Ann Arbor's arctic fox
by Bob & Jorja Feldman
From the February, 2018 issue
Jorja stood on the sidewalk, checking out the weather advisory on her smartphone screen. There was a frostbite warning.
Nearby, an arctic fox lounged in the snow, sweet as a sunbather soaking up rays on the beach. They were at a multi-building campus at the corner of Ann Arbor-Saline and Pleasant Lake roads. The campus, where Jorja works as the administrator, houses Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital, Creature Comforts Bed & Bath (a pet boarding and grooming facility), and the Creature Conservancy, a nonprofit devoted to animal conservation and education.
The fox, Miehiera, was donated to the conservancy. Her enclosure was shared until recently with Burton, a very old male who has since passed away.
Steve Marsh, the Creature Conservancy's head curator, explains that live animals help establish personal connections between visitors and the wild creatures for which the group advocates. Along with staff presentations about biology, ecological niches, and evolutionary history, such encounters can help people make more informed decisions as to how we coexist with the other residents of our planet.
Miehiera earns her keep as an education ambassador. Marsh is bemused by her beautiful cat eyes: vertical pupil slits that look more feline than canine. But she is much more than just a pretty face. She displays many unusual adaptations that enable arctic foxes to live in bitter cold polar bear country.
In the fall she puts on a lot of fat, which adds both an insulation layer and calories in the cold season. Her fur is a superb insulator, and unlike other canines' coats even protects the pads on the bottom of her feet. Her stocky body, with short ears and legs, minimizes the danger of frostbite. And she can curl up in a tight ball for warmth, sweeping her bushy tail around her head like a scarf.
Like the northern landscape, arctic foxes change color with the season: brown or gray in summer, and snow white in winter. This time of year, Miehiera's coat is
so white that it may take a moment to locate her in the snow. But her most interesting adaptation is invisible: arctic foxes have circulatory systems than can isolate and maintain the temperature of the blood in their feet independently of their core blood temperature.
Some breeders offer arctic foxes for sale, and the young kits are adorable. But Marsh does not believe they can be house-trained or tamed. He does not know of a single instance where one worked out as a pet once it started to mature. And that is a good educational lesson in and of itself.
[Originally published in February, 2018.]
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