What's a Binturong?

A Binturong, or Bearcat, is a mammal of the order Carnivora, found in the southeastern parts of Asia, from far eastern India through southwestern China, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Viet Nam, Malaysia, and parts of Indonesia (Sumatra and Borneo). The westernmost island of the Philippines, Palawan, also has a few. They are plentiful nowhere, though not yet extremely endangered. But their habitat is constantly shrinking, and therefore so are their numbers. The word binturong is of Malaysian origin, but the animal is commonly called "bearcat" in English, never mind the fact that it is neither a bear nor a cat, but from an older lineage than either.

What does the word bearcat bring to mind? Various high school and college teams are called "the Bearcats", such as the University of Cincinnati. The Grumman Bearcat was a famous old warplane. Bearcat is a brand name for a line of CB radios. There was a beautiful old sportscar in the 1930's called the Stutz Bearcat. And there is a new line of all-terrain vehicles named the Bearcat. One dictionary definition of the word is "a spiteful, angry woman" as in "she can be a real bearcat"! So what does all that make you think of the animal? Fast, sleek, wild, tough, fierce, viscious, bad-tempered? No, afraid not! Pretty far from the truth. A binturong is a slow, shaggy, amiable creature who'd far rather be snoozing in a tree than doing anything else in the world except maybe eating a banana. And a tame one is one of the most loveable friends you can have.

But what are they? They have one of the cutest faces in the animal kingdom, shaped like a sea lion's. They can hang by their tails like some monkeys. They walk flat-footed like a bear, not on tiptoe like dogs and cats. They can crawl around upside down in trees like a sloth, and come down headfirst like a squirrel, even though they weigh about 40 lbs. They live in the tropics, but their coat looks as long and thick as a grizzly's. They can balance on their hind legs and tail like a kangaroo. They have the typical carnivore teeth, but they love fruit above anything else. Sound pretty mixed-up? It all makes sense, if you're a binturong. A binnie is very much an individual in its own right, not just a weird mixture, and its odd characteristics actually make it very well adapted to its habitat in the trees. Its long fur serves more as a rain repellent than for warmth. It will eat meat with those teeth if it can catch some, but fruit is a lot easier for a tree animal. And as for that tail. . . . .

The Binturong Tail!

A binnie has many claims to fame, such as the funny little ear tufts that are twice as long as his ears, the almost human-looking rear foot soles, and the huge black and white whiskers that can grow to 8 inches. But nothing compares to that tail. It's about as thick as a softball at the base, tapering off to a narrow tip three feet later, covered with long black hair. And alone among Old World carnivores, it's a fully prehensile tail -- they can grip with it! They can wrap it around a tree branch and hang upside down, supported just by the tail, if they want to (though they don't much like to -- they're pretty heavy). But it's constantly in use. They'll hardly take a step in a tree without switching it around behind them blindly searching for something to grab it on to. It acts as a brake when climbing down through branches, clinging onto everything the hind feet just stepped off from. When just resting on a limb, they may very well be flopped out flat on their belly with all 4 legs dangling, but you can bet that tail will be wrapped clear around the limb with a firm grip. And if a binnie is on your shoulder, get ready for a squeeze around your neck that can nearly turn your face blue! Well, maybe not that bad, but they can certainly hang on tight, and they will. It's an amazing adaptation for a carnivore -- the only other one in the world with a prehensile tail is the kinkajou from Central and South America, a much smaller animal, but also a tree dweller. Life in a tree would be mighty dangerous for such a heavy animal as a binturong without such a tail -- unlike primates, carnivores can't grip with their paws very well. (Ever seen a dog hold anything?) Binnies can cling with their paws better than most though, especially with their hind legs. Like a squirrel, when coming down a tree headfirst, their rear feet can swivel around and grip more strongly than their front paws. Try this to a tame binturong: roll him on his back on the ground and tickle his belly. He'll love it, and in play will immediately grab your arm with his two hind feet. You can actually lift him clear off the ground, hanging head down, just by his feet clamped onto your arm. Pretty odd for a relative of dogs and cats! But the tail is just as strong. You can use it like a built-in leash. If you're walking a tame one on the ground, he often prefers you to be holding on to the end of his tail the whole time, and he'll cling on to your hand right back with it. It looks a bit weird though, kind of like you're pushing a vacuum cleaner.

In spite of all this, binnies can sometimes be a bit klutzy, because of their weight. So their moves are usually very slow and deliberate in a tree or in unfamiliar territory. In their cage though, where they feel secure, they can really get a bit crazy while playing and literally bounce off the walls. I had read in two different zoology books that "binturongs have never been known to jump". Well. those writers had obviously never been in a cage with Sooki in one of her goofy moods -- she waits till I have my back turned, then leaps off her perch up to 6 feet through the air and grabs onto my head with all five, wanting to go for a binnie-back ride.. And Bennie learned to do it too, by watching her. At 40 lbs each, that can nearly knock you flat when you don't see 'em coming.

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