Fox Talk – book review and author interview!

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It’s a blog-tour day here! I’m participating in the blog tour for Fox Talk by L.E.Carmichael, and I choose to from a list of possible blog tours because it is a nonfiction book, and as a homeschooler, I’m always looking for good nonfictionFox Talk Blog Tour Button.

The book introduced us to the research of Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev, a who domesticated the fox. There’s lots of neat ideas to think about. We learned a bit about the difference between training and domesticating the fox. It is still mindboggling to think about the idea of domestication. What are the ingredients of it, what are the characteristics which could be controlled by DNA that could add up together to domestication?

It is so easy to take something like pointing for granted that it is interesting to read about how dogs have an easier time with pointing wolves that have spent an equal amount of time in human company. We get to stop and think about what communication really is, and how one would try to test communication with different species. The book does a really good job of explaining what some scientists were trying to figure out, and then how they test it and what results they find.

I had the chance to ask questions of the author. Here are my questions, and her responses.

I’m curious about the earlier work you did on arctic foxes. Were you in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories to do the research? How did you like it? Is that where you were from originally?
I spent most of my childhood in southern Alberta, but from mid-grade 6 to mid-grade 9, I lived with my family in Yellowknife, NWT. That experience gave me a love of the arctic that persists to this day, although I don’t think I could live there again – I’m too attached to sunlight and fresh fruit!
Living in the arctic was definitely a factor in my choice of wolves and arctic foxes as study species in university. My work focused on relationships between these doggy predators and their prey, and how the need to find food influenced the way the predators move about and spread their genes over the landscape. I made DNA fingerprints for almost 4000 animals, which would not have been possible without local hunters and trappers, who generously gave me samples of the animals they harvested. So while I did travel north to talk to people, I never actually got to see wolves or arctic foxes alive in their natural habitats – one of the reasons it was such a thrill for me to have a chance to get up close and personal with domestic foxes while working on Fox Talk!
Your book got me thinking about a number of issues around domestication. I tend to think about domesticated animals as dependant upon humans for food, but would these domesticated foxes be dependant – is there a reason they couldn’t hunt on their own, if not for the fear of them being seen as a nuisance by others and killed? Is the danger of humans hurting them the reason they are dependant?
I’m not aware of any research that’s been done on the hunting ability of the domestic foxes. That said, while domestic dogs and cats still retain hunting instinct, hunting behaviour is actually cultural – parents teach their babies how and what to hunt. I saw evidence of this in my PhD research with wolves – there are genetic differences between wolves that hunt moose and wolves that hunt migratory caribou. So without the experience of having watched other foxes hunt, I think it would probably be difficult for domestic foxes to do it if they escaped to the wild. That’s one reason people are now responsible for these animals.
The other reason is that scientists have bred these foxes to love people – like dogs, they are a unique species that we as humans have created. They would not be here if it weren’t for us, and that makes us responsible for them. That responsibility includes not only protecting them from humans that might see them as pests to be killed, but giving them the human love and attention they have been designed to crave.
We have some animals domesticated as pets and others we use for food. Foxes have been used for fur even while not domesticated. How do you feel about them being used for fur?
It’s a difficult question. When I lived in the arctic, my parka had an arctic fox trim around the hood – not for fashion reasons, but because fox fur is the best possible protection for a human face when the windchill is -70C. No one in the arctic questions this, but as soon as I moved south, the school bully cornered me in the hallway and called me an animal killer. Particularly ironic, as she was wearing a leather jacket at the time!
I guess for me, it comes down to a question of necessity. Food is necessary, but fur very often isn’t. There are a lot of layers to this issue, though, and I recognize that a lot of other people might disagree. (But just in case anyone raises vegetarian or vegan diets, I’m allergic to nuts, beans, eggs, and dairy, so for me at least, animal protein really is necessary!)
I’m curious as well about how you have a PhD and yet decided to go into writing children’s stories. Was that decision in any way encouraged by the Canadian governments cut backs in environmental research? Or did you know all along you wanted to write children’s books?
A better way to ask this question is “Why did someone who wanted to be a children’s writer spend 11 years in university getting a PhD?” LOL.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 10 years old, but when the time came to apply for university, people kept saying “you have to have a back up plan.” Which is true – the vast majority of writers (myself included) can’t survive on the money they make with their words. I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever, though, and I was part way through grad school before it occurred to me that “back up plans” don’t require PhDs! So I made myself a deal that if I finished it, I could spend the rest of my life working part time and doing what I love to do. Fortunately, my husband agreed to this plan. 🙂
You mention that animals learn words through fast mapping, similar to humans. Could you explain briefly what fast mapping is?

Fast mapping is a type of educated guess that seems to work through process of elimination. For example, let’s say a dog is given six  objects. Five she’s seen before and already knows the words for, but one is brand new. If a human asks for an object using a brand new word, the dog can reason out that, since that word doesn’t match any of the old objects, it must correspond to the new one. As soon as the human praises the dog, she knows she was right – that reinforcement cements the knowledge.

One interesting difference in learning that I didn’t mention in the book is that humans tend to classify new objects according to shape – for example, we’d make the guess that a spherical object we’ve never seen before belongs to the category “ball.” Dogs, though, seem to be using size and texture rather than shape. Scientists who worked on this study think it might be because in general, humans rely on sight as our dominant sense, but dogs also rely strongly on scent and “mouth feel” when they pick things up!


I obtained a free copy of the book. I choose the enhanced ecopy which contains tiny video clips. I was a bit disappointed in the video clips. They were short, which makes them easier for downloading, but they were disappointingly short and the children had more fun looking up related youtube videos than watching the ones embedded in the book.
If you are interested you can enter the blog tour giveaway, but before I include that information, I feel obligated to link to this (almost) totally unrelated music video. It’s interesting though that the song is concerned with what sounds are produced, while the book by L. C. Carmichael is more concerned with what sounds are communicating.

My three year old was singing this song, and I asked her after what the three year old goes, and she says “woof, woof.” And now she’s making up her own variation of the song that includes “what does the zombie say?” I also want to say that the whole idea of domestication of animals is interesting in the context of reading Tarzan, which deals in its own way with questions of nature vs. nuture.

* Blog Tour Giveaway *

Prize: One winner will receive a $25 Amazon gift card (or PayPal cash) + a Skype visit to a school or library of the winner’s choice ($250 value).

Contest runs: January 27th to February 21, 11:59 pm, 2014

Open: Worldwide

How to enter: Please enter using the Rafflecopter widget below.

Terms and Conditions: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW. The winner will be randomly drawn through the Rafflecopter widget and will be contacted by email within 48 hours after the giveaway ends. The winner will then have 72 hours to respond. If the winner does not respond within 72 hours, a new draw will take place for a new winner. Odds of winning will vary depending on the number of eligible entries received. This contest is in no way sponsored, endorsed or administered by, or associated with Facebook. This giveaway is sponsored by the publisher, Ashby-BP Publishing and is hosted and managed by Renee from Mother Daughter Book Reviews. If you have any additional questions – feel free to send and email to Renee(at)MotherDaughterBookReviews(dot)com.

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