Palm Civet Attacks

In India, officials are trying to trap an animal that mauled 20 people in one night. The prime suspect is a palm civet.

Civets and palm civets are little known in the West, but very common in much of Asia and Africa. Though they're all among the carnivorids (related to dogs, cats, hyenas, and so on), they comprise several families. Despite their lack of fame, various kinds of civets are economically important. Some of them make a stinky fluid to mark their territories. This fluid is used as a base for some perfumes. People harvest the fluid by scraping it out through a certain orifice. I'm told the civet does not enjoy the procedure.

In a certain kind of civet, the glands that make this fluid look like testicles, which means both genders appear to be equipped as males. This particular species helps make gourmet coffee. The civet eats the fruit of the coffee plant, digests most of it, and defecates the seeds (or beans). Supposedly coffee beans that have gone a progress through the guts of a civet yield extraordinarily rich, flavorful coffee. It sells for better than $100 a pound, though not at my local Cub Foods.

Back in 2003, a respiratory disease called SARS burst onto the scene, spreading rapidly across the globe from its Southeast Asian origins and just as rapidly dwindling as governments across the world imposed quarantines and restricted imports. Its mortality rate approached an extraordinary ten percent. Scientists found the virus in various animals, including bats and black rats, but no one knows how it passed to people. The US government banned the import of civets on strong circumstantial evidence linking a palm civet (Paguma larvata) with the disease. Animal handlers and restaurant workers who prepared wild animals showed high rates of infection.

Anyway, civets are all small; the likely species in these Indian attacks tops out at under 15 pounds. So this one probably isn't trying to prey on people. It's more likely a case of crowding--lots of people and animals wanting the same space and the same food.



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