Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tiger Valentine: Zoos' erotic perfume tempts big cats

The renowned London Zoo in Regent's Park has released some suitably erotic photos in time for Valentine’s day. Starring in the images are Raika and Lumpur, the zoo’s Sumatran tigers, a subspecies so endangered that only a few hundred still exist in the wild - a situation which, to judge from these pictures, isn’t the tigers’ fault.
In fact the zoo is trying hard to get the pair to breed successfully. In new film footage, they certainly seemed in the mood, going crazy over bits of fabric scattered with Valentine hearts. “Raika, the female, rubbed her face and body all over the hearts, which seemed to make her irresistible to Lumpur,” says zoo spokesperson Rebecca Smith.
No wonder. They were laced with Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men, which in the 1980s became famous (or infamous) for over-the-top erotic advertising. It probably wasn’t the ad campaigns that inspired Lumpur this morning - more likely, it was an animal he would regard as lunch.
In their quest to make caged animals’ lives less boring, zoos spritz perfumes around the enclosures of species whose sensory world is dominated by smell - and every cat owner knows how odd scents perk up a puss. (I had an otherwise fastidious Siamese who drooled off-puttingly on the collars and cuffs of anyone who wore certain top-of-the-range perfumes.)
The Bronx Zoo in New York discovered a few years ago that big cats adore Obsession for Men. Researchers now even use it in the jungle to bait camera traps, which take pictures in response to motion, and are getting lots more shots of inquisitive, otherwise secretive cats like jaguars and ocelots. It must work pretty well if the wildlife crowd will spend research budgets on it: a 200 ml bottle of that stuff will set you back fifty bucks.
It turns out that these romantic human scents pack chemicals of great interest to species that regularly sniff their friends’ anal glands. In many species, these glands secrete grease containing chemicals used for scent marking, and a wide range of animals, from muskrats to musk ox to musk deer - note the recurring theme - pack a chemical with a ketone ring structure that smells like what humans call, well, musk.
Civets, a relative of the mongoose (which also eat, then poop, the world’s most expensive coffee), produce especially powerful stuff containing a musk-related molecule called civetone, with a rank odour comparable to faeces, or very unpleasant cheese.
And our ancient olfactory brain circuits recognise it. Diluted, the stuff apparently smells great. It is perhaps the world’s oldest perfume - the Queen of Sheba is said to have given some to King Solomon, just before they disappeared into the king’s bedroom. It sells for around $500 a kilo.
Civetone can be made artificially from plant oils. But around a tonne of the natural stuff is harvested yearly, mainly by Ethiopian farmers, who hold captive civets in squalid wooden cages, and scrape out their anal glands with a horn spoon every week or two. It isn’t a great life for the civets. The World Society for the Protection of Animals investigated in 1998, and recommended that perfume makers switch to artificial civetone.
More recent studies by wildlife conservationists advise instead making the trade more humane and sustainable, by moving to captive-bred, well-treated civets. This seems reasonable: impoverished farmers aren’t likely to stop, as current production doesn’t begin to cover demand.
Which is odd, as 31 leading perfume companies, including Calvin Klein, told the WSPA in 1998 that they don’t use the real stuff. Only Chanel, Lancôme and Cartier admitted it. Last year Calvin Klein described its civet as “synthetic”.
Real or fake, as far as Raika and Lumpur are concerned, the stuff works fine. It’s not clear what this means for the future of Africa’s civets, which are not endangered - yet. The zoo says it will let us know if Calvin Klein’s Valentine’s gift to the world is a litter of baby Sumatran tigers.


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