During the course of my day, I have the privilege of being around Binturongs. As a former University of Cincinnati student, and a lifelong resident of Cincinnati, I am also very familiar with the Bearcat mascot. Furthermore, being a snack food fan, I am also well aware of the satisfaction of a good bag of popcorn. So, you probably understand some of this, my experience with animals and mascots, but are a bit confused about what the topic of snack foods has to do with me working at a Zoo.
First, a bit of information on Binturongs for you; Binturongs (Arctictis binturong), are also known as Bearcats. They are found in the forests of Southeast Asia where they easily climb trees, using their prehensile tails for balance and to hold onto branches, as they search for the small animals and fruit they eat. When they are not moving around, which is about half of the day, these viverrids prefer to curl up over a branch or fork in a tree to rest and relax. While active at night, they don’t have a set pattern of activity and can be found foraging for food during the day too. Binturongs communicate with each other by leaving scent markings. These olfactory signals (scents/smells) are great, since these “messages” last for days and even weeks. The messages can say that this is their territory, a good keep out sign, or be similar to a posting on one of the dating services we see on the web; SBw/WFB seeking SBw/WMB (Single black and white haired female Binturong seeking Single black and white haired male Binturong!)
A quick note about the mascot, before we talk snacks. The University of Cincinnati, “Bearcat” originated in 1914 while folks were cheering during a football game. UC was playing the Kentucky “Wildcats” and we had a fullback named Leonard Baehr. The cheerleaders encouraged the crowd to repeat, “They may be Wildcats, but we have a ‘Baehr-cat’ on our side.” So after many years the Bearcat became the official mascot of the school. In 1985, Mike Dulaney, Curator of Mammals for the Cincinnati Zoo (CZBG) began taking “Alice” our Bearcat to UC games, for the fans to enjoy. Today, Alice’s successor “Lucy” can be seen walking along the sidelines at football and basketball games.
Now, let’s talk food. If you ever have the chance to see Lucy up close, around the Zoo or at a UC game, you will notice that she smells like corn chips or buttered popcorn. I mentioned that these animals communicate with each other through scents. On a typical day, Lucy has a strong corn-chip odor, but on a day that she is in estrus, she smells like buttered popcorn. These scents are strong enough that the keeper staff can tell when the females are ready to breed, by that popcorn odor. This is important, since there are 48 Binturong in North American Zoos (according to AZA’s ISIS records), but only the CZBG has produced any offspring over the last five years. Knowing when the females are receptive to the males will allow us to monitor our pairs and to continue to produce offspring. This is just one more way that the CZBG is addressing sustainability issues for the future. We are currently watching our pair, on display in the Night Hunters Exhibit, since we are fairly confident that the female will soon be ready to give birth. We will keep you posted on her progress and hopefully have a young Bearcat for everyone to see, for this year’s Zoo Babies event in May.
All of this talk has made me hungry, so I think I’ll go get myself a snack. Popcorn anyone? Go Bearcats!