Latest research into civet coffee tourism reveals civets in barren cages and drugged as photo props for tourists
Kopi luwak (civet coffee) is one of the worlds most expensive coffee’s, produced through the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), a small arboreal and nocturnal carnivore native to South east Asia. It is said that the enzymes of the civet’s digestive tract alter the coffee beans properties to produce a smooth less bitter tasting coffee which was originally discovered by Indonesian farmers under Dutch colonial rule. Popularized in the early 2000’s when it featured in the Hollywood film “The Bucket List” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, this faecal-derived coffee has become known as the most exclusive coffee in the world.
Yet kopi luwak’s fame has led to its industrialization and civets are now caged and force-fed coffee for mass kopi luwak production. Civets suffer from capture and cage related injury, psychological distress, caffeine toxicity and premature death. Although animal campaign groups have long highlighted the cruelty associated to contemporary kopi luwak production, a new form of cruelty has also started to emerge, this time in the iconic holiday destination of Bali. Since kopi luwak’s Hollywood debut, kopi luwak agrotourism sites have cropped up across the main tourist trail in Bali from Denpasar International Airport in the South, to Mount Batur in the North.
Within kopi luwak agrotourism sites, tourists are invited to view the production of kopi luwak from bean to cup in a curated experience. Although the plantations are marketed as genuine sites of coffee production it is highly unlikely any civet coffee is made there. Instead, tourists are provided a short tour to encourage the purchase of coffee and gifts at the end. Firstly tourists are shown coffee trees and other tropical plants, before they are taken to see the civet "producers". Here, caged civets can be watched eating coffee cherries and defecating the beans. The next stage of the tour is the roasting process, where an elderly Balinese woman sits roasting beans on an open fire, tourists are able to sit and have photographs taken with her (and so both human and civet are similarly situated as spectacles within the tourist experience). The roasting process ends with a selection of complimentary teas and coffees with the option to purchase kopi luwak for a small fee whilst surrounded by panoramic views of the luscious Balinese landscape. In all, the tour typically lasts less than half an hour..
Since 2020, Jes Hooper, founder of the Civet Project, has been studying these facilities to understand the animal welfare implications and the tourist experience. In her recent paper “Cat-Poo-Chino and Captive Wildlife: Tourist Perceptions of Balinese Kopi Luwak Agrotourism” Jes reviewed the trends in Balinese kopi luwak tourism from the industries emergence in 2011 until 2020. Unable to travel during the COVID-lockdowns, Jes turned to TripAdvisor, the world’s most popular tourist review platform. In total, 3,364 tourist reviews were analysed across 25 Balinese kopi luwak sites that housed live civets. The results of which were alarming.
Similar to the kopi luwak production facilities, display civets across sites had limited access to shade, privacy, adequate nutrition, or water. Whilst few tourists mentioned civets in their review, opting instead to highlight the natural beauty of the landscape, those who did were most likely to rate their experience negatively on the basis of animal cruelty concerns. Overall, tourists were encouraged to keep a distance from the cages as the civets were aggressive, and tourists concerned with animal welfare noted civet injury and stereotypic pacing, a behaviour indicative of psychological stress.
Yet, in 2017, after a spate of negative TripAdvisor reviews condemning the tour sites for animal cruelty, user reviews started to shift towards more positive portrayals of tourist-civet interactions. Tourists began to fondly recount their close contact interactions with civets who were not housed in cages. However, further investigation of the reviews and photographs uploaded to the site showed that cage free civets were most likely chemically sedated. Civets draped on display plinths and café tables were in un-natural positions with eyes half open as tourists were able to pose with them for photographs.
The lack of movement and reactivity to human interaction observed in these wild animals strongly indicated a move away from caging towards animal drugging, a move which was also noted by some reviewers who described the civets as “just lying there like they were dead”. The shift from caging to drugging the civets is likely a response to the rising negative tourist reviews and other such negative reactions of tourists who were upset to see wild animals in barren cages.
The drugging of animals to enable the opportunity for safe photographic souvenirs is a phenomenon which has been previously documented. The Tiger Temple in Thailand serves as another example of the use of sedatives to manipulate the tourists’ perceptions of their experience and to immobilize dangerous wild animals. It is therefore important for tourists to be aware of the natural behaviours of wildlife on display, and to be sceptical of any cases where a wild animal appears to be unresponsive to close contact with humans.
The Civet Project encourages anyone planning a holiday to Bali to say no to Cat-Poo-Chino, and to be wary of any tourist experiences that feature wild animal. If you do visit one of these facilities, then simply ask not to partake in the kopi luwak and do not take or share selfies with the animals. If enough tourists boycott kopi luwak then the facilities are more likely to stop featuring them in the experience.
Published in the journal 'Society & Animals', "Cat-Poo-Chino and Captive Animals: Tourists Perceptions of Kopi Luwak Agrotourism" is available Open Access here.