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Red River Zoo welcomes three swift foxes

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One of three new female swift foxes gets used to her exhibit Tuesday, July 14, after arriving at the Red River Zoo the day before. They are the smallest wild dogs in North America and will participate in a breeding program. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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FARGO — The Red River Zoo is welcoming some foxy new inhabitants.

Wanting to find a new exhibit with North Dakota roots, the zoo brought in three swift foxes. The foxes were once prolific in the state, but were all but eliminated because of excessive hunting and trapping in the 1900s.

There are believed to be small populations of swift foxes living in southwest North Dakota, but they are so rare that Red River Zoo director Sally Jacobson said anybody who sees one in the wild should call North Dakota Game and Fish to let them know.

“Last fall our grey fox, Esther, passed away; I think she was one of the oldest grey foxes in the world at the time,” Jacobson said. "After she passed away, we started thinking about what we wanted to do with that exhibit. We worked with the Swift Fox Species Survival Plan — a group of zoological professionals that work on the captive breeding programs to make sure we have enough diversity in the animals under human care.”

The foxes are quite small, weighing only about five pounds fully grown. They live up to their namesake as they are quick, with a top running speed over 30 mph. They live for about six years in the wild, but can reach 14 while being cared for in a zoo, Jacobson said.

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“The best time to see the foxes is right away in the morning or right before we close for the night,” she said. “The exhibit is open all day, but they seem to be the most active at dawn or dusk. They are nocturnal hunters so they would normally be awake at night.”

Two donors provided funds for the zoo to expand the exhibit that previously housed Esther. Jacobson said although the exhibit would have been large enough to house the three swift foxes as it was, the expansion has nearly doubled it and will allow the zoo to breed the foxes in the future.

“We do like to go the extra mile,” Jacobson said. “It’s great; it has living trees and living grass, and it has logs in the back that they will climb up on and that increases the space they have to move about. And they have a training area. We train each of our animals for specific behaviors. We want them to participate in their own health care by choice.”

The Red River Zoo is authorized to become a breeding site for swift foxes but is waiting for approval from the species survival plan program to begin. They expect to start breeding next year.

“We get those recommendations once a year,” Jacobson said. “Each SSP meets at different times. I have to wait for recommendations to come out — we already are authorized to become a breeding facility, so when the next meeting is held, we should be ready for that.

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