In fantasy land, a fluffy animal will plop luxury treats instead of the usual “drop”.
This medium-sized mammal and its relatives the smaller, spotted, and palm civets are probably as close as we’re going to get. But I have some bad news, and not just for the animals.
Asia’s largest ground civet, the imaginatively-named large Indian civet (Viverra zibetha) prefers the cover of night and couldn’t decide between the coat of a tabby cat or a king cheetah, so decided to go with both. Happy to chomp on most foods, it has considerable fangs and enough strength to break the spine of its prey with a good shake. Sometimes it’s on the other end of the deal, though.
Comforts and cold cuts
Like most other small mammals over the course of history, it quickly made its way on to our menu. In the 1920s, its remains were among those found in Da-but in Vietnam, dating thousands of years back to the middle Neolithic period. It may have been hunted with dogs, and like other trophies, a possible part of local currency. Its meat wasn’t the only thing we appreciated about it, however.
Thomas Horsfield, in his travels across Java and surrounding islands in the 1800s, observed that:
The Viverra Zibetha is an animal comparatively of a mild disposition; it is often found […] in a state of partial domestication, and, by the account of the natives, becomes reconciled to its confinement, and in habits, and degree of tameness, resembles the common domestic cat.
So its alternative name of “civet cat” probably isn’t all that strange. Meat and cuddles weren’t the only reason we had them around, though.
It makes scents
The “zibetha” in its Latin name comes from an Arabic word zabād – “civet perfume”. Said perfume was collected by scraping a butter-like substance from the, er, rear carriage of the animal with a spatula, and then applying it to clothing or ointment before applying it to self. But don’t worry – most of the time the civet ran free afterwards, and the “perfume” comes from its anal glands rather than directly from its digestive tract, unlike the other substance I’m going to talk about later.
Surprisingly, the smell was described – non-sarcastically – as fragrant and floral when diluted, and was extremely popular among the Javanese natives Horsfield visited. Although muskone – “musk” – is more well known, “civetone” has graced many a perfumer’s lab, even that of a 1939 Nobel Prize Winner.
The smell of victory?
Swiss chemist Leopold Ružička also splashed about with it and found that its molecules contained rings of 17 carbon atoms. Until then, it was thought that rings with more than 8 would be too unstable to exist, so together with German Adolf Butenandt, Ružička was awarded the prize for his work on this and other “odiferous” compounds, as well as essential oils and sex hormones. Because what is a perfume if not something to get you going?
You’ll be glad to know that nowadays civetone is (mostly) synthesised rather than scraped from the bum of a poor civet cat, although said synthesis requires palm oil, so there’s that. The ending is even worse for the other kind of luxury item.
Caffeine can be mean
I should mention that so far none of the animals I’ve posted about have any kind of relation to coffee – unless their forest homes are ripped asunder for the odd plantation or they hide under them. The civet, on the other hand, has been used in the production of extremely high end coffee – as in $25USD-a-cup.
Being omnivores, civets will also munch on coffee cherries.
As good seed dispersers, they pass the beans without much incident, but coffee made from them afterwards purportedly has a floral taste. This is known as civet coffee or kopi luwak, but while the “best” quality generally comes from wild droppings – as civets are coffee cherry connoisseurs – factory-farmed civet coffee is an unpleasant truth too.
Often kept in small wire cages, the civets – usually the smaller or palm species – have cramped and stressful living conditions, and since it is extremely difficult to verify which coffee comes from the wild and free bunch, many large sustainable coffee companies like Rainforest Alliance and UTZ refuse to certify them. Who’d have thought making drinks from the back end of an animal was a bad thing. Despite this, the large Indian civet doesn’t necessarily shy away from humans.
Unfazed by fame
It’s a popular star of camera traps, and while it gulped down their leftover rice, it wasn’t especially bothered by the cameras and torches of researchers in India’s Namdapha Tiger Reserve. Being a fan of any food going and mostly indifferent to humans isn’t a great combination, as it’s led the large Indian civet to grabbing the odd chicken snack and upsetting many a farmer too. Then again, being open to new foods and opportunities makes it more resilient, and since it’s also happy to roam hillside and remote mountainous forests, it’s not subject to quite the same habitat loss as some of its relatives.
Nonetheless it’s definitely one to watch. From the front end this time!
Latin: Viverra zibetha
What? Medium-sized, patterned omnivore with a ringed tail and rounded ears.
Where? From India to South East Asia, mostly in wooded areas.
How big? 86 cm / 2.8 feet long, with a tail of 33 cm / 1 foot on top. Males are slightly larger than females.
Endangered? Currently Least Concern, due to a large range, a varied diet and habitats.
Probable motto: I guess my face isn’t cute enough for you.
They look cute. Do they need my help at all?
While the large Indian civet isn’t currently under threat, some of its relatives are.
Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, UK is helping to save the stripey Owston’s civet from South East Asia, and if you’re unhappy about the captive coffee situation, World Animal Protection is keeping an eye on this too.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Agrawal, V.C. et al. 1992. “Taxonomic study on the large Indian civet, Viverra zibetha (Linnaeus) from the Indo-Burmese subregion (Mammalia Viverridae)“. Records of the Zoological Survey of India 91(1):1-7.
Bale, Rachel. 2016. “The Disturbing Secret Behind the World’s Most Expensive Coffee“. National Geographic.
Betts, Hannah. 2008. “Let us spray“. The Guardian.
Boriskovskii, P.I. 1970. “Vietnam in primeval times [part IV]“. Soviet Anthropology and Archeology 9(2):154-172.
Browne, Elizabeth Anne. 2018. “Scent is the universal animal language, and poo is its perfume“. National Geographic.
Cave, James. 2016. “You don’t even want to know where musk come from“. Huffpost.
David, R. 1967. “A note on the breeding of the large Indian civet Viverra zibetha at Ahmedabad Zoo“. International Zoo Yearbook 7(1):131-131.
“Definition of Viverra“. No date. Merriam-Webster.
“Definition of zibet“. No date. Merriam-Webster.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Civet“. Britannica.com.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Leopold Ružička“. Britannica.com.
Ghimirey, Yadav and Acharya, Raju. 2014. “Notes on the distribution of Large Indian Civet in Nepal“. Small Carnivore Conservation 50:25-29.
Horsfield, Thomas. 1824. “Zoological Researches in Java, and the Neighbouring Islands“. Kingsbury, Parbury & Allen.
Howgego, Josh. 2011. “Muscone“. Chemistry World.
Jackson, Adria. No date. “Viverra zibetha“. Animal Diversity Web.
Lynn, Guy, and Rogers, Chris. 2013. “Civet cat coffee’s animal cruelty secrets“. BBC News.
Naniwadekar, Rohit et al. 2013. “Records of small carnivores from in and around Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Arunachal Pradesh, India“. Small Carnivore Conservation 49:1-8.
Pocock, Reginald Innes. 1939. “The fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma“. Mammalia – Volume 1. Taylor & Francis.
Robertson, Scott, et al. 2002. “Management Guidelines for Owston’s palm civet, Chrotogale owstoni (Thomas 1912)“. British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Smith, Andrew T. et al. 2010. “A guide to the mammals of China“. Princeton University Press.
Timmins, R.J. et al. 2016. “Viverra zibetha. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2016: e.T41709A45220429.
Featured image credit: Photo by kajornyot.