For many years my friend Mary Lynn Fischer lived with QuickView, an Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus). Quickie's immediate family had been raised for the exotic pet trade; her ancestors just before that were bred for fur farms; and before that they had been wild.
Quickie herself was both tame and wild. When you came over to the house, Quickie was liable to give you a horrified look and vanish for the rest of your visit. But you might also be eating dinner and feel little forepaws on your back when Quickie hopped up on the back of furniture to peer over your shoulder and see what you were eating.
Mary built a cage with zoo-level security in order to get a Fish & Game permit to possess a wild animal, and she lived in fear that the government would one day decide that people shouldn't be able to keep wildlife in suburbia and confiscate Quickie. At any given moment Quickie might be in the cage, or she might be playing with the dog, curled up on the bed, or requesting admission to her favorite cranny, the freezer compartment of the refrigerator.
Mary has an intellectual as well as an emotional interest in animals (and a great deal of first-hand knowledge). Here's part of an email she recently sent me about her relationship with Quickie:
For years I had wondered about the well known propensity of Alopex to taming. People have come up with all sorts of theories about it, but the truth is more interesting than one might think.
Arctic Foxes tend to find and attach themselves to Polar Bears, who tend to hate Arctic Foxes. The fox follows the bear and scavenges from the bear's kills. From the fox's perspective, I guess, it's a symbiosis. From the bear's, it's a nuisance.
I examined pictures of the lives of these two coexistent creatures doing whatever it is that they do, over the years, and then it struck me: The fox shadows the bear, wakes the bear up when it sleeps in. ("Wake up! Wake up y'ol' bear! It's time to rise and shine and fetch me breakfast!") The bears grit their teeth at these ministrations. They seem not to particularly dote on their foxes, but the foxes adore their bears. They understand perfectly how useful a large predator can be. There are even pictures of Arctic Foxes fighting over "custody" of a particular bear ("Hey! This is MY bear. Go get your own bear!") When they find an unattached bear they shadow him or her, just out of paw range—actually a rather large distance. They wait until the bear makes a kill. Then they stand about thinking how hungry they are until the bear has had a surfeit and goes to sleep, whereat they take their tithe.
The bear surely does not miss the amount that an Alopex extracts on a good year. It's the principle of the thing. Some bears are relatively tolerant and good humored. Still others look darkly at the fox hovering nearby, and attempt to sleep on top of the carcass, to prevent the fox from even thinking of taking a bit. This does not work. Every now and then, a bear---goaded beyond everything that is holy by the cheek of the little foxes, has been observed to try to take a swipe at them.
My entire life with Quickie was marked by occasional explosions when Whit forgot yet again, and put his slippers beside the bed. And then there would be the sight of a very happy fox, rushing off importantly with slippers dangling from her mouth, with Whit in hot pursuit. He never learned. After a while, he took to buying the particular cheap slippers he fancied by the case. It's amazing how quickly a small animal with jaws like a machine vise can get through a case of rubber huaraches. And of course, he had trained her. Because Quickie thought it was wonderful. She didn't quite understand why this was true, but all she had to do was to steal his slippers, and no matter how tired Whit was, he'd rise like Lazarus from the grave, uttering terrible threats ("you'd make up into a great pair of mittens!") and chase her. And chase games are the one thing that little foxes worldwide love.
This symbiotic relationship with foxes is not limited to the high arctic. The foxes in the Israeli desert loved to shadow hyenas in troops, and the hyenas felt about them the same way that the Polar Bears felt about Alopex. Yet Macdonald relates that few hyenas could be seen without a retinue of foxes at their heels. Occasionally, one of them got much too cheeky, and ended up inside the hyena. But that was rare. I don't think anyone has witnessed a Polar Bear actually getting its fox, but it wasn't for want of trying.
Reflecting on this one day, and weighing all the scientific speculation about the ease with which Alopex can be tamed, I had a sudden realization. Quickie took to captivity the way a duck takes to water. She loved it. She used to look nervously over her shoulder at the spectre of freedom, it seemed to me. She loved standing in front of me in the kitchen, and describing by her glances and little cries, just what it was that she wanted from me. That was when I got it:
I was the fox's bear.