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The rise of civet lover clubs: animal welfare disaster or hope for a multi-species future?

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

New research reveals the complex nature of contemporary civet pet keeping practices and the importance of animal welfare for zoonotic disease prevention.

Civets are one of the most ancient forms of Feliformia, or ‘cat-like’ animals, and their presence has long been known by humans across Southeast Asia [1]. Their arboreal and nocturnal nature makes civets an elusive night time visitor, though their adaptability to anthropogenic disturbance has secured their status as “least concern” amongst the conservation community [2]. With a uniquely buttery musk, the presence of civets near human dwellings was once only noticed by their lingering odour [3]. Now, however, civets are widely regarded as pests for supplementing their varied diet with farmers crops, and they are commonly found in wildlife markets across Asia on sale for civet coffee production or wild meat [4,5].

Yet in 2014, a new human-civet phenomenon was recorded in the form of “Civet Lover clubs”, the social grouping of civet pet keeping enthusiasts [6]. Civet Lover clubs have continued to grow, and membership has become particularly popular amongst young suburban men, who benefit financially and socially from civet companionship. Social media is an important community tool for club members to share videos and photos of their civets, to connect with likeminded people and discuss civet pet keeping practices. Civets are also sold frequently via platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, and civet breeding has become a lucrative business. Civet Lover club’s have individual and stylized identities, with biker-gang style logos which are sold on branded merchandise, and large corporate pet expos generate substantial media attention [7]. Formally listed as a common species, Asian palm civets are unprotected by legislation and so breeding in homemade facilities is an unregulated practice.

Just as the civet’s companionship is shaping the lives of suburban youth throughout Indonesia, so too is the civet’s world changing. Born into captivity and undergoing successive generations of selective breeding, civets’ relationships to their cultural and ecological heritage is rapidly fading. Dark pelage has given way to light grey and mottled brown, patchwork colours adorn rounded races with vibrant blue eyes and plush pink noses. In less than ten years of captive civet breeding, civet morphology has been contaminated by humans, and domestication syndrome becomes increasingly evident.

Captive bred palm civet with domestication syndrome (white and mottled grey face, blue eyes, white feet and pink nose)
Captive bred palm civet with domestication syndrome (photo credit: Anon, Instagram)

What makes civet pet keeping particularly interesting, is that palm civets were attributed to the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China at beginning of the 21st century. The SARS epidemic which ran from 2002-2004 killed 774 people across the globe and was traced to civets in China who were held captive for sale as wild meat [8].

In a recent research article titled “Contamination: The Case of Civets, Companionship, COVID and SARS” published earlier this year in the ‘Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science’ anthrozoologist, Jes Hooper, juxtaposes the response of Civet Lover clubs to COVID-19 with that of the Chinese governments response to the 2004 outbreak of SARS which resulted in the inhumane slaughter of 10, 000 civets [9]. The paper is the first to document the current trends in civet pet keeping practices which reveals complex multi-species relations with a variety of animal welfare consequences.

From the qualitative analysis of the SARS outbreak, it is clear to see that wild animals are often vilified as vectors of disease. Suspected species are easy targets for politicization by governments whose own disease control strategies are failing. In comparison to the relations between civets and humans during the SARS epidemic, Civet Lover clubs during COVID-19 took to social media in droves to spread awareness to members on how to keep their civets and multi-species communities safe from infection. Advocating for mask wearing, social distancing, increased hygiene, and veterinary screening, club members were pro-active in their messaging to keep humans, civets, and the integrity of the clubs, safe from disease and accusations of spreading it. Yet civet welfare is also frequently compromised through civet pet keeping practices. Namely, the breeding facilities are highly stressful, and conditions resemble those of the Chinese live animal food markets.

Whilst pet civets exist in a liminal realm between wild and domestic, those with most domesticated features including friendly dispositions have a remarkable tendency to appear to thrive in the companionship of humans. Yet those individuals who have inherited the more common wild characteristics such as light sensitivity and aggression cannot truly adapt to living with humans, as is shown by the high incidences of stereotypic and fear-based behaviours. Amongst the hundreds of thousands of posts online featuring pet civets, the cost of their companionship is unprecedented. Civet obesity, injury, stereotypy, and blindness from exposure to light, are frequently observed. Cohabitation with humans in multi-species households containing human children, adults, civets, and other animals including reptiles and domestic cats and dogs, make for further concern for zoonotic disease emergence. Regardless, as a species of minimal conservation concern civets and civet pet keeping practices have yet to draw significant scholarly attention.

Obese pet civet
Obese pet civet (photo credit: Anon, Instagram)

Through the exploration of civet-human relations at times of global health emergency, Jes’ research highlights the need for further focus to be attributed to the role of animal welfare as part of a holistic, One Health approach to disease prevention. Yet the research also sheds light on the possible multi-species futurity, be it the anthropocentric domination of wildlife who languish in poor conditions as commodified pets or the mutualistic relations achieved through multi-species flourishing whereby humans and civets could be equal beneficiaries of adaptive coevolution and continued cohabitation. As an ancient species already well adapted to anthropogenic disturbance, could civet pet keeping be the next evolutionary step in their genealogical journey?

Overall, the challenging complexities of Civet Lover multi-species communities offers an intriguing lens through which to explore the role of welfare and zoonoses in contemporary society. For those civets born with the characteristics suited to human companionship, we see another adaptive advantage being exploited by this unusual and under-studied small carnivore. For those who have been less lucky, their lives need advocating for. For the humans who capture, breed, trade, care for, or love civets, their role in civet-human livelihood is also complex and has significant ramifications for the individual and collective lives of morethanhuman animals.

Jes’s full publication list can be viewed via the Civet Project.

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