~I visited many animal spots in Japan, and I will be talking about them for sure. If you read my itinerary you noticed that I didn’t mention anything about Zao Fox Village. But I did visit… and that is why I am writing about it now ~
You must have seen those videos passing through your feed at least once by now. Adorable foxes playing together in a village in Japan. It is portrayed as “the cutest place on earth” and everyone is going mad about it. Also I must admit, even I was enchanted by it at first.
While planning my trip I started reading more about it and the more I read the more negative critics I encountered. My view on it started to change a bit. The whole time during planning the trip I was always in doubt to visit the fox village. Even in Japan, 2 days before actually going, I wanted to skip it. But as it was on the way back from Cat Island to Tokyo, so I decided to go see for myself how it really was.
But first… some fox facts
There are about 12 kinds of foxes world wide. The most common one is the Red Fox. They are flexible animals that can adapt to any environment from forests to mountains, farmland and even urban areas. They are omnivores, meaning they eat about anything and they are notorious for killing extra prey and burying it for later. This activity is probably how the “sly” signature got attached to the fox, although, foxes, in general, are very bright and intelligent animals.
Foxes live in small groups, or even alone. They don’t have the kind of intense social structure we connect with other canines like the wolf and the dog. Unlike their relatives, foxes are not pack animals. When raising their young, they live in small families (called a “leash of foxes” or a “skulk of foxes”) in underground burrows. Otherwise, they hunt and sleep alone…
Last and obvious fact: foxes are wild animals! They are not meant to be pets. The last case of domesticating foxes took about 50 years of experimenting and breeding when they finally allow people to pet them and show more pet like behavior. Yes yes I know there are exceptions where people have pet foxes, but it is not a common thing.
What is Zao Fox Village?
It is a place in the mountains, near the town of Shiroishi in the Miyagi prefecture in Japan, where you can encounter many foxes together. Or as they put it on their website: “The rare 6 types and over 100 fluffy cute foxes will always be there for you!!” And it is true, you can find all 6 types of foxes there and they are fluffy and cute. Oh… and they always look like they are smiling!
They call it a sanctuary for foxes and the main part inside of the village is a kind of open-air fox preserve where foxes roam freely outside and where you can enter! The entrance is 1000 yen per person and for a extra 100 yen you can buy a small pack of fox food to feed them inside. And if you really want that fox experience you can pet one for an extra 400 yen!
Before you enter though ,you get many rules to follow. Because as we already know foxes are still wild animals! So you have to be careful all the time when you are inside.
Sounds so cool and cute! But why are you saying it isn’t?
Now here is where it starts and reality breaks in…
As you enter all you see are: caged and chained animals, including goats and the “pet” foxes. This already sets a really bad tone to the place. As we are walking I realize these very small cages are there to benefit the foxes. They are the “hospital” keeping the injured or any that need special treatment separately from the rest …Oh ok..
I couldn’t stay long on that entrance filled with cages and foxes acting crazy in them. There is also no green to be found, and I even felt sorry for the goats chained so tightly.
So I decided to enter the open air area. And as soon as I enter I see a fox approaching and some foxes playing and I gain some hope again. But walking further I just realize the foxes are fighting. The only interactions I saw was sleeping or bullying/ fighting foxes, specially around the feeding area.
Oh that feeding area was terrible too. You enter on a platform and watch about 30 to 50 foxes sitting there and waiting or fighting. The pack of food you get looks more like bunny food: a few small compressed cylinders. So you have to throw that little thing for all these foxes… of course all you get is fighting foxes under that platform. It’s all just so sad to see.
We stayed less than an hour there.. and it took us one hour in total getting there and going back to Shiroishi-Zao station by taxi only.
The biggest problem in Zao Fox Village
In my opinion it is the quantity… there are just way too many foxes in a small space like that. They say over a 100 foxes, but it could easily be around 300 that we saw (including the caged ones). I imagined the open-air place to be much bigger, as they are situated in the mountains.
Like I said it before in the facts: foxes usually don’t live with that many together. And they like to hunt and sleep alone. Sure foxes can adapt very easily, but you can not convince me that they live there at ease with each other. It’s like they live in constant stress with others. We also saw a few cases of bullies stealings sleeping spots and such. One of the reasons that their “hospital” is full with injured ones is probably the continuous fighting.
So they don’t do anything good?
Of course they do! It is not like they are abusing or exploiting the animals. They take good care of them, or at least try to.
The Zao Fox Village also have researches going on parasites and diseases and they respect the natural habits of the fox such as the “cruel” baby cub departure (this means that at some point the parent fix denies access to the cubs from their burrow and even attacks them until they stay out and go live on their own).
An other thing is that the foxes inside the village can live up to 14 years! As in the wild usually it is around 2 to 5 years. They are also bred in there obviously, so the population will never be endangered.
But the thing is… they can do better, they can do so much better!
What can they do better?
Foxes get a pretty bad reputation for being tricksters in many cultures but in Japan they’re also believed to be magical beings and messengers of Inari Okami, the Shinto deity of fertility, prosperity and rice. You would expect the Japanese to respect these animals to the fullest and provide a healthy environment for them.
Having cute foxes to interact is something unique and special. I loved seeing them in real life and they do look fluffy and cute. Zao Fox Villages overall idea is great, the execution however is poor.
So what they could do better is:
- The quantity of foxes need to drop! Or they have to expand that area by at least 4 times. I am sure seeing 30 or 40 foxes still is very impressive for us normal beings. And the ones living there would have so much more space. Or maybe they can introduce a “let it free again” program, but the problem with these rates are that the villages around the hill will not be pleased with so many foxes around!
- That chained display of pet foxes and even goats need to stop. If they must keep goats in there, they should provide a green spot, and let them in there freely. Same for the bunnies, even though as pet animals their cages were alright. But keeping the pet foxes chained though, there is no excuse for this. I even read online someone saying “you can hold a cute sleepy fox on your lap” and this makes me doubt the credibility of them being correct with these animals for the “petting”. Needless to say I didn’t pay the extra charge to hold a drugged-or not drugged fox.
- They need to better the fox food and the way to give it to them. Come on, what they give is barely food… I got more bunny food in a bag when I went to Bunny island than I got for these foxes! It looks like they just want to let you experience the gesture of throwing something to the mass of foxes below you (so you can see them look up) instead of actually feeding them. If they really want that interaction of human feeding the foxes, they need to come up with a better concept.
- Oh.. maybe NOT sell fox fur that comes from cruel Norwegian fur farms in the gift shop?
If you want to visit it, by all means: go. I am not breaking the place and their goals down, I am just giving it an other reality than social media is selling. This is also why I wanted to go and check it out myself before saying it is a good or bad place. So in my case I think it’s a bad executed place, that can be turned into something good for these foxes if they expand and better the inside structure for all animals.
But if you are not into petting zoo type of places: don’t go
If you expect tamed foxes: don’t go
If you expect it to be a heaven for the foxes: don’t go
If you are looking for a cute place and not only the cute foxes: don’t go
If you don’t want to spend loads of time and cash on taxi/train/entrance/food and that ridiculous petting option: don’t go
The fox world is a cruel world, but at least it’s free. By keeping them longer alive but captured, I doubt if that is really the way to go for a “sanctuary”.
I think the happiest fox we saw that day, was the one we saw on our way back crossing the road.