Blind “Faith,” the Fennec Fox
No, this is not a chihuahua. Meet "Faith," named for the phrase "blind faith." Yes, she’s blind. Faith is a fennec fox, usually found in the Sahara desert of North Africa and up into the Middle Eastern deserts of Saudi Arabia. Faith used to be one of Zooniversity’s most traveled and popular educational animals. She starred in thousands of stage programs, met hundreds-of-thousands of children and adults, had her picture in the papers, and became a local animal celebrity. Her traveling days are now over. She is retired at 10 years old—and has become a very pampered senior citizen who spends her days sleeping in a hammock, basking in the sunshine, and listening to Dr. Phil on the television.
Long before her life in the spotlight, Faith was born into the exotic pet industry. Her parents were intentionally mated by a very reputable exotic animal breeder solely for the purpose of selling the litter of "kits" (what baby foxes are called) to private owners who wanted to own an exotic animal as a house pet. Now, don’t read into this that I am against exotic pet ownership. I am not. I am against exotic pet ownership by people who don’t know what they’re doing! The fennec fox is a wild species, not a domesticated one, and so little is still known about their proper captive care and husbandry needs.
Faith was given to Zooniversity when she was 3 years old by a private owner who could no longer afford her veterinary bills. No one is quite sure of who or what caused her to lose her eyesight. The buyer (a wanna-be breeder who purchased the 6-week old kit) accused the breeder of feeding her the wrong baby formula. The breeder accused the buyer of feeding her the wrong first solid foods. Regardless, irreparable damage was done and she lost her eyesight at just 4 months of age. Upon arrival, our veterinary ophthalmologist (yes, an eye doctor for animals) diagnosed her with severe glaucoma and advanced juvenile cataracts. The best guess is that something in her diet lacked an amino acid, called taurine, which foxes need to develop their keen fox eyesight. Of course, no one intentionally damaged her vision. This just illustrates how little we still know about the nutritional needs of this 3-pound wild creature.
Is Faith incapacitated by her blindness? Heck, no. This spirited desert darling runs at full speed, never hits a wall, recognizes her keepers with fennec squeals of delight (a shrill trademark of a fennec), and loves her belly rubs. Is she in pain? She doesn’t seem to be. She’s been given glaucoma eye-drops twice daily for her 7 years with us, and no, it hasn’t been easy. The interocular pressure in one of her eyes sky-rocketed to uncontrollable levels last year, so it was necessary to have the eye removed and replaced with a prosthetic eye. You read that correctly, a prosthetic eye.
The fennec fox seems to be gaining popularity among dreamy-eyed exotic animal buyers. It is cute…too cute. And, that’s the problem. Impulse purchasers who don’t do their research will pay anywhere from $1.200 to $2,000 to have one of these dainty darling’s shipped to them with visions of strolling the sidewalks with a fennec face peering from their shoulder pet carrier. Not a chance. The fennec is a stunningly adorable animal, but they are not chihuahuas. They sleep all day (nocturnal desert creature), they run 20 mph and faster all night long, they dig 14 ft. holes as the sun rises every morning (in your carpet, if that’s all there is), and…they mark their territory (no further explanation should be needed). Does this sound like a house pet? The fennec fox is not a designer accessory. It is a wild animal. It is genetically programmed to act like a wild animal. In captive care, it is dependent on our expertise and knowledge to keep it healthy. It is dependent on researchers and scientists to formulate diets and supplements that work with their wild systems. Unfortunately, any newfound knowledge is too late to help Faith.
For an update on Faith, read this blog entry: http://www.zooniversity.org/2009/03/cancer-exotic-animals-battle-it-too/