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Monday June 27th, 2022

Civet Close Encounters

I’ve had three close encounters with civets, none of them especially pleasant. They were even less pleasant for the civets.

Some years ago, we were renting an open-courtyard house in Havelock Town. I sat reading late one evening next to a huge concrete plant bowl. Of a sudden that bowl shattered loudly as a strange critter fell into it from two stories up. Both of us stunned, we looked at each other for a long moment, four feet apart. Then it scrambled to some vines hanging down from above and speedily disappeared aloft.

I obsessed for days: what the hell was that? I didn’t make models out of plaster and mashed potatoes like Richard Dreyfuss imaging Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But I did pore through internet pics and descriptions until I found it. Asian Palm Civet: crafty, shy, solitary nocturnal opportunist.

Years later in our suburban home we heard intermittent scratching sounds in our bedroom ceiling. It stopped after a few days and we thought nothing of it until the stench came, followed by a telltale stain in the ceiling. The unfortunate civet had crawled into a small space between roof and ceiling from which it could not extricate itself. I shan’t go into detail about cutting the ceiling away and having the remains smack to the bedroom floor.

Then there was the morning we awoke to discover a civet corpse left thoughtfully on our doorstop by our sweetheart golden retriever, Millie, who had dispatched it in a nighttime struggle that destroyed our vegetable patch, though we had slept through the whole thing. The mystery was how Millie, who stood guard over the cadaver till morning, slew the poor civet, which exhibited neither blood nor visible wounds. I can only imagine a bite clamp on the windpipe or snout, closing off its air supply. Or a quick snap of its neck maybe?

Some of you readers must have had comparable close encounters. Recently we have spotted the ghostly ninja on our own roof and our neighbor’s, also stealing into the dimly-lit lane from the overgrown plot opposite our house. I hope we avoid a meet-up.

By wild coincidence, I witnessed still another civet close encounter, just last night as I sit writing this paragraph, this one with a large white house cat who lives down the lane with its one blue and one yellow eye, spending its evenings outdoors. It happens that the overgrown plot across the lane had gotten bulldozed down to bare earth just two days previously, as commissioned by its owner. In the wee hours I sat reading on our outdoor deck, as is my habit with mild insomnia. I heard a noisy mewling and yowling. Looking out on the lot through binoculars, I spotted the cat squaring off on the civet.

As companions in human habitats, civets can prove a bloody nuisance: noisy at night

They mostly stood a few feet from each other with the civet backed against the neighbor’s wall, the cat vocalizing noisy aggression, the civet plaintively begging for prompt unharmed departure. I could see eyeshine from both, reflecting the streetlamp. After a brief physical scuffle, the cat backed off a bit. Warily, step by very slow step, the civet edged its way along the house wall over to the lane and then, after sniffing at our gate a moment, went off down the lane and vanished.

A friend of mine, who kept a pet civet as a kid, remembers it with a smile. (These days his small garden harbors a massive pet pig, at first the size of a schnoodle, now outweighing a tuk-tuk: to meet this friend, by the way, you would mistakenly think him perfectly sane.) Not long ago, a team of Dutch veterinarians rated some 90 exotic mammals for pet suitability. Criteria included behavior, health, comfort and risk in captivity, along with ease of handling without special knowledge or skills. Asian Palm Civets clocked in at number five. Cuddly and playful, they grow enamored of their keepers. Close encounters they enjoy may include riding on your shoulder and running around while you chase. There are, however, two reasons to think twice: the law and coronavirus.

Sri Lanka’s Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance penalizes anyone who ‘takes’ a civet. ‘Takes’ should mean ‘captures’ but could conceivably also mean ‘receives,’ ‘adopts,’ ‘domesticates’ or ‘keeps.’ Your lawyer won’t be able to answer this one.

The 2002 China outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) propagated itself from bats to humans through infected civets, cousins of the Asian Palm. Densely packed in cages, bats and civets awaited their destinies as delicacies. (Just to be clear, humans caught SARS from animal wheezes and sneezes, not from ingesting their roasted or sautéed flesh.) Don’t blame civets. Any densely packed mammal with a previously solitary lifestyle might be equally dangerous, lacking all immunity. Close encounters among humans, civets and immune bats proved a recipe (pardon the pun) for disaster. Authorities liquidated thousands of civets after discovering the link. But your pet civet is probably OK unless you’re stacking caged bats in your garden. (That’s grossly illegal, Dear Reader, so forget your entrepreneurial daydream of lucrative supply deals for menu novelties: Kentucky Fried Bat? Taco Bat? Get back to your cubicle, seriously!)

Asian Palm Civets belong to the carnivore order and go by the colourful Latin designation Paradoxurus hermaphroditus. The hermaphroditus label owes to paired musk glands on backsides of both males and females, resembling testicles in appearance. Musk secretions serve for territory marking and mate finding. Until a generation or so ago, a heavy human harvest of civet musk supported production of perfumes and other scented items. Workers would periodically scrape the musk, its odour disturbingly akin to hot buttered popcorn, from the glands of civets held in small cages. Outcry over this cruel husbandry provoked the cosmetic industry’s turn to artificial ingredients.

The genus label Paradoxurus owes to early challenges placing civets within a Linnaean classificatory system. Sometimes called ‘weasel cats,’ civets confounded the classifiers. My wife suggests that God was nodding off when she created uguduwa (the common Singhalese term for civet).

Emerging in Eurasia some 40-50 million years ago (mya), civets took up their arboreal lifestyle. With skeletons and teeth scarcely changed down to the present, civets today closely resemble their ancestors. Carnivores divide into two great sub-orders: ‘cat-like’ (Feliformia) and ‘dog-like’ (Caniformia). Within the Feliformia, civets date from the time when separation of the two sub-orders originated, much further back than lines that split off from them directly or indirectly: hyena and mongoose, for example (22-25 mya), and today’s ‘true cats’ (3-6 mya). Before Darwin, how to position civets with respect to these related lines was a perfect stumper. With today’s evolutionary understanding, we can grasp civets as something close to the common ancestor of numerous related Feliformia lines, sharing features with all of them. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Paradoxurus, the ‘Ur-Cat.

As carnivores, various civets prey upon snakes and other reptiles, frogs, rodents and insects. They take eggs whenever they can. The Asian Palm, however, leans less on animal sustenance and far more towards fruit, at least in its primal deep forest habitat, dispersing seeds through its droppings. Because it loves palm flower sap, fermentable into palm wine, it goes by the nickname ‘toddy cat.’ As potential prey, it needs to worry mainly about snakes but should also steer clear of leopards and crocodiles.

Sri Lankans know that the Asian Palm Civet adapts well to agrarian and urban settlements alike. There it relies less on fruit and more on opportunity, turning toward an omnivorous diet. Its climbing prowess confers advantages in range and safety. Its precocious versatility compensates for the demise of forest habitat: it is rated ‘least concern’ on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Not so lucky is its less-adaptable cousin, the Golden Palm Civet, endemic to Sri Lanka. Due to forest decline and fragmentation, it shows up ‘vulnerable’ on the Red List.

Still a third scenario of caging entails gourmet ‘civet coffee,’ heavily trafficked in Southeast Asia. Civets ingest coffee berries and digest the pulpy fruit, then excrete the partially digested beans, which are then cleaned, dried, roasted and served to java connoisseurs at prices up to hundreds of dollars per cup. The elite beverage ironically originated with poor folk working on Indonesian coffee plantations. Banned from plucking coffee, they noticed fruit-loving palm civets leaving beans in their droppings and worked out how to make themselves a cup of Joe.

Partial germination (malting) of the beans as they pass through civet gut counteracts acidity, yielding flavor that some find pleasingly smooth but others judge rather blah. Because many consumers take their sips in a one-off bucket list splurge, they often wind up savoring ordinary coffee passed off as civet-pooped at hugely amped-up prices.

Genuine civet java comes from farms where the animals go batshit (sorry!) cooped in small cages with torturous wire bottoms, force-fed on coffee berries exclusively, pumping them up on caffeine and depriving them of balanced nutrition. They bob their heads obsessively and spin themselves around compulsively, bite their cages and lose their fur in clumps. Concern over all this has grown alongside the burgeoning trade itself. Providers have taken to counterfeit labels like ‘wild-sourced,’ not even remotely plausible for a solitary nocturnal creature dwelling in dense coffee-poor forest. Cafes could never meet the demand by scavenging civet scat from leaf litter.

As companions in human habitats, civets can prove a bloody nuisance: noisy at night, scattering garbage to snag a snack, leaving droppings where you don’t want to find them. Some people react with violence. Bear in mind, however, that she means you no harm. If you find yourself in proximity, try to make yours a close encounter of the kindly kind.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Mark Hager lives with his family in Pelawatte. mark.hager@gmail.com

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