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Inspired by 'Zootopia,' kids in China are begging for rare, protected foxes as pets

 Inspired by 'Zootopia,' kids in China are begging for rare, protected foxes as pets
A pair of fennec foxes, male and female, in their owner's basement in Beijing, were being offered for sale for $6,150. (Yingzhi Yang)

Ever since Li Xing's son saw Disney's "Zootopia" two weeks ago, the 7-year-old from Tianjin, China, has been obsessed with getting his own Nick Wilde, the red fox con artist at the heart of the movie.

"The kids wouldn't shut up about it. All they talk about is that film and the fox," said Li. "I told him many times our two-bedroom apartment is too small for a pet, but he wouldn't listen."

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So Li went online to research her options. She quickly ruled out red foxes after learning they get quite big. But then she saw postings about fennec foxes, the pint-sized species of Nick's short-tempered, big-eared sidekick, Finnick. All it took was a few clicks to find dealers offering to sell the nocturnal African animals, with prices starting around $3,075, even though Chinese law requires buyers of the protected species to have permits normally given only to institutions like zoos.

"Fennec foxes are very tiny, smaller than a normal cat," she said. "But I also learned it is sort of illegal. I'm not buying it. I told [my son] we are not allowed, and he is sulking."

While Li erred on the side of caution — and the law — other Chinese parents are considering taking the plunge. Wild animal dealers in multiple Chinese cities have reported a rush in interest in fennec foxes since "Zootopia" hit Chinese theaters in early March. In less than three weeks, the movie has collected more than $170 million in ticket sales in China and become the country's top-grossing animated film of all time. Queries for "fennec foxes" on the Chinese search engine Baidu soared from near zero at the start of the month to a peak of more than 6,500 a day by March 17.

Experts worry that if the budding Vulpes zerda frenzy gains momentum, it could have negative consequences for conservation efforts.

"If trading fennec foxes becomes a widely practiced business in China, the illegal trade of fennec foxes from their native region will certainly increase," said Zhang Jinshuo, an associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Zoology. "That will reduce the number of wild fennec foxes and ultimately could lead to the extinction of this species."

For decades, films and TV shows featuring wild animals have driven demand for pets around the world. "Finding Nemo" led to a surge in purchases of orange-and-white striped clownfishes, which led populations to plunge in some areas off the Australian coast in 2008. Likewise, the Harry Potter series fed trade in snowy owls, said Richard Thomas of the British-based wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic. And the 1970s TV show "Baretta," he added, led to widespread trapping of yellow-crested cockatoos in Indonesia, where the birds are now critically endangered.

To date, Chinese audiences haven't been a big driver of such demand, in part because China's movie market has only taken off in recent years and because keeping pets — particularly exotic ones — has only become common with the rise of a middle class with disposable income. Zhang said fennec foxes were introduced as pets in China only about a decade ago.

Fennec foxes, which are found in Sudan and other parts of northern Africa, are listed in Appendix 2 of the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. That means they're not necessarily threatened with extinction, but that "trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival."

China recognizes CITES and classifies fennec foxes as a "Class 2" protected species, meaning institutions or individuals must apply for certificates from provincial governments to buy, raise or sell them.

But multiple sellers contacted by the Los Angeles Times in China expressed a willingness to skirt the rules.

"We normally sell them to zoos, but have received quite a few phone calls after the screening of 'Zootopia,'" said an employee of a wild animal import-export company in Liaoning province whose phone number was posted on an online fox forum. "One family from Jiangsu province bought a fennec fox from us not long ago," said the employee, who gave only his surname, Yuan. "Then I received three other parents' calls, all from southern China, demanding the foxes. But we didn't have young foxes, so they have paid some money to order newborn, baby foxes."

Another man advertising two fennec foxes for sale for $6,150 met a Times reporter at his house in Beijing, where he was keeping the animals in the basement. He said he acquired the male-female pair in December from a friend who works for an animal importing company.

"When they are in good mood, they like to jump onto my wife's shoulder when she is reading, and play with her," said the man, who would also give only his surname, Yao. "But they are very active at night and jump all over the bedroom, which is very noisy."

Yao said he changed his mind about raising them because he and his wife are expecting a baby. He's been listing them for sale on Alibaba's EBay-like sales site Taobao, though platform administrators have repeatedly deleted his ads. "I used to hear from one customer on Taobao every two to three days. But starting two weeks ago, I've heard from two to three per day."

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CITES trade data reviewed by Humane Society International shows that Sudan is the world's biggest exporter of live fennec foxes for both commercial and zoo purposes. China ostensibly stopped importing fennec foxes for commercial purposes in 2005, but the country has been the largest importer for zoo purposes in the last decade, bringing in 140 in 2014, up from 14 in 2011. (The United Arab Emirates is the biggest importer of fennec foxes for commercial purposes, taking in 733 between 2005 and 2014.)

Animal welfare groups say they haven't noticed an uptick in interest in fennec foxes outside of China.

"We haven't seen the same kind of spike in the U.S. that we saw after '101 Dalmatians' and the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,' when irresponsible moviegoers flooded rescue groups with dogs and reptiles after the novelty of their new animal companions wore off," said Brittany Peet, deputy director of captive animal law enforcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Peet said she was aware of eight registered breeders in the U.S., but The Times was unable to locate any despite responding to over two dozen online advertisements on exotic animal websites. One former breeder in Oklahoma said she had recently retired from the business after 15 years because she felt so few buyers were equipped to handle the demands of raising a fox.

"A lot of us have gotten out of the business because we don't believe the exotic animals belong to most people," said Terrie Klontz, who sold between 40 and 50 fennecs annually. "I would get a lot of phone calls like, 'Oh, my God, I went to the zoo, I want one because they're so cute!' A lot of people want a companion animal, but these foxes are very aloof, nocturnal — they're not going to sit on the couch with you. They're not going to sleep with you. They don't potty train, so they pee and poop anywhere they want. They destroy your carpet. I had one just digging at the Sheetrock in my wall because they're burrowers by nature."

Thomas said filmmakers ought to "be aware of potential unintended consequences of portraying animal subjects" and consider including "appropriate messaging alerting viewers as to why their animal subjects should not be considered as potential pets."

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Studios have taken such steps before. In 2006, Disney partnered with the American Kennel Club to insert a message in the DVD packaging of "Eight Below," a live-action adventure featuring a Siberian husky, telling viewers that while that breed "is a beautiful and intelligent dog," it is "not right for everyone." DVD packaging for "The Shaggy Dog," another canine film, carried a similar informational insert on bearded collies. (Disney did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this report.)

Yao, the man trying to sell his fennec fox pair, said he's already turned down inquiries from several parents of "Zootopia" fans.

"A father of a little boy said his son really loved the little fox and wanted to have one at home," Yao said. "Honestly, I stopped this father, just because I don't think it's safe to have both kids and fennec foxes at home."

Makinen reported from Beijing and Kaufman from Los Angeles. Yingzhi Yang and Nicole Liu in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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