Civet Cats and Ringtails
(This column was first published in the January 26, 2004 issue of The Buffalo News.)
You have almost certainly read about the 10,000 civet cats being killed in China in response to the new outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and you may also have seen the animals in cages on television. For those concerned about the welfare of these animals, I note at the outset that they are not wild but raised in captivity to serve as food and in some cases as a source of a perfume ingredient. For that reason they would soon be killed in any case.
But civet cats do also live in the wild. Those animals in China belong to the same biological family as mongooses. All in that family are native to Africa, Asia and to a lesser extent Europe. There are several varieties of wild civet cat and I suspect that most of those being raised in China are related to the masked palm civet as they are similarly marked. This widespread species has a range that extends from Pakistan and Kashmir to eastern and southern China. Although the various civet cat species are not yet formally listed as endangered, their forest habitat is rapidly disappearing and wildlife conservationists are becoming increasingly concerned about their welfare.
The word civet, according to Webster's dictionary is "a substance, of the consistence of butter or honey, taken from glands in the anal pouch of the civet [cat]. It is of clear yellowish or brownish color, of a strong, musky odor, offensive when undiluted, but agreeable when a small portion is mixed with another substance. It is used as a perfume."
What this means is that these Asian civet cats are skunk-like animals. I am not aware of our skunks providing "honey" for perfume, however.
It turns out that North America has its own civet cat. Its more common name is the ringtail and it is also known as the ringtail cat. This animal lives in the desert areas of the southwestern United States and adjacent Mexico. Its popularity is indicated by the fact that it has been declared the state animal of Arizona.
The ringtail is in an entirely different family from those Asian animals and is more closely related to our raccoon. In fact none of these civet cats, despite their names, is a member of the cat family. The cat designation almost certainly derives from the animals' cat-like behavior.
Ringtails in particular are occasionally kept as house pets where they are very happy to curl up like cats in their owners' laps. They have been described as "wonderful and loving, gentle creatures full of playfulness and curiosity." Unfortunately the stress is on curiosity as the description continues, "There is no such thing as putting something out of reach. With the ringtail's ability to climb, it will be checking out your bookshelves, fine china and anything else that it can get into."
It is certainly better then that ringtails be left to live in the wild where they are even more proficient mousers than cats. Still another name for them, miner's cat, derives from their having been used in western mines for this purpose. Their diet also includes insects, scorpions and spiders, other mammals like squirrels and rabbits, small birds, lizards and amphibians as well as carrion. Although they are carnivores, they also eat a variety of fruit.
Even if you travel to the southwest, don't expect to see ringtails as, like our flying squirrels, they are shy nighttime animals. You might, however, hear their barks, screams or snarls.
We should certainly not destroy any of our civet cats because of guilt by misguided name association.-- Gerry Rising