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Lifeform of the week: Fennec foxes are all ears

The fennec fox can survive the perils of the Sahara Desert, as well as your living room.

Vulpes zerda is a little fox with big ears. While fennec foxes may look like anime characters, they actually hail from the Sahara Desert, where many of their more fetching features also function in keeping them alive in the harsh climate. How can you get yourself one? We’ll talk about that in a minute.

Appearances

Behold, the terrifying power of cuteness. Image Credit: Wildfeuer

Gaze carefully at the fennec fox, as it is so preciously cute it’s liable to make your heart explode. As the world’s smallest canid*, they don’t even reach the size of an ordinary house cat. Around 12 inches in length is average, and over half of that is taken up by the tail. And then there are the enormous ears, which typically measure about 6 inches. Not surprisingly, fennecs have impressive hearing, which helps them detect prey living underground.

Desert Life

Fennecs are found in Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East, with most of the species calling the Sahara Desert home. It’s a rugged landscape to which the animals are well adapted. In addition to being good for hunting, those huge ears help them dissipate heat. The foxes’ sand-colored fur allows them to blend in with the dusty terrain. The bottoms of their feet are also covered with fur, protecting them from the scorching Sahara sand. Despite such physiological provisions, fennec foxes still need to take some behavioral steps to beat the heat. They dig elaborate burrows, generally near bushes, whose roots act as structural supports for the underground tunnels.

Friends and Family

Remember when the film March of the Penguins came out and “family values” campaigners everywhere were raving about how wonderfully loyal emperor penguins were to their mates and their offspring, and how we humans could learn a lesson from them? Well, guess what? Most of those penguins mate with a new bird every year.† They’re only monogamous for the duration of a breeding season.

If human society wants a less promiscuouscreature as a model for its morality, they might consider Vulpes zerda instead. The species mates for life. Fennecs only reproduce once a year, but they reside together in family units consisting of a breeding pair as well as other relatives who help take care of the younger generation. Allowing you to further anthropomorphize their wholesomeness, fennec foxes bravely defend their territory, which they have lovingly demarcated using their own urine and feces. How sweet.

Female fennecs give birth to about 3 or 4 pups (give or take) once a year. It’s a small number of progeny, and their parental investment is high. The newborn foxes are pretty helpless for their first two weeks, and they aren’t weaned for at least a month. Six months pass before they’re fully able to care for themselves. This may sound like nothing to human parents, but keep in mind that fennecs only live about ten years in the wild.‡

Food and Drink

Despite being social animals, fennecs are generally solitary nocturnal hunters. They are omnivorous eaters, taking whatever they can get their paws on and storing any leftovers for later. Commonly consumed items include insects, rodents, lizards, eggs, and plants. Like many desert dwellers, they can survive by obtaining hydration from fruits and leaves.

Vive Les Fennecs!

Algeria’s national football team is called Les Fennecs.§ They were qualifiers in the 2010 World Cup. And this concludes everything I can tell you about football and about sports in general.

Can You Keep One as a Pet?

World's smallest canid amid ordinary-sized books. Image Credit: ChrisStubbs

When confronted with an animal as tiny and adorable as the fennec fox, the first thought most people have is, “I want one!” Your ability to turn reckless whim into reality depends largely on where you live. While they can’t be considered domesticated, fennecs are bred commercially as exotic pets. Laws on keeping wild animals in your home vary. Here in the U.S. some states prohibit individuals from acquiring exotic animals entirely (Hawaii and New York among them), whereas other states impose almost no restrictions (Wisconsin, West Virginia). Most lie somewhere in the middle. You should definitely check on your local laws before running out and buying yourself a fennec, as some sort of permit may be required.

If you do decide to undertake this project, there are a few issues of which you should probably be aware:

1) Fennec foxes are high energy animals and excellent diggers. They’ll need plenty of exercise and distractions to keep them from burrowing through your couch. Because of the digging, any outdoor enclosure you leave them in should have a fence that extends sufficiently underground to thwart jailbreaks.

Going walkies. Image Credit: ChrisStubbs

2) When taking your new pet for a stroll, a leash is essential. Despite the owner/pet bond you’ve so painstakingly forged, those wild-animal instincts kick in the second the fox spots some fast-moving prey across the street. They’ll bolt and never look back.

3) To my knowledge, Purina does not manufacture Fennec Chow. Ideally, you should feed these little guys bugs and rodents (as well as some plants), which means you’ll have to make regular trips to the exotic pet store to procure the necessary creepy-crawlies.

4) Fennec foxes can be trained to use a litter box. However, the litter tends to stick to their cute little furry paws and be dragged all over your house. And don’t forget that scent marking!

5) Once word gets out that you own one of these things, every kid in the neighborhood will be knocking on your door to see it. Good luck with that.

* Canids are a family of mammals that also includes wolves, coyotes, and dogs.

† After the initial pairing, an emperor penguin’s likelihood of hooking up with the same partner the second year is about 15%. By year three it’s down to 5%. Don’t judge them. It’s cold in Antarctica and they’ve got a limited window of time in which to get their genes out there.

‡ Fennec foxes can live as long as 14 years in captivity.

§ If you live in the United States, you may also know this sport as soccer.

Alex Reshanov

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