I have heard for as long as I can remember (and even read in a book somewhere) that a major ingredient of Chanel No.5 perfume is the sweaty excretions of the Abyssinian civet cat. I have even heard that they stretch these cats out on some type of medieval rack and whip them mercilessly to make them sweat more. The Straight Dope please, Cecil.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
You’re wondering what these two questions have in common? Better sit down, friends. It’ll become apparent all too soon.
First of all, the civet isn’t a cat, it just looks like one — actually it’s related to the mongoose. And those sweaty excretions aren’t sweat — they come from the perineal glands, next to the civet’s anus. (What do you mean, “Ewww”? We’ve barely gotten started. I’ll give you something to go “ewww” about.) The perineal glands contain a smelly substance that civets, and true cats for that matter, use to mark their territory. In ancient times some unknown perfume artisan came to an important realization:
Olfactory protoscientist #1: Man, this civet smell is rank.
Olfactory protoscientist #2: Yes, but it lasts a really long time!
Olfactory protoscientist #1: [Pause.] I’m not seeing how this helps us.
In fact, when used in minute quantities civet has a certain musky allure, and when mixed with more perishable fragrances it prolongs their scent.
I don’t find any evidence that you get civet out of civets by whipping them, but the process is none too pleasant. According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which has investigated civet harvesting in Ethiopia, the animals are kept in tiny cages for years. Every few days the keepers scrape the civet out of the anal sacs, a painful procedure (not to mention one of the world’s worst jobs). The WSPA says that Chanel, Cartier, and Lancome have all admitted to using civet in their products and that laboratory tests detected the ingredient in Chanel No. 5. Chanel says it substituted synthetic civet for the natural version starting in 1998, but come on — years of animal rights agitation and they’re realizing only now that using this stuff promotes cruelty to animals?
On to that coffee, kopi luwak. The beans have indeed gone in one end of an animal and come out the other, and guess which animal? None other than the civet, although in this case we’re talking about the Indonesian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) rather than its perfume-ingredient-producing cousins (Viverra civetta and Viverra zibetha). The palm civet prowls about the coffee plantations of Indonesia, seeking out and eating only the ripest, most primo coffee “cherries” (the sweet pulpy fruit encasing the coffee beans). The indigestible bean passes through the animal’s system and is excreted, passing within millimeters of our friends the perineal glands. In the old days it was then gathered by the poorest Indonesians and brewed into coffee. But then somebody had a brainstorm: You know, if we play our cards right, we can sell this to white people for $110 a pound! Behold, it has come to pass. The coffee is said to have a rich, full-bodied, almost syrupy quality that supposedly results from fermentation in the digestive tract, blah blah blah. They say it’s quite tasty if you can ignore the fact — no sense pussyfooting around here–that it’s made from shit. I haven’t tried it personally, you understand. But I plan to get to it real soon.
Some people have expressed skepticism that kopi luwak consists entirely of pre-eaten beans, and from a quality-control standpoint it’s hard to imagine what you would do to guarantee 100 percent authenticity. But I cherish the thought of some yuppie complaining that his coffee isn’t pure shit. Meanwhile, somewhere a civet is rubbing its scraped perineal glands and thinking: Ah, sweet revenge.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.