Soaking up the sun in their garden, Sergei Abramov and his wife Tatiana are playing with their furry pet, Plombir, who wags his tail and vies for treats by obeying his owners’ commands.
But Plombir is not “man’s best friend”.
He is a fox, bred by Russian scientists as part of a decades-long experiment in Siberia to study how wild animals are domesticated.
Plombir is happy to be led around by his owners on a leash, but, as he pulls towards chickens safe in their cage, it’s clear he hasn’t lost all his wild instincts.
“Yes, he already tried to eat our chickens and run away,” says Abramov, 32, who lives in the suburbs of Russia’s third-largest city, Novosibirsk.
His wife, biologist Tatiana Abramova, 33, says she always wanted to live with a fox and that Plombir is “friendly and kind” but not very obedient.
“He jumps on tables, or jumps inside the fridge. He steals things and hides them,” she said.
In 1959, Soviet geneticists Dmitry Belyaev and Ludmila Trut launched the experiment on a farm in the Akademgorodok scientific research centre near Novosibirsk.
Their goal was to understand how the domestication syndrome worked by domesticating foxes and studying how they could have evolved into the loyal and loving dogs we know now.
For decades, researchers at the farm have selected the most friendly animals for breeding.
“We are trying to understand which genes change and how they change,” said Yuri Gerbek, one of approximately 15 scientists working at the centre that is home to nearly 1,000 foxes.
Belyaev died in 1985 and the experiment was nearly shuttered over a lack of funding during the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the economic crisis that followed.
It survived and has won international attention since the emergence of DNA sequencing techniques that made it possible to study the foxes’ genetic code.