Civet Series 3: The Civet Pet Trade

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

Hi again Fanimals!

Welcome back to the third week of the special edition civet blog series. So far, we have seen how humans and civets meet from afar through consuming kopi luwak (civet coffee) and in person through kopi luwak tourism. This week I want to shed light on how the civet is physically changing in relation to human-animal encounter. It is my hope with this week’s blog that through the eyes of a civet, you will start to question your own relationships with companion species, and to understand the reasons why you may be drawn to certain animal characteristics. Let us begin by looking at the civet pet trade.

The civet pet trade

As part of my research, exploring the human-animal interactions within wildlife trade (using the civet as the protagonist) I am looking at the rising phenomenon of “musang (civet) lovers clubs”. Civet lovers clubs appear all over Indonesia, but as a relatively new social activity, little ethnographic attention has been paid to this community. It is my aim with my research to explore the human-animal interactions that occur within the civet pet trade in Indonesia, to see how the civet is changing in response to human control, and what these social clubs can teach us about the daily habits of pet ownership across the globe.

What are civet lovers clubs?

Civet lovers clubs are social clubs for civet pet keeping enthusiasts. The typical demographic of civet lovers members are young, cosmopolitan men in their early twenties who enjoy sharing their passion for civets through online social media platforms and through public social gatherings. YouTube is teeming with videos from civet enthusiasts, documenting their growing businesses in civet breeding, providing health tips and advice for civet pet owners, and sharing their own stories of their relationships with their companion animals. One such YouTube channel I frequently view as part of my research has over 21,000 subscribers and they post multiple videos a week which they share on Instagram and Facebook as well. The online civet lover’s community is an interesting keyhole through which to view wild animal pet ownership and companion animal ownership more generally. 

How is the civet changing?

The aspect of my research I want to share with you today is how civets are physically responding to their transgression from wild animal to pet. Where civets would have once been killed by farmers for being perceived as pests, the rise in the kopi luwak and pet trade has yielded an interesting opportunity for farmers who can now make a profit by selling these animals into the wild animal markets instead. Although it is true that the first pet civets would have been caught from the wild, and there is a high chance that the pet trade is still supplemented with wild caught individuals, it is the captive born civets which are most highly prized within the civet lover’s community. Treasured for their beautiful and unique pelage and docile nature, captive bred civets are starting to look and act very differently to their wild forebears. 

Selective breeding

Selective breeding for certain phenotypic and behavioral traits has resulted in a variety of civet color morphs, which contrast strikingly to their wild counterparts. The civet’s long nose, dark coloration, speckled patterning, pointed ears and beadlike eyes are transforming into pink button noses, white and pale pelage patterns, rounded ears and wide eyes. Their secretive and defensive nature is making way for an emboldened and inquisitive character, a want of human affection and a playful nature. Videos of pale colored civets chasing their owners and leaping into their arms without need for leash or food reward serve as a startling comparison to the wild caught civets we encountered in the kopi luwak plantations. As we saw last week, wild civets when caged will pace up and down as if they have lost their minds.I watch the videos of playful pet civets and can’t help but chuckle, the interactions could easily be described anthropomorphically as an inter-species expression of joy.

Yet these videos can only serve as hope, they cannot serve as a representation of the majority. These videos are only one small fraction of the videos I’ve watched, the images I’ve seen shared, and these are the ones which give me respite from witnessing the overwhelming suffering experienced by civets being bred and raised as pets. These joyous civets are the lucky ones. These seemingly happy and well adapted civets are those who have inherited the combination of genes required for the characteristics which enable them to cope (and perhaps one day, even to flourish) in human dominated environments. The combination of genes required to produce an animal that is so far removed from its wild kin, is the result of selective breeding, where mutated or rare alleles are intentionally selected for by humans.

Domestication Syndrome

What we are seeing, in front of our very eyes, is the development of domestication syndrome in civets. Domestication syndrome, first theorized by Charles Darwin in 1868, is the phenomenon whereby domesticated mammals exhibit a variety of behavioral, physiological and morphological traits which are not expressed by their wild ancestors. Such traits include rounded floppy ears, large eyes, reduced tooth and brain size, prolonged juvenile behaviours, increased docility and changes to coat color. Famous studies in the 1980’s used selective breeding in foxes to demonstrate that not only did breeding for tameness increase the number of domestication syndrome phenotypic and morphological traits, but if wild animals were selected for aggression, their offspring showed increased wild characteristics such as highly pointed ears and hyper aggressive behavior. These findings confirm that behavior and physical traits are linked. Yet, although domestication of civets is possible, the display of domestication syndrome is not a given and not all offspring will express these tame characteristics. Just like our domestic cats and dogs, it is possible to have a variety of coat colors and personality types from one single litter. 

The true cost of wild pets

As selective breeding in civets is so new, it is perhaps unsurprising that only very few civets show behaviours which allow them to adapt well to life far removed from their wild environments. The cases of pet civets “going mad” pacing, self-mutilating and head swinging, far outweigh the cases of civets playing freely with their owners or resting in cages seemingly unbothered by day light, electric lights, close proximity to other civet or other such stimuli that should be aversive to nocturnal and solitary animals. Whilst it may seem sensible and appealing to pay more money to own a tame civet over one which is more akin to its wild counterparts, the cost is not just monetary. The cost also comes in the many lives produced in the making of this one tame civet, the many lives which did not inherit domesticated traits, and will not cope with life removed from the wild. 

What does this teach us about human-pet interactions across the globe?

The case of domestication syndrome in civets prompts us to self-reflect and view our own commodification of companion animals. Let’s take the domestic dog as an example. Whilst the domestic dog is vastly different from a civet because dogs have co-evolved with humans over the course of 20-40, 000 years, we still (as a species) exploit dogs for human benefit. We continue to select domestication syndrome characteristics purely for aesthetic reasons.

Brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, such as pugs, are particularly popular for their baby-like features. Although seen as adorably cute to humans, brachycephalic dogs suffer from serious conditions including breathing difficulties, eye problems, headaches and skin problems (all because of the formation of their facial features). All of these hereditary deformities are associated with selective breeding for physical traits that humans find pleasing to look at, those we find cute and adorable.

Call to action!

The human-animal bond is the one of the most special connections we can have in modern society. That being said, we must find ways to live symbiotically and ethically with animals as companions.

Looks aren’t everything

My first call to action to you today is to consider the traits that you are drawn to in your companion animals. What are the implications of these traits for the animal? Is the species you wish to own adapted for life in a human-dominated environment? Is there any way you can reframe your thinking to ensure the animal you select as a companion is going to thrive not just survive. Select a species and breed based on their health rather than their aesthetics.  

Adopt don’t shop

One of the biggest problems caused by the commodification of animals as companions is non-regulated breeding. Going to a reputable breeder, though better for animal welfare than kitten and puppy mills, still exacerbates a surplus pet problem. Unwanted pets put significant pressure on animal charities and shelters alike, and often can result in the destruction of innocent lives. By adopting an animal you are providing a home to an animal in need. Be the solution to overbreeding, rather than the cause!


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].