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Binturongs: Pivotal Personalities in Rainforest Conservation

November 16, 2015

A Young Binturong by Kim Barker

The binturong, or “bearcat,” is a mostly fruit-eating carnivore that is not closely related to either bears or cats. Binturongs have bristly, gray-tipped black fur covering a low-slung, stocky body, and walk flat-footed with a shuffling gait. They live in the forest canopies of Southeast Asia, and most of them only descend to the ground to change trees. They rely on claws and caution rather than great agility to move from branch to branch. Binturongs smell like corn chips or buttered popcorn, and primarily use scent to communicate. Nevertheless, they can be chatty creatures, vocalizing to express that they are pleased, annoyed, hunting, or, in the case of females, amorous.

I interviewed Mindy Stinner, co-founder and Executive Director of the Conservators Center, about her experiences caring for, and striving to conserve this extreme mammal. The Conservators Center in Burlington, North Carolina, currently houses four binturongs, and has been involved in caring for members of the species for 12 years.

Mindy, how did you first become interested in binturongs?
I was drawn to them shortly after I graduated college, when I first began working with wildlife. I found their anatomy and personalities to be truly unique in the animal kingdom. Over the years, I’ve cared for a number of young binturongs, who are easier to handle and whose natural behaviors and traits are easier to study.

An infant Cole Bearcat Binturong being fed by Douglas Evans and Mindy Stinner. Photo by Kim Pyne, courtesy of Conservators Center.

An infant Cole Bearcat Binturong being fed by Conservators Center co-founders Douglas Evans and Mindy Stinner. Photo by Kim Pyne, courtesy of the Conservators Center.

Cole Bearcat Binturong as an infant. Photo by Abbie Cooke, courtesy of the Conservators Center.

Cole Bearcat Binturong as an infant. Photo by Abbie Cooke, courtesy of the Conservators Center.

What about binturongs most surprised you when you started working with them?
Firstly, it’s often easy to generalize species-wide preferences, especially with enrichment: this species loves to play in water and that species does not; this species enjoys being on the ground and that one does not. However, with the binturongs I observed far more individual variation than I anticipated. Some binturongs not only enjoy swimming but will eagerly leap into a pool from a raised platform with a full-face submersion on landing. Others will barely deign to dip their toes in cool water on a hot day. Some binturongs seem very comfortable moving around on the ground; others will undertake seriously amazing gymnastic endeavors to avoid touching the ground at all, such as walking across the ceiling of their enclosure sloth-style then climbing down the wall for a drink of water. Some binturongs are pristine in their hygiene, grooming often and sleeping on clean pallets; others have constant bed-heads with full-body cowlicks and maintain a habit of supplementing their bedding with their own waste. I never expected such variation in individual preferences. To me, this adds to their intrigue and charm.

Secondly, I did not expect such engaging personalities from the binturongs I grew to know personally. As a rule, the older adults did not really care about my visits unless I brought a good bribe, like a snack. Like many seniors, they were overall set in their ways. Younger binturongs, however, are constantly seeking engagement with the world. They experience it in ways we have trouble anticipating because our sensory input is so different from theirs.

Some solicit belly rubs and do somersaults with delight at getting focused attention. (In fact, when you rub the belly of a contented binturong, they make a noise that is somewhere between a giggle and a purr, a sort of whuffling noise. They will also cackle if they get excited, and we use this as a cue they are getting overstimulated—like a cat who was fine for the first 30 seconds of a belly rub but who suddenly becomes overwhelmed by it.)

Some juveniles require a full head-sniffing greeting from all people who visit. Binturongs do not seem especially scent motivated in the way a cat is, but they do enjoy certain musky scents and I suspect are very sensitive to the pheromones of other animals and of people. Overall, I have been delighted at how these animals reach out to interact with people and the world at large.

Cole Bearcat Binturong sniffing the head of Kasey Thornton. Photo by Ron Smith, courtesy of the Conservators Center.

Cole Bearcat Binturong sniffing Kasey Thornton’s head in greeting. Photo by Ron Smith, courtesy of the Conservators Center.

In the Extreme Mammals special exhibition, “extreme” is defined as something that departs significantly from the normal, average, or ancestral condition. What would you say is extreme about binturongs?
They are already very unique by way of being one of just two carnivores with a prehensile tail. Add to that their vertical-slit pupils for seeing in changing light, their non-retractable claws for climbing and their arboreal habits, and their unique talent for seed dispersal and planting (especially of critical rainforest plants), and you have a pretty extreme mammal indeed.

Video: Cole Bearcat Binturong showing off her acrobatic talents.

Binturongs are considered a keystone species, due in part to their nearly unique ability to help germinate strangler figs. What is a keystone species, and why is the strangler fig so important to the rainforest?
A keystone species is a species that performs a pivotal role in keeping an ecosystem in balance; you can use the health of this species to measure the health of its environment.

Strangler figs make up a critical portion of the rainforest canopy in many parts of Southeast Asia. Other plants use the strangler fig for stability, and animals that live in the canopy use the strength of its support during their daily movement in search of food and nesting areas. So much of the ecosystem depends on this one tree. However, the seed of the strangler fig has a thick coating; some animals eat around the seed, some destroy the seed by eating it, and some pass the seed through their systems with the thick coating unscathed. However, none of these instances allow the seed to germinate.

Enter the binturong. In a process called endozoochory, the binturong is able to eat the delicious and nutritious fruit, and the seed’s protective coating is removed by the binturong’s digestive tract as the seed passes through its system. This method of seed dispersal usually involves two or more co-evolved species in a relationship that helps shape and preserve the ecosystem in a way that is beneficial to both species. The “teamwork” of the binturong and the strangler fig is critical to helping maintain the rainforest in a condition ideal for both species.

Strangler fig by Brian Jeffery Beggerly via Flickr.

Strangler fig in Cambodia by Brian Jeffery Beggerly via Flickr.

Binturongs are classed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with populations declining more than 30 percent over the past 30 years. They are primarily threatened by habitat destruction, hunting, and the pet trade. How is the Conservators Center working to help binturongs? What can individuals do to help?
It can be very challenging to protect a species that lives far away from us, with threats to its existence we have little control over. Instead, we try to focus on what we can control. We provide homes to the binturongs at the Conservators Center, where they help educate thousands of people every year about the importance of protecting this species and their native environment.

The Center also participates in multiple research efforts to help everyone learn more about binturongs; we donate binturong anatomical measurements, DNA, and other types of samples. Our staff and interns experiment with new enrichment and dietary adjustments, then record behavioral changes and observations to share with other experts in binturong husbandry.

When other facilities nearby (and even in the binturongs’ native lands in Asia) have a binturong-related problem to solve, our staff provides guidance and support for husbandry needs and makes referrals to our experienced care providers, including the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine. Sometimes the issue is as simple as determining gender (which is not always as easy as you’d think with their strange anatomy). However, sometimes the issues are far more challenging, like caring for an unhealthy binturong confiscated from a marketplace in Southeast Asia. In these cases, we provide information on feeding and housing the animal, recommend the safest ways to transport the binturong to better care, and sometimes assist rangers or officials with finding an appropriate rehabilitator or long-term housing option in their own country.

Individuals can help by selecting food items made with sustainably farmed palm oil, a product that, when farmed unsustainably, can lead to deforestation of the binturongs’ habitat. Items made with sustainably farmed palm oil will be marked that way on the packaging.

And of course, it is always helpful to donate to or volunteer at a zoo, conservancy, or other facility that houses binturongs in a responsible way, especially if the facility helps educate the public about the importance of protecting Red Listed species.

Stella Binturong. Photo by Kim Pernicka, courtesy of the Conservators Center.

Stella Binturong. Photo by Kim Pernicka, courtesy of the Conservators Center.

Mindy Stinner is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Conservators Center. She has worked with binturongs since 1994 and is a coauthor of the Viverrids (Viverridae) Care Manual for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
(PDF)

The Conservators Center’s mission is to reconnect people with wildlife by introducing visitors to rare, threatened, and endangered species—up close and personal. 
Conservators Center website

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