Meet a woman whose best friend is a Palawan bearcat.
Text and illustration by Normal B. Isaac
“Violet eats a variety of fruits—bananas, grapes, apples, papaya. We also give her chicken head, raw meat for protein, vitamins, and occasionally, cat food,” Tricia Nicolas says.
“Violet” is the name of one of four bearcats of this pretty veterinary medicine student of De La Salle University in Malabon. “Violet has a sibling called Blue. They are the [offspring] of the original bearcats we acquired many years ago,” she explains as she cites the amnesty granted by the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources (DENR) to owners of endangered exotic animals like bearcats.
Tricia has been greatly influenced by her dad to take Veterinary Medicine. Peewee Nicolas, a longtime barangay chairman in Caloocan, has been an animal lover since his high school days. The family’s mini-zoo is a pleasant surprise for first-time visitors. It has various animals, among which are crocodiles, tortoises, fruit bats, snakes, iguanas, hawks, lizards, tarantulas, and geckos. “But I don’t have fighting cocks. Am not into gambling,” Nicolas says with a laugh.
Research shows that the Binturong or Arctictis binturong, also known as the Asian Bearcat, Malay Civet Cat, Palawan Bearcat, or just simply the Bearcat, is neither a bear nor a cat but is a species of civet of the family Viverridae. The real meaning of the original name is lost, as the local language from which it came is extinct. Its natural habitat is forest canopy, and it spends most of its time in the trees of southeast Asia, Borneo, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Palawan Island.
They are nocturnal and sleep on branches. Their bushy tails are fully prehensile and act as a fifth hand. They are about the size of a large house cat, averaging about 60–95 centimeters or cm (24–37 inches or in) and weigh from 9-14 kilograms or kg (20–31 pounds or lb). The tail is nearly as long as the body, with lengths ranging from 55–90 cm. The ears are small and rounded, and it has small eyes. They have coarse and thick black fur.
Binturongs primarily eat fruit, but also have been known to dine on eggs, shoots, and leaves, and small animals, including rodents and birds. Deforestation has greatly reduced their numbers. When cornered, they can be vicious and mean. A Binturong can also make chuckling sounds when it seems to be happy and utter a high-pitched wail if annoyed. Binturongs can live over 20 years in captivity. One is recorded to have lived almost 26 years.
They climb trees and leap from branch to branch, using their tails and claws to cling while searching for fruit, eggs, leaves, birds, and rats. They can rotate their hind legs backwards so that their claws can still grip when climbing down a tree head first. Binturongs also use their tails to communicate, through the scent gland located under it.
The scent of Binturong musk is often compared to that of warm popcorn and cornbread. Binturongs brush their tails against trees and howl to announce their presence to fellow Binturongs. Slow and graceful, the Binturong hunts in the night and sleeps during the day. The Orang Asli, indigenous minority people of Malaysia, keep Binturong as pets.
The Palawan Binturong, Arctictis binturong whitei of the Philippines, is vulnerable due to habitat destruction and poaching for alleged medicinal uses and their fur.
As a parting shot, Tricia says that one has to be passionate, research extensively, must know the moods of the bearcats, and not just leave them to caretakers. To be a responsible pet owner entails commitment, dedication, and personal bonding with the animals.
May her tribe increase.
This appeared in Animal Scene’s April 2016 issue.