Bearcat fever

After witnessing eight years of various annual language days at the zoo, I’ve concluded that Chinese Day is more subdued than Spanish Day, though just as fun. (And the fun continues: French and German days are coming up next week.) Yesterday, the usual packs of high-schoolers came to the zoo, setting up species-specific booths along the trails and sharing animal facts in Chinese. The Tropics trail, still primarily a home for Asian animals with some African and South American exhibits in the mix, was especially fertile ground for the teens. They set up booths by the lemur and Komodo dragon exhibits, and informative Chinese lettering showed up other places, too.

Farther along the trail, I saw the most amazing Asian sight of all: not one but two binturongs, or Asian bearcats, prowling around the tapir exhibit — yet another newish pair of potential breeding mammals this season.

This exhibit has always had at least one binturong, but in eight years I’ve only seen him or her curled up in a fuzzy blackish ball, usually in a tree, which is how they spend their days in the Southeast Asian wild. About a year ago, one of our bearcats surprised everyone by attempting an arboreal escape, which resulted in some tree-trimming. For a week or two afterward, a volunteer was scheduled to watch the animal’s movements, but those movements were few and far between, and I continued to consider the creature window-dressing for the tapir exhibit. Yesterday, even Bertie the tapir seemed intrigued by the sight of a binturong prowling so close to her head.

Related to civets, Asian bearcats weigh 20 to 30 pounds, with prehensile tails that are roughly as long as their bodies. The tails help them climb trees, and while they’re off-exhibit at the zoo, keepers sometimes encourage the bearcats to paint with their tails. (The bears of Russia’s Grizzly Coast also make modern art with watercolors provided by their keepers.) Aside from mating, binturongs prefer a solitary life , and my Big Binder of Zoo Facts calls them “very retiring” as well as nocturnal. At one point yesterday, when these two weren’t nose-to-nose or wandering along separately, one of them lifted a paw and lightly punched the other one in the face, two or three times. Whether this bodes well for breeding, I really couldn’t say.

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