“They have strong claws,” he said. “They like to climb.”
Now about three months old, the baby bints have scored three successes already. They’re the zoo’s first binturong litter, born March 8. The smallest, Thistle, was being pushed aside by the other two, who hogged the food and warmth and were growing fast. Thistle, on the other hand, wasn’t gaining.
“Our suspicion is that Mom wasn’t producing enough milk for three,” said Dr. Kim Wojick, 39, of Warwick, the zoo’s associate veterinarian.
So the keepers and Wojick decided to remove Thistle from the nest at three days old, keep her warm in an incubator and bottle-feed puppy formula to her six times a day. Their second success was catching Thistle’s decline before it was too late.
Fugate said they would give Thistle the blanket from the nest box with the family’s scents on it, and for the family, “We would bring up some Thistle-smelling towels,” Fugate said. “These guys are incredibly scent-oriented.”
At six weeks old, he said, they started giving Thistle short, supervised visits to the nesting box. The concern was that Poppy would reject her estranged baby.
“The very first time I brought her, Poppy started grooming her,” Fugate said.
By eight weeks, Thistle was fully accepted back into her family, the zoo team’s third success. Thistle is still smaller than the other two, but she holds her own in the rough and tumble of play fighting and chasing one another around the three-level treehouse.
Binturongs, sometimes called bearcats or cat bears, are not related to bears or cats, but to the civet. Fully grown, they’re about the size of a medium dog, with very short legs and wiry coat. Their white whiskers and ear tufts stand out from their dark fur, which on the babies is still soft. Their tails are prehensile, like an elephant’s trunk or a monkey’s tail, useful for climbing trees and hanging upside down.
“Their instincts for climbing are just ridiculous,” Fugate said.
“They do a lot of scent markings, so they wouldn’t make a great pet,” Wojick said. The literature says they smell like buttered popcorn, but Wojick says it’s not popcorn “that I would want to eat. It’s like old popcorn from the floor of the movie theater.”
Once Poppy and her prickly triplets were awake from their afternoon naps, Fugate entered their enclosure with a bowl of banana chunks and apple cubes. Everyone tried to climb his body to reach the bowl, and Poppy stood like a child reaching up for it. Thistle, seeing her way to the bowl blocked, climbed one of Fugate’s arms to his shoulder, balanced behind his head to the other shoulder, then walked down his other arm and landed in the bowl.
They secrete an odor like buttered popcorn.
They groom themselves like cats, licking and nibbling, and washing their face with their front paws.
They walk flat-footed like humans or bears, but they can turn their ankles 180 degrees so their claws can keep gripping the tree as they walk down headfirst.
A leathery spot on their prehensile tail gives them a better grip.
Young binturongs can hang upside down by their tails, but heavier adults might fall unless they use leg, too. Their weight, 20 to 50 pounds, also keeps them from jumping from tree to tree. They have to climb down one tree and climb up the next.
Their digestive tract is just right for softening the seed hulls of some fruits, and they distribute those seeds in their droppings, helping propagate the very plants that bear the fruit they eat.
They eat rodents.
They live in dense forests of southern Asia and are listed as vulnerable in parts of their range and endangered in others.
Their biggest threat is the destruction of their habitat, especially for palm-oil plantations. Some are hunted for food and some are poached for the pet trade or for traditional Asian medicines.
Females can delay the implantation of an embryo to give it more favorable weather at birth.