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The Tiny Fennec Fox Is All Ears

The fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) is native to North Africa and Asia, and is found throughout the Sahara Desert and east to Sinai and Arabia. Grendelkhan/Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 4.0)

There are cute animals, and then there are ridiculously, over-the-top adorable animals that are so obscenely sweet looking, you can't help but entertain the thought of taking one home (and maybe dressing it in little sweaters and calling it Fluffy). Such is the case with the fennec fox.

Weighing in at just 2 to 3 pounds (0.9 to 1.3 kilograms), this tiny canid looks to be about 75 percent ears. Their bodies and paws are covered in thick fur that comes in shades from red to cream and their bellies are generally pure white. Rounding out their stuffed animal appearance is a bushy, black-tipped tail. Honestly, they look like they were created specifically for a Disney summer blockbuster. Which is why people are clamoring to keep them as pets — but is that a good idea? Or a legal one for that matter? We'll talk about that in a minute.

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Smallest Fox in the World

The fennec fox is the smallest member of the canid family, which includes 34 carnivorous species, including wolves, dogs, foxes, coyotes, jackals and dingoes. "Fennec foxes are the smallest fox in the world," says Alisa Behar, curator of mammals at the Los Angeles Zoo. "They weigh between 1.5 to 3.5 pounds (0.6 to 1.5 kilograms) and stand only 8 inches (20 centimeters) tall. They also have the largest ears in proportion to body size. Their feet pads have extra fur, which protects their paws from the hot sand. The thick fur also gives the fox extra traction when maneuvering across loose sand and dunes."

Originally hailing from North Africa, the fennec fox can live in a range of arid environments and can be found in a variety of dry areas, as far east as Kuwait, according to Behar. "Fennec foxes are native to Northern Africa and live throughout the Sahara desert and east to Sinai," says Daniel Flynn, marketing manager of the Conservation Society of California at the Oakland Zoo. "They prefer sandy deserts and arid regions with desert grasses or scrub vegetation."

In the wild, fennec foxes are big fans of bugs — specifically locusts and grasshoppers. But they're pretty well-rounded omnivores, feasting on everything from lizards and small rodents to birds and their eggs. Fennec foxes tend to hunt at night, and they don't like company when they do it. They need to work solo so they can put those impressive ears to use.

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My What Big Ears You Have

"The 6-inch-long (15-centimeter-long) ears are a great tool for listening in on prey," Behar says. "The foxes tilt their heads from side to side while triangulating sound, so they can pinpoint the exact location of insects, rodents, reptiles and other animals, which are often hiding just under the sand. The ears also serve as a way to dissipate heat and keep cool in the desert." Once the fox locates a tasty meal, it uses all four of its feet to start digging. They can also prey on animals that are significantly bigger than them, size-wise. There have even been documented cases of fennec foxes tackling fully grown rabbits.

"Fennec foxes' large ears can be half as long as their body, reaching 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters)," says Flynn. "The ears help them listen for prey underground, but also help to dissipate excess heat from the desert. The ears provide an expansive surface area of exposed skin loaded with blood vessels. The ears can release heat from the body without sacrificing precious water by sweating."

As nocturnal animals, fennec foxes like to burrow themselves in shady spots during the day and hide out to avoid the heat. They're expert burrowers, digging out tunnels that can reach up to 32 feet (10 meters) in length. They usually dig a series of these tunnels, with multiple exits so they can make a quick getaway if they have to. They're also monogamous creatures, often living in family groups of up to 10. Scientists have even found instances of multiple family groups sharing one complex den, so not only are these little guys off-the-charts adorable, they're also pretty brilliant.

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Can You Have a Fennec Fox for a Pet?

So given their irresistible good looks and smarts, you may be wondering if you can have one of these fuzzy friends to cuddle. The answer is, you can — but you probably shouldn't. "It is legal to own fennec foxes in some states as pets," Flynn says. "It's important to check all states requirements and laws regarding exotic pets. Though some states may allow the ownership of a fennec fox, it is important to keep in mind the needs and natural adaptations it has before purchasing."

"The L.A. zoo does not encourage anyone to have a fennec fox as a pet because they are still a wild animal unlike a dog or cat, which are domesticated," Behar says. "Fennec foxes need special care, housing, and a diet that the average person usually cannot provide. Also, having an animal like the Fennec fox as a pet continues to encourage the illegal wildlife trade."

Flynn says that while it may be legal in some states, keeping a fennec fox in a domestic setting means taking the wild animal out of its natural, arid climate. "Like many other animals within the exotic pet trade, animals like fennec foxes are purchased by uninformed owners that aren't fully aware of the social, nutritional, and specialty care needed to maintain these wild animals," he says. "The impulsive decisions of buying an exotic pet can lead to the owner being unable to care for the animal over time adequately. It's important to check all states requirements and laws regarding exotic pets. Though some states may allow the ownership of a fennec fox, it is important to keep in mind the needs and natural adaptations it has before purchasing."

While fennec foxes are commonly trapped for sale in the domestic pet trade, their main predators are certain large varieties of African owl, and they are classified as an animal of "least concern" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

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