CBC In Depth
INDEPTH: SARS
Civet Cat
Robin Rowland, CBC News Online | May 23, 2003

The origin of the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome remains a mystery. One suggestion of its source came on May 23 when Professor Yuen Kwok-yung of the University of Hong Kong microbiology department reported that the SARS virus may have jumped to humans from civet cats.

The civet cat is considered a delicacy in southern China. Yuen told reporters that he found a coronavirus "very similar" to the SARS virus in the feces and secretions of civets found in an animal market in China's Guangdong province.

Yuen said that although large amounts of the virus were found in the feces, the animals appeared to be unaffected. That means the virus may have jumped from the civet cat to humans or, perhaps, could have jumped from human to civet cat in the crowded street markets.

African/Asian Civet Cat

The civet cat is actually several species of the mongoose family (Family Viverridae) found in Africa and Asia. It's only distantly related to the feline cat. It has a catlike body but a longer tail, and a weasel-like face with grey or brown fur.

Most common is the carnivorous "ground" or "true" civet, which has dark spots and a ringed tail, with a number of species in Asia and one in Africa. The ground civet was hunted for its fur, for food and for musk.

Best known is the Indian civet, which was often captured so its musk could be used for perfume. The palm civet is a tree-dwelling, fruit-eating family, with a number of species found in Africa and Asia.

Animal rights groups say the civet is often kept in a narrow cage where, every two or three weeks, a person will grab the animal while another applies pressure to the musk gland between the genitals and the tail to extract a fatty, yellow substance that's used as the basis of perfume. (Most perfume companies now use synthetic civet musk).

The North American civet cat (Ringtail)

The North American civet cat looks somewhat like the Old World variety but is not related – it's a member of the skunk family (Family Procyonidae), with a long banded tail similar to a raccoon's.

Although early settlers called the animal a civet cat because of its resemblance to the Old World variety, its most common name today is the ringtail or ringtail cat. In the Old West it was also called "the miners' cat." Some were tamed and used by miners to catch rats and mice.

In Mexico, it's called Cacomistle, from the Aztec tlacomiztli, which means small or half mountain lion. It's found in Central America, Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Civet cats are carnivorous, nocturnal and live in trees or caves, eating smaller animals, insects, fruits and some vegetation.

It's an ambush killer, and can leap from branch to branch of a tree and climb walls. When frightened the North American species, like its cousin the skunk, releases a foul-smelling spray. The animal is not hunted or captured for musk.




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