Between Love and Madness

Most likely you are familiar with the scent. Enter an empty elevator, and there are 2 scents that are easily recognizable: the lingering smell of a smoke break and Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men. For some wearers Obsession is more obsessive to the wearer than those around him. Nowhere is that more true than in the wild.

Biologists working for Panthera, a conservation organization devoted to wild cats and their landscapes, have become obsessed with Calvin Klein’s “Obsession.” The men’s cologne is marketed for its “musky base” with “citrus notes and exotic spices” and “seductive mystery”. Biologists, in an effort to conserve wild cat species, have begun using the perfume to spray on camera traps. It seems that wild jaguars are also obsessed with the scent.

It is not the “provocative and compelling blend of herbs and woods” that sends sniffers to that space “between love and madness” that is of value to scientists. The perfume’s binder, which is a synthetic form of civetone- a derivative of the chemical ketone produced by the civet, a nocturnal catlike mammal, is positively irresistible to wild jaguars. The oil (civetone) is secreted from the anal glands of the civet as a pungent thick substance and mellows into a musky pleasing magnet (as long as you forget the source).

As an interesting aside, it is worth noting that the perfume ingredient is not the only secretion from the civet of interest to humans. Partly digested coffee cherries are eaten and defecated by the civet. In the intestines of the mammal, fermentation occurs and alters the coffee’s composition. The droppings are then collected for processing.  Keeping in line with the anal gland secretions bringing high dollars in perfume, “civet coffee” is among the world’s most expensive coffees ($700/kilogram).

The attraction of Obsession was first related in CAT NeWS, which reports a Dallas Zoo worker using her boyfriend’s cologne in an ocelot exhibit for “behavioral enrichment” (Sounds like animal porn for visitors’ amusement. However, zookeepers at the Bronx Zoo and the Toronto Zoo defend using the scent “to promote and elicit natural behaviors”.). The behavior elicited is cheek-rubbing—big cats rub their cheeks against the scent to leave their own scent on top.

The scent lure is placed on a camera trap to arouse a cat’s interest and encourage it to linger, making it easier for researchers to identify the Jaguars and study them. Panthera researchers look for perfume donations lest the Calvin Klein product eat up their budget.

In light of the fact that creatures such as wild cats have much DNA in common with humans, I am thinking about the elevator a bit differently. Obviously, we do not need anal gland secretions to keep us near a camera. But I am hoping not to enter an elevator and see cheek rubbing.

Written by Margaret Pendleton & published with permission.

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