The animal above is a super-sized blue phase arctic fox that is of a type being bred in Finland. The exposed haw is actually the result of being bred for super loose skin, a trait that those in the dog welfare community know very well. “Typy” shar pei and Neapolitan mastiffs are well-known sufferers from loose skin problems, but even a in breed that isn’t as exaggerated, like Clumber spaniels, this loose skin can lead to all sorts of eye infections.
This is a full-body shot of the Neapolitan arctic fox:
Why are arctic foxes being bred with such loose skin?
Well, that loose skin actually makes for a larger pelt and a larger pelt goes for higher price. In nature, arctic foxes are quite small, much smaller than Boreal red fox subspecies, but the arctic fox in its winter fur is a much more valuable animal.
Both red and arctic foxes breed well in captivity, and they have been farmed extensively for their pelts. Captive red foxes come in many colors now, but the naturally-occurring silver phase was once the staple of fox pelt market. The arctic fox, especially its blue phase, is also quite valuable, but the smaller pelts mean they cannot compete with the silver phase reds.
These Finnish breeders have begun to produce large blue arctic foxes, some of which weigh 20 kg, and have very loose skin in order to make a much more profitable strain of arctic fox.
This development has several moral and ethical questions, as well as being something that those of us curious about dog domestication and evolution might find intriguing.
I should note that I am not anti-fur. I come from a long line of fur trappers, including my own paternal grandfather who used to trap red foxes to fund his union activities. He knew more about red foxes than anyone I’ve ever personally known, and he had a great appreciation for the species.
For some, the fact that these animals are being bred for fur is going to be the biggest ethical problem, but for me, it is the exaggeration in conformation that causes me greater worry. When these animals are killed for their fur, it is done humanely. Finland is a leader in the humane treatment of animals, and killing fur-bearers on farms in a cruel fashion would not be allowed. The standard practice is for the animal to be rendered unconscious, then electrocuted. (I don’t want to get into a long, drawn-out debate about these, because there are places where this practice isn’t followed. Finland isn’t one of them. )
But these foxes spent their entire lives with loose eyelids and a bulky conformation that puts an exorbitant amount of stress on their joints, and this truly is a welfare issue.
I see this as the main welfare issue of domestic dogs in the West. We’ve bred domestic dogs with such exaggerated conformation that we’re ultimately harming them, and the funny thing is these animal welfare sites that post shocking animal cruelty videos and images also generate web traffic with videos of cute little bulldogs and pugs with such shortened muzzles that they cannot breathe or cool themselves properly.
I find these loose-skinned arctic foxes appalling, in every way I find an extreme shar pei appalling.
And here I can agree with the animal rights activist. This is wrong.
But at the same time, my curious, scientific mind is intrigued. Fur farmed foxes are sort of parallel dog domestications. Much has been written about the Belyaev fur farm experiments and what they might say about how dogs were domesticated, but the truth is virtually every fur farm breeding program for the various red and arctic fox phases is an experiment that could reveal some secrets about dog domestication.
It is amazing that we can selectively breed arctic foxes to reach the size of coyotes, and it is even more amazing that we can select for the loose skin in arctic foxes that we actively breed for in certain purebred dogs.
It would be interesting to get full-genome comparisons on these “monster foxes” and more typical arctic foxes. Maybe the genetics are similar between these foxes and the super-sized and loose skinned domestic dog breeds we have produced.
If we are going to breed animals for agricultural purposes, we are going to have to do it humanely. I am certain the Finnish breeders of these foxes believe they have done a great agricultural improvement in much the same way their intellectual forebears in England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries bred massive swine and beef cattle that could barely walk on their own hooves.
So yes, we have an ethical issue with these foxes, just as we have an ethical issue with the continued breeding of dogs with exessive loose skin and exposed haws.