Chances are you don’t know what a binturong is, and that’s exactly how they like it. The binturong is nature’s reclusive, creepy curmudgeon who lives down the street in the house with all of the junk piled out front who only comes out of his house to pick up the paper and scare the local kids. The binturong isn’t elusive because it’s endangered (because it isn’t) or because it’s stealthy (because it isn’t), but because it just doesn’t like other animals or people. It wants to be left alone so it can nurse both its aching war wound and its seething bitterness. And it would thank you very much to stay the heck off its lawn and let it live its own life in peace.
So jealous is the binturong of its own privacy that everything about this creature is designed to mislead and misinform so that, hopefully, no one will ever find it.
Starting with its name, binturong is Malay for “bear cat” even though it is neither a bear nor a cat. If its name doesn’t confuse zealous girl scouts and Census Bureau volunteers enough to keep them looking for bears and/or cats and away from its front door, there is yet another layer of deception hidden within the binturong’s monicker. In Malay bear-cat is the word for binturong, but in Chinese it’s the word for panda. And it just so happens that the binturong is native to China just like the panda. This is no accident. The binturong is pretty much banking on more than a few pandas being snagged in a case of mistaken identity.
If a binturong isn’t a bear or a cat, what is it? It’s a relative of the civet and the genet. And what in the name of great Caesar’s ghost are civets and genets? Exactly. No one’s really sure. And I mean no one. If I had to describe either a civet or a genet, I would say it looks like the cross between a bear and a cat. Seriously.
And that’s the brilliance of the binturong’s defense techniques. If someone is bent on selling the binturong a subscription to Viverrid Monthly, or killing it and selling its meat and fur at a market, they would be sent around in circles until they gave up. If a person started looking for a binturong based on its name, they’d end up knocking on the door of every bear or cat in the phone book until they might eventually stumble upon a civet or a genet instead. If they realized they’d been duped and they tried to figure out what the heck a civer or a genet is, they’d eventually end up right back at bears and cats.
Eventually, though, a binturong needs to drive to the local gas-n-go to grab another 40 ounce and a pack of smokes. And every once in a while, one of them gets caught and taken to a zoo. The binturong isn’t a dangerous animal when considered on the grand scale of dangerous animals – with bears and dolphins at the most dangerous extreme, and pandas and sugar gliders on the other. Any danger a binturong poses isn’t because it’s fierce as much as because it’s just plain ticked off. Binturongs are even known to pace around cages in zoos angrily grunting to themselves.[i] The look on a captured binturong’s face also resembles less a deer in headlights and more Nick Nolte’s mugshot.
The best part about the binturong is also the fakest sounding part: the binturong smells like popcorn; like real, buttered popcorn. And I more than half suspect it’s nature’s way of making sure the binturong can’t be too much of a recluse. The fact that nature’s crankiest loner smells so huggably delicious is entirely fitting. If movies and TV have taught me anything at all besides crime pays and only hot people[ii] crash on islands, it’s that curmudgeons might have a tough exterior, but they’re all lovable softies on the inside. You see, the binturong isn’t a bad or evil creature by any means. It’s not a fierce man eater. It just projects an image of wanting to be left alone when in truth this is only because it doesn’t know how to reach out and be friends. But God has caused this creature to smell like buttered popcorn as a sign of the golden, gooey heart that beats within its off-putting, red eyed exterior.
[i] It’s really true. They do.
[ii] And the occasional fat guy.