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Civet in my balcony

As the small, and rather harmless, mammals scurry around Kolkata in search of a new home, they face human fear, prejudice and apathy

The civet, commonly, and mistakenly, referred to as a cat, belongs to the Viverridae family. Photo: Uttam Mahata
The civet, commonly, and mistakenly, referred to as a cat, belongs to the Viverridae family. Photo: Uttam Mahata

Whose side do I take? Humans will say civets have encroached into their space. And if civets could speak, they would say the same about humans," says Shankar Dutta. As the range officer, Wildlife Rescue Centre, Kolkata, Dutta has been in a unique position to judge the civet situation in the city. For the past few years, the department of forest under the West Bengal government has seen a rise in the number of calls and mails regarding civets. Dutta says at least 20 civets, which have strayed into people’s homes, are brought at the shelter every month. These are released back into the wilderness. But the forest department is also running out of space. When my mother started seeing an unusual number of civets around the house, her calls to the forest department went in vain. “We don’t have any more place to keep these," she was told.

It’s been 10 months since a family of civets moved into our three-storey house in south Kolkata, a lane away from the main road. They live under the false ceiling of our terrace room. There are more in the neighbourhood—populated by old and new houses with terrace gardens and devoid of any apartment buildings. People haven’t been kind in their reception of these visitors. There are stories of the nocturnal animals being beaten to death by sticks and poisoned. In Jadavpur, another locality in south Kolkata, where there has been an increase in civet sightings, a person is said to have deliberately run his car over four baby civets.

Civets are seen as a nuisance as they raid places for food and create a mess. Then there are all sorts of wild tales about them. People think of them as vicious carnivores with a reputation of being human baby snatchers. The common palm civet weighs up to 3.5kg, which makes it difficult to believe in the latter. Recently, when things at home weren’t going very well, I found my mother blaming it on the civets, also known as bhaam in Bengali: “They are bad omen," she said. I was curious.

I was in Kolkata for a month, confined to my house due to a knee operation when I had my first encounter with a civet on a rainy night in July. While working on my laptop on my bed, I saw an animal trying to jump into the balcony. I was alarmed. I let out a loud scream that prompted my parents to come rushing into my room. The animal must have been seeking shelter from the rain.

The next time I encountered a civet was even later at night. I was in my balcony and I hadn’t noticed the black cable wire, almost invisible in the dark, that ran from one house to another. And on it, there was a civet walking, inching closer to where I was standing. I panicked again, and hobbled to my room on my crutches. I remember feeling like I had escaped from a predator.

When I revisited the incident the next day, I was embarrassed. I was keen to understand the animal better. I realized the reason people knew so little about them was because they saw so little of them. Commonly referred to as civet “cats" because of their appearance, they don’t actually belong to the Felidae family. Civets are Viverrids, other members of which include lesser-known animals such as genets and linsangs. They are shy, nocturnal omnivores that are most active when people are sleeping. As someone who tends to stay up late, I had the opportunity to observe the civets from close quarters. I vowed to behave myself the next time I encountered one in the balcony. And I did.

Like the previous night; it popped up in the darkness walking on the cable wire toward me. I tried to remain calm. I switched on the light to take a good look. The light almost paralysed it; it turned its head to see if it could retrace its steps. But to turn its body around while trying to stay on the wire could make it lose balance and fall. The other option was to keep walking. Our eyes met, I saw a scared and helpless animal trying to get home. I switched off the light. It resumed its journey and landed safely on the terrace.

Since then, during my stay in Kolkata, I have come across civets a number of times. We have minded our own business and respected each other’s territories. The most memorable sights include seeing two of them frolicking over the asbestos shed of the adjacent house. The most surreal one was the moon-bathed silhouette of a civet, viewed from underneath the semi-transparent shed of my balcony, defecating.

The urban civets, which take shelter in attics, ventilators and false ceilings of houses, are nocturnal animals. Photo: Alamy

It was later when I consulted experts, that I learnt that civets don’t attack humans. Also, there have been no reports of anybody being bitten by a civet in Kolkata. The urban variety is the common palm civet or Paradoxurus hermaphroditus.

Civets in the city are nothing new—they have been an integral part of Kolkata’s urban wildlife, along with vultures, bats and jackals. “They have been living with humans since 100 years, in ventilators, attics of big, old houses," says Arjan Basu Roy, secretary of Nature Mates-Nature Club, an NGO which has been working on conservation of wildlife in and around Kolkata. Because of their elusive and nocturnal nature, people rarely see them. With houses with rooftop gardens and fruit-bearing trees giving way to apartment complexes, they are migrating in search of newer homes. The reason behind the increased civet sightings in different pockets of the city of late, says Roy, doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in population. It means there is a larger concentration of civets in a smaller area. Despite being animals with great survival skills, this poses a threat to the future of urban civets. “If there are 200 civets in one area, they would fight among themselves, there will be inbreeding. It’s going to affect their gene pool and will have a negative impact on their overall population. In 50 years, there might not be any civets left in the city," says Roy, “It might seem like a long time, but in the context of the life of an entire species, it is nothing."

Civets are an important element in urban bio-diversity. Apart from hunting rodents and eating insects, they also help in the dispersal of the seeds of the fruits they consume—it is the same quality in the brown palm civets found in the wild that make them poop the world’s most expensive coffee beans.

“Everyone is important," says Anuradha Rathore, a landscape architect based in Kolkata, “Frogs and dragonflies are vanishing, resulting in a rise in mosquitoes. Civets too take care of finer aspects of the environment". Among the bio-diversity friendly projects she has worked on is the Ecospace Business Park at Rajarhat in Kolkata, and a road meant for heavy traffic in Odisha (part of a pellet-melting plant in Keonjhar), where concrete pipes have been built underneath for snakes and lizards to pass.

But the urban civet’s future looks bleak. It is unlikely to evoke conservation awareness among people and forest department as much as, say, the house sparrow, another species whose numbers are dwindling in the city. Nature activists say civets lack the “glamour" that generally warrants study and research for a species. And people’s attitude toward them is a mix of fear and repulsion. “All it does is steal fruits and their faeces is an annoyance to people," says Kushal Mukherjee, a wildlife consultant based in south Kolkata. “In the older days, people used to be more tolerant toward animals such as civets. You have to sacrifice a bit for nature. You can’t always have a squeaky, clean artificial environment."

Ultimately, perhaps, people’s negative perception about civets boils down to the way they look. They are not conventionally “adorable" such as the neighbourhood squirrel or the street cat. But they are just as good or bad and as deserving of our empathy. The next time a dark, strange and furry mammal with a long tail appears out of nowhere next to your window, instead of getting scared, maybe, be kind.

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