For some, it doesn’t get any cuter than owning a pet fox. One Vancouver couple is so besotted with their two tiny red foxes, Loki and Cairo, they document their adventures on a website, complete with pictures of the furry duo luxuriating in swaths of sunlight on a living room rug. Fennec foxes cost about $1,500; adults can get up to about four pounds. Loki and Cairo come from the now-retired Vancouver Island fox breeder Christine Ham.
“In Japan, they’re very popular and very expensive,” says California pet-fox breeder Sheri Hanna. “These guys are the smallest of the fox family, and they’ve got great big ears so they look like a Disney character. They’re social and they tame down really easily. Plus, they don’t have that musk gland thing, that odour other foxes have.”
Hanna’s male fox, Rex, befriends “anyone who comes over. He can’t stand it—he wants to play with them,” she says. “I can walk up to these guys and they roll over and squeal and want their bellies rubbed and their ears scratched. They’re geared toward people. They’re one of the few wild animals you can have in your house that get along with cats and dogs and pigs. They’ve very playful.”
Christine Ham no longer breeds the animals but she’s keeping her two foxes, Buzby and Willow. Ham loves her foxes but says they’re not for everyone, singling out “neat freaks and people who are looking for a status symbol” as unsuitable owners. “Fennecs can get into a lot of trouble,” she says. “They like to dig. Carpets are a ‘no’ in a Fennec home. They’re known for stealing. They love to eat rubber, and people need to realize they almost never housebreak.” In California, Hanna used to litter-box train her young ones, she says. “But they never 100 per cent litter-box train. Each one decides what it’s going to do. I find they like to sleep in their litter box and poop in their bed. Or they’ll leave a little cigar somewhere. They think it’s fun to sleep in a litter box because they’re geared for sand.”
Fennec foxes were first imported to the United States in 1978 by an American oil worker, Garold Muth, who one day in Libya spotted one running across the road in front of his jeep and diving into a hole. Muth was “trying to figure out what it was,” says Hanna, whose own foxes can be traced back to Muth’s. “He ended up digging into the hole and grabbing the animal and putting it into his truck. Eventually, he was able to bring some back.”
Hanna says the animals aren’t loud, “but they might yodel if they want attention at night, during the digging, because they’re nocturnal.” That’s one of the drawbacks, she says. “You would never have them in your room at night. You wouldn’t sleep—the digging.”
Online, about 2,000 Fennec fox owners in Canada and the U.S. chat on a regular basis, swapping stories and lending advice. Recently, several fox owners pitched in to help a panicked fox owner who wrote, “Ellie just got her head stuck under my bed and started flailing everywhere! Now she won’t move her jaw. She’s whimpering and moving in circles. Her ears are back and her eyes are shut and she’s drooling. Please help.” “Get her to a vet,” came the advice. Yet finding a vet willing to treat a fox isn’t always easy, says Hanna.
Dr. Chris Collis in Victoria, B.C., is the vet for Ham’s foxes. In an email, Collis writes, “Fortunately, Fennecs are pretty low-maintenance when it comes to medical care. They’re much the same as small- to medium-size dogs. Christine and one or two of the people that have her pups are the only Fennec clients I’ve ever seen. I’ve received calls from other veterinarians asking about their medical care and they’re sort of surprised to find out I treat them very much like puppies.” (Ellie’s owner later reported that “the shock [of getting stuck] wore off after about an hour. I was really worried. Thank you guys!”)
Personality-wise, Fennecs are a bit like dogs except “they don’t have a desire to please somebody like a dog,” says Hanna. “Things are on their terms. They have the independence of a cat. You’re calling them by name and they’re like, ‘Not right now.’ They’ve got stuff to do. They’re checking things out or they’re keeping an eye on you. They’re prey animals in the wild, very low on the food chain, so they’ll keep an eye on you.” And “they’re not malicious,” she says, “but they’re into everything. They’ll snatch a sandwich out of your mouth and run off and hide it. They’re like, ‘Ew, what’s that? Ew, let me see. Oh, what does that do? Oh, I didn’t mean to do that but oh well. You love me anyways.’ ”