Saturday, May 18, 2019

Photo Essay: The Russian Experiment That Helped Siberia's Mutant Foxes Escape the Fur Trade

Visitors to the Chernobyl plant company town of Pripyat in Ukraine (like me) have got a thing for its resident red fox, named Simon. (Of course, I've had a thing for foxes for a while.)

But it turns out a small group of rogue Russian genetic scientists do, too—originally led by Dmitry Belyaev, director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics and namesake of the so-called Belyaev foxes (a domesticated form of the wild red fox, Vulpes vulpes).

In 1959, he began to try to replicate how dogs (also members of the Canidae family) first became domesticated—but in a much shorter period of time. Instead of millennia, it took 55 years for his team at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences to develop a domesticated population.

They're not "tame," a trait that can be acquired through training, but genetically domesticated. Physical traits unique to these "friendly" foxes—but not those in the wild—include spots in their fur coloring, curled tails, and floppy ears. Litter sizes are larger, by one pup each.

Behaviorally, these domesticated foxes are more than just "nice"—they show no fear of humans and even actively seek out our companionship. But as cute and friendly as they are, they reportedly don't make good pets (at least, not yet).

They still mark their territory and guard their resources...

...and are fiercely curious.

But they're highly food motivated, so you can train them to sit and stay—just like a dog.

And treats make them really happy.

And not just the red foxes, but also a dark mutation (the silver fox) and a light-colored mutation (Georgian white) of it.

The selective breeding, however, hasn't yet gotten rid of their musky smell, which comes out of numerous scent glands that can be found from nose to tail. You can't remove the glands to get rid of the odor, the way that ferrets or even skunks can be "de-scented."

And even if you could, it seems cruel to do so. Why remove something that so distinctly makes a fox... a fox?

The Russian genetic experiment, which had continued after Belyayev's death in 1985, lost most of its funding with the collapse of the Soviet Union—and tragically, it only kept going by selling some of its docile foxes to the Russian fur trade.

On the surface, the purpose of domesticating foxes was to make them easier to keep in captivity on fur farms. Keeping them less stressed out around workers would make them easier to raise. (Domestic foxes even exhibit lower levels of the "stress hormone," cortisol, as well as adrenaline.)

But it turns out that was just a cover story to keep Belyaev from getting executed by a government that had outlawed the study of genetics.

In more recent times, foxes have begun to become more valued as pets than as pelts, so the institute now sells the domesticated breeds to individuals as well as organizations like the JAB Canid Education and Conservation Center in Santa Ysabel (East San Diego County).

At least in California, a fur ban is in the works and keeping foxes as pets is prohibited.

But that doesn't mean that people don't break the law.

And I'm not sure that the "fox encounters" offered by JABCECC won't encourage rather than discourage either activity.

American scientists have been working with the Russians to try to continue Belyaev's program—at least to see how far they can take it. But the foxes that have been shipped out of Siberia are fixed, so they can't breed. Apparently, the Russians don't want their genetic material getting spread around in uncontrolled environments.

And that means these Russian domesticated foxes may eventually go extinct.

But maybe wild foxes will eventually choose human companionship, if only for the increased proximity to a food source.

And maybe evolution will render them naturally domesticated in thousands of years, the same way that it did with dogs and cats.

After all, foxes are like the perfect combination of the two—some say they're like dog hardware that's running cat software.

Like both, they appreciate a good scratch (something I now know first-hand).

Related Posts:
Meet Simon, The Red Fox of the Radioactive Red Forest
The Island of the Blue Dolphins and One Lone Woman
Photo Essay: The Island That Prisoners Pioneered
Photo Essay: Hollywood's Wildest Stars

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Seed Dispersal and The Fallacy of Wish-Making

Sometimes, you get an email inviting you to something, but without saying what it is.

Sometimes, you go, and it's a bust.

Other times you end up at the circa 1923 Southern California Edison Laguna Bell Substation in the City of Commerce for adventures in wish fulfillment.

I'm a skeptic when it comes to immersive theater and interactive art. But I'll take any excuse to enter an otherwise verboten power plant.

Even if I might get electrocuted along the way.

I had no preconceptions of what I would see inside...

...only that the installation was called "Dandelions."

And appropriately, those were the first thing I saw.

Dandelions were a common occurrence on my childhood lawn, as they were, I'm sure, on many others.

I'd pluck those little puffballs, make a wish, and blow—but as far as I could tell, the wishes never came true.

I always wondered if I was wishing for the wrong thing.

But if I wished for something easier or more likely, what's the point of magical thinking? In all practicality, wouldn't I be able to just make it happen?

Well, I gave up wishing long ago and became a woman of action—doing rather than tossing pennies into fountains or searching the night sky for shooting stars. I step on every crack and went ahead and adopted myself a black cat.

But for the sake of "Dandelions," I came up with a wish—this time, one that wasn't for me, but for somebody else.

I got funneled through the distribution center of wish fulfillment...

...getting my own stemless puffball... blow into the hole my wish had been assigned to.

The computer had told me my wish was a long shot. But, as one of the "staff" pointed out, all wishes were valid.

It appeared as though the blown-apart seeds actually got pumped or blown by pneumatic tubes into a machine room...

...but we were routed elsewhere... a room where it seemed like the slightest thing could sabotage your wish.

And because pretty much all wishes are the same—money, love, health, success—it would be easy enough to ruin somebody else's wish, too.

But a wish can't come true if the dandelion pouf stays intact.

The seeds have to break off and disperse, one by one.

You have to blow hard, because some of those seeds have to travel pretty far in order to make your wish come true.

And the flower has to die in the process.

Some of the seeds never made it past the window.

A few clung to its edges in a final stand of civil disobedience.

We couldn't stay and wait to see what would happen to them. We had to leave before our wishes could be fulfilled.

After all, some of them are completely out of our control anyway.

And my wish was for somebody who wasn't even there. I sure hope my wish fulfillment track record improves now that the focus is off of me.

Because sometimes you have to give up on the wish that just won't come true. And you have to shift your focus to one that might.

But you can still have hope...

Related Posts:
A Missed Calling
On Settling
Getting In Touch With My Inner Sixth Grader

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Photo Essay: The Town That Built The Hoover Dam

If you were going to build something big—really big—in the middle of nowhere, you couldn't expect your workforce to commute.

You'd have to build a town for them to live in—and ideally, people would want to live there even after construction had ceased.

And that's exactly what happened with Boulder City and the construction of the Boulder Dam, which was completed in 1936 and renamed the Hoover Dam in 1947.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation constructed employee housing—putting single dam workers in dormitories and family men in newly-constructed houses. Mid-level managers (including high-ranking employees and field engineers) ended up in stucco single-family homes, many of which were built in 1931.

Eventually, ownership of this formerly federally-controlled housing turned over to private citizens—many of whom have kept original features like bathroom tile intact.

Others have built their houses out—for example, adding a steep terraced garden and arcaded porch to a "twin" 1931 stucco home that once had the same floorplan, built for dam electrician Ervin Aril ("E.A.") Felts and his wife Macie Pynes Felts.

It was thanks to the Nevada Preservation Foundation's Home and History Tour—and its expansion from Vegas into Boulder City—that we got to take a peek inside some of the dam workers' former living spaces.

One homeowners even salvaged a stained glass window from the bar of the Boulder Hotel and put it up in a small dining area.

Although the assignment would eventually come to an end, the housing was built to be permanent—some of it quite nice, even by today's standards—as part of an ideal or "model" city.

In 1932, an Eclectic Revival-style home with decorative rowlock brick was built as "executive class" housing for U.S. Reclamation Service Engineer Rufus C. (or "R.C.") Thaxton.

Its ceiling fixtures are still original...

...and you can find an old milk door along the wall in the stairwell leading down to the basement.

The current owner has created new furniture and cabinetry made from reclaimed materials—including doors, hinges, locks, and hooks—to preserve the original character of the home while making her own mark on it.

The first private Boulder City residence—that is, not built, owned, or otherwise controlled by the U.S. government—came a year after dam construction ceased. (Though, the feds didn't relinquish control over Boulder City until 1959.)

The Spanish Colonial Revival-style home was built in 1937 for Charles (or "C.H.") Cady, who'd invested a bunch of money in creating a tourist empire surrounding the newly opened dam, but then died in 1942 before he could reap all the benefits.

Between the wood beam ceilings...

...original fireplace...

...and gasp-worthy view, this national historic landmark has a certain timeless appeal.

Perhaps more polarizing is its neighbor, the 1970 modernist retirement home of Cliff Segerblom (the Bureau's first PR photographer) and his wife, Gene Wines Segerblom.

Another private residence, it also features wood beam ceilings and that spectacular view.

But there are fewer traces of Boulder City's history as a dam workers townsite...

...despite the view of Lake Mead (a watery result of the Boulder Canyon Project) below.

From the beginning, Boulder City was designed by Dutch city planner Saco Rienk de Boer as a wholesome town—in contrast to nearby Las Vegas, which hadn't really become "Sin City" yet but was heading there. It's still one of only two Nevada cities with an anti-gaming ordinance.

The clean-living environment was an ideal in the days following the repeal of Prohibition and the years when the country was still deep in the Great Depression. To keep the dam workers sober, alcohol was banned in Boulder City—and it wasn't legalized until 1969. (Hence the lore surrounding Bootleg Canyon.)

There's a local brewpub there now, but it still seems pretty unadulterated. It's been considered one of the best cities for retirement.

You could do worse, that's for sure.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Hoover Dam
Photo Essay: Lake Mead Railroad Trail
Photo Essay: Lost City of the Muddy Valley