It’s become a familiar refrain.
Instead of an exotic creature, someone sees a cute ball of cuddly fur.
Instead of a wild animal with special needs and instincts, they see what they believe will be just like a dog or cat.
Just give the critter some attention, add food, give it water and voilÀ, you have a happy pet and companion.
Only, it doesn’t turn out that way. Foxes are the latest exotic pet du jour that people seem to be trying to snap up these days, especially in Indiana, where they’re easy to buy and get a permit to own.
But almost as quickly as people are plopping down cash for these animals, they’re looking to get rid of them, finding out way too late the amount of care and attention foxes need. These are animals that smell, bite and will tear your living room apart in a heartbeat.
“I have to believe if people truly understand the risks and challenges and lean on common sense, they’d know this just isn’t a good idea,” says Lori Gagen, executive director of Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion.
Gagen knows all too well.
In the last year and a half, she’s gotten about a dozen or more calls from people looking to get rid of pet foxes.
The latest came from someone who claimed to have done his homework.
His story went like this: Within two months of bringing the fox home, the animal bit the new owner. The injury sent the owner to a hospital for treatment. By law, the doctor needed to contact the Indiana Board of Animal Health.
A veterinarian advised the owner there is no known effective vaccination that prevents rabies in foxes. The owner now does not know what to do.
He’s fearful of keeping the fox in his home where he has children, but did not want the animal to be kept in a cage without human contact.
So he called Black Pine. The problem is that Black Pine has four former pet foxes already, and that’s capacity.
“We can only handle so many,” Gagen said.
In Indiana, you need a license to sell foxes. Many who sell them call themselves “breeders,” though Gagen said the fox you buy from a breeder at $450 or so – minimum – is no different from a fox you might catch a glimpse of on the side of the road near some woods.
Claims that “domesticated” foxes are for sale are generally false, as the only domesticated fox comes from Russia and is expensive – to the tune of $8,000 – and rare in the States.
After people buy foxes, it’s their job, within five days, to alert the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. They also must erect a proper enclosure and allow conservation officers to inspect them.
Within 45 days of receiving a permit, the fox must be seen by a veterinarian. Many in the fox-owning community warn prospective owners about finding a vet before buying the fox, since not every veterinarian will treat foxes.
According to the DNR, any fox bite that results in a hospital visit requires the physician to contact the state board of health or the state board of animal health.
Those boards do not have the power to seize animals, but will urge the animal’s owner to have it euthanized and tested for rabies.
Of course, some breeders do not tell buyers these things.
“Most breeders don’t care about the animals, they just want the money,” says Angela Abbott, who grew up raising wild animals and cares for four foxes, several of which are former pets the owners no longer wanted.
Those wanting a fox can readily find one at swap meets. One of the largest in the area is in Ligonier. These swap meets provide breeders a place to sell, as long as they have a license to do so.
It’s swap meets like these, Abbott says, that have contributed to the fad of foxes as pets. One of her foxes, in fact, came her way through a man who bought the animal at one of those swap meets.
Within two days, the man regretted his decision.
“They’re not educating the people,” Abbott said of these breeders, noting that not all breeders are bad but that people have to find the reputable ones.
“They let you think you have this cute, tiny, cuddly baby,” she continued. “They don’t say that in a few months it’s going to stink, bite and be extremely hard to manage if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Stories come out of these swap meets of people getting bit, of people not getting receipts and then not being able to get a permit.
They essentially get stuck with owning an animal illegally but unable to release it into the wild, which is strongly discouraged by the DNR.
At 42, Abbott knows a thing or two about these animals. As a girl, she’d bring home butterflies with a broken wing or bunnies. Now, she rehabilitates raccoons as well as cares for foxes.
It’s all about knowing what you’re getting into, she says.
“They’re extremely hyper,” she says of foxes. “They do nip. That’s their natural instinct. Very rarely they’ll bite the hand that feeds them, but if my family sticks their fingers through the cage of one of my foxes, they’ll nip.”
Plus, they have potent urine, which can ruin carpets, and are possessive. Once they like your shoe, it becomes theirs and not yours.
“And they’re extremely destructive,” she continued. “They’ll tear everything up. They’ll shred your couch in minutes.”
If all that still seems desirable, then you too can own a pet fox in the Hoosier State.
But even responsible owners like Abbott say you’ve got to do your homework. And then do more homework. And then more.
And those like Gagen would just wish you’d make another decision: Leave the wild animals where they’re supposed to be: in the wild.
There are always dogs and cats.
They’re cuddly, too.