Civet Series 1: Introduction

This post is the first in a four part series about civets, written by Jes Hooper.

Welcome Fanimals and thanks for having me!

My name is Jes Hooper and I am an Anthrozoology PhD student from the UK, here to talk to you about civets. As this is probably an opening sentence that needs some explaining, let us dive straight in.

What is an Anthrozoologist?

Anthrozoology is the study of human-animal interactions, a growing interdisciplinary field within the Social Sciences. As an Anthrozoologist, my job is to pick apart, analyse and critique the ways in which humans and animals coexist, compete and impact each other’s lives. We only need to look at the world around us, or turn on the news, to see how our own actions can impact the fragile balance of the natural world.

Arguably now more than ever, it is fundamental for us to understand how our interactions with animals can set into motion far reaching consequences. There is no better time than now to reflect on the ways in which we, as individuals and as communities, engage with the animals we share our planet with. So where do civets come in? 

What are civets? 

Civets are small carnivores from Asia and Africa, belonging to the Viverridae family of cat-like animals. Civets are arboreal, nocturnal and secretive in nature. Although taxonomically listed as carnivores, civets, and other members of the family Viverridae, play an important role in their respective ecosystems as seed dispersers, helping the forest to rejuvenate and grow. The diet of a civet is extremely varied, as they eat from a wide range of plants, fruits, small rodents and birds. In fact, it is their partiality to an unusual selection of fruiting plants cultivated by humans that has propelled the civet into the limelight of global fame. Let me welcome you to our first civet encounter, as I introduce you to the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus).


The Asian pam civet

The Asian palm civet shares her story with humans from the Colonial times in Indonesia, when the islands were under Dutch rule. Instructed to harvest coffee as a cash crop for exportation, indigenous people began to cultivate coffee throughout Indonesia. Whilst cultivation of crops can be highly problematic for the environment, the Asian palm civet is a particularly adaptable character, and she took the introduction of coffee as an opportunity to advance her taste palette. As the traditional story goes, palm civets would sneak into coffee plantations in the dead of night to select and consume the ripest coffee cherries available. While palm civets were discovering caffeine, the local growers were being forbidden to sample their own crop, the monetary value of the cherries far exceeded their own income, and the Dutch would not allow them to drink into potential profit. The ingenuity and opportunistic nature of the civet was reflected in the local people, as growers began to collect the excreted coffee beans from civet scat, the only trace left behind by the visiting civets. Picked from the poop, the beans were then cleaned, dried and roasted, revealing a coffee which was unique in flavour. You see, the coffee bean had become transformed by the civet’s specialized digestive tract, her gut enzymes had stripped the coffee cherry from its harsh bitterness and reduced the caffeine content, resulting in a smoother dinking experience. 

Unfortunately, what could have been a symbiotic story does not end there. The story of civet coffee, locally named as kopi (coffee) luwak (civet), found its way from the locals to the Dutch rulers. The rarity of the coffee, combined with its unique taste, made kopi luwak extremely valuable. Fast forward several hundred years, and kopi luwak remains as the world’s most expensive and rarest coffee reaching up to $100USDmper cup. Except, the story is no longer true. Palm civets are no longer free to come and go from the coffee plantations as they please. Instead, civets are captured, caged, and their bodies are commodified as biomachines for mass kopi luwak production.

Civets as capital 

Palm civets are not the only members of the family Viverridae who have become ensnared within networks of human centred profit production. Whilst civets are poorly understood, they are inextricably linked to global capital. Civets appear in many different enterprises from food production and tourism, to the pet trade and zoos, acting as workers, entertainers, educators and ambassadors, all the while being an elusive character that tends to blend into the background without their story being fully heard. 

This is where my project comes in. The civet is the protagonists to my research into the globalization of animal trade and what this phenomenon means for humans and animals alike. I aim to tell the story of the civets involved in these animal trades, to shed light on the ways in which human behaviour (whether we intend it to or not) can impact the lives of animals we may not even be aware of. My project also highlights that animals and plants are world makers in their own right- for they too, shape the word as we know it today.  

This civet blog series is designed to introduce you to the wonders of civets, to get you questioning the ways in which you interact with animals and how these interactions can have huge ramifications beyond our initial encounter. It is my hope that the civet’s story will help you uncover and evaluate the indirect ways (such as through consumer choices) that you may be engaging with the non-human realm.

Next time

Next week I will build upon the story of kopi luwak, introducing you to the snowballing effect where one exploitative trade gives way to another, as we will see in the case of kopi luwak tourism and the cost paid by those who are integral to it: the civets themselves.


About the author:

Jes Hooper [1] is an Anthrozoology PhD student at the University of Exeter and a member of Exeter’s Anthrozoology as Symbiotic Ethics (EASE) working group [2]. Jes’ current research focuses on human-animal encounters within the trade in exotic wildlife for the pet, coffee, tourism and zoo industries. Jes’ PhD project, The Civet Project [3], is a multi-species and multi-sited ethnography following the stories of Viverridae species entangled within live animal trade, with encounters viewed through a trans-species lens. Jes’s work actively engages with interdisciplinary scholarship including collaborations with visual artists, critical tourism academics, conservationists, zoo keepers and fellow anthrozoologists. Jes lectures part time on two undergraduate programs in Animal Behaviour, Welfare and Conservation at Plumpton College, Sussex, [4] and blogs under the name Shilo & Patch [5].