000 followers and drives sponsorships and donations to the Save A Fox GoFundMe. Photographer Schwartz was so inspired by her visit to Save a Fox that she made a donation after her visit.

Grimes is glad sanctuaries like this exist, so long as they take good care of rejected animals and don’t breed or buy them, which Raines doesn’t. “Foxes that are born on fur farms—those are miserable, horrible settings,” she says. “Those that have a chance to be taken out of there and live on a reputable sanctuary are very lucky.”

While Raines works hard to ensure that Save A Fox is legitimate and organized, what photographer Schwartz finds most compelling is the inter-species interactions between the foxes and the people. “Mikayla had this animal relationship that was really calm and comfortable and so natural,” Schwartz says. “She reminded me of a wood nymph or something.”

Follow writer Kristin Hugo on Twitter.

Photographer Robin Schwartz focuses on exploring interspecies relationships. She is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow in photography. Follow her on Instagram.