It’s been a wild couple of weeks, but I’m finally back to a point where I can get some articles written for ICARUS. As I debated what today’s article should focus on, I kicked back in the only chair not occupied by a cat, and sipped on my usual morning cup of processed partially digested fecal matter. I’m not really into keeping up with fads, but I am totally devoted to the bean, so only the best will do. In this case, the best–by current popular standards–means that the ingredients of my hot beverage have been fed to a small animal, partially digested by that animals, then excreted within the feces of that animal, and that feces has then been ground up and I bought it and drank it.
Have I grossed you out yet? Because I’m telling you the truth. Well, not about me drinking the stuff. I don’t get paid enough to afford the $700 per kilogram price tag. But I’m telling the truth about all the rest.
Still don’t know what I’m talking about?
Yes. Coffee. No, probably not the coffee you’re drinking while reading this. But a certain coffee, kopi luwak, kapé alamíd, kafé-laku, it has many names, is made from the partially digested coffee beans excreted in the fecal matter of the Asian palm civet. No, I am not making this shit up. Pun entirely intended.
For anyone who has never heard of this type of coffee, don’t feel bad. Kopi luwak, or civet coffee, has been around since the early 18th century, yet it’s also something that only devoted coffee connoisseurs would be familiar with. After all, not even the most ornate marketing can make up for the fact that you’re drinking something made from poop. That said, you might be shocked to know just how many people will happily pay $700 for a kilogram (just over two pounds) of these mysterious beans and kopi luwak is second in price only to Black Ivory coffee, which brings in $1100 per kilogram.
I know, now you’re thinking ‘Okay, gross, but whatever. What does this have to do with conservation? If people want to drink poop-coffee, let them do it and weed out the crazies via natural selection.’
But it’s not that simple.
Let me give you a brief overview of kopi luwak history.
In the early 18th century, the Dutch were ruling the coffee roost from their position in the Dutch East Indies islands of Java and Sumatra. But since coffee was special, the Dutch forbid the native peoples–including plantation workers and coffee bean farmers–from using coffee fruit themselves. Wanting to know just what their Dutch masters cared about so much, the native peoples got the idea to follow Asian palm civets–a smallish obscenely adorable mammal indigenous to the area–and collect the civet’s feces, knowing that the civets ate the coffee fruit from the plantations, and that the seeds (the coffee ‘beans’) would not be digested, but instead would pass through the animals and could be found in their droppings.
So by collecting civet poop, gathering the coffee beans from within it, and then cleaning the beans and grinding them up, the naive peoples were finally able to taste the coffee beverage so coveted by their masters. You’d think this would be the end of the story, but according to accounts, the aroma of this ‘civet coffee’ became renown, eventually drawing the attention of the Dutch plantation owners, and it quickly became their favorite type of coffee. Of course, due to the fact that one had to follow palm civets around and collect poop for days in order to gather enough beans to make even one serving of coffee, the ‘civet coffee’ was just as expensive during the colonial period as it is today.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and kopi luwak is still coveted.
The natural process of making civet coffee is slow, and, well, natural. Civets, which are frugivorous, meaning that they primarily eat berries and pulpy fruit, such as figs, palms and coffee, eat only the tastiest coffee fruits. They then defecate in order to mark their territory (they are solitary animals aside from the mating period) and subsequently leave the undigested coffee beans behind. One must go around collecting the feces, sort through it to find the beans, and then gather them. Because the civets select only the best coffee fruit to eat, this selection process is valued by coffee connoisseurs as part of what makes the coffee so special. Problem is, you’re limited on how much you can profit because you’re reliant on following wild civets around waiting for them to eat coffee beans and poop them out.
Enter the idea of civet farming.
Why go around following wild civets, who may, or may not have eaten coffee fruit, when you can keep them locked in small cages and feed them nothing but coffee fruit?
Civet farms have now become the norm, with tens of thousands of civets being kept in cages and fed almost exclusively coffee fruit. Wild civets are captured using box traps, snares and hunting dogs. These methods often result in injury to the animals, and cause the animals immense stress. Kept in small cages similar to what you’d find in a puppy mill, or chicken battery, and forced to eat an improper diet, many animals die after only a few years in captivity. Others live on, bearing self-inflicted wounds, or old injuries leftover from their original capture. Offspring are forcibly removed from mothers, only to be put into their own cages and started on a coffee fruit diet.
Via The Guardian
The most shocking and disturbing factor of civet coffee, is that we know it’s going on, and yet we keep buying the damn coffee. Investigations of animal cruelty have been reported and written about since 2012. Time Magazine ran an article in both 2012 and one in 2013 highlighting the documented abuse of civet farms. The New York Times touched on the subject back in 2010, though its article did not seem to consider the backyard pens of cages to be abuse.
Via Gotham Coffee
Disease, self-harm, and capture related injuries are commonplace.
Yet the exposure provided by articles about civet coffee only seemed to fuel interest in the coffee, rather than in the abuse and cruelty utilized to make the coffee. Harrods of London originally offered civet coffee for its most discerning clientele at a whopping £70 (about $105 USD) per cup, as well has offering packaged ground beans. They withdrew the product after being petitioned to do so, then began selling it again, claiming to work closely with their suppliers to assure that only ‘authentic wild’ civets were used in production. Now, they’ve removed civet coffee from their roster entirely. Following Harrod’s lead, several other leading stores have also stopped selling the coffee. Which is a start, at least.
A movement to use only wild civets has been gaining steam, but with little oversight in the industry and virtually no legal guidelines, fraudulent claims of ‘wild’ civet production are rampant. Just as the term ‘cage free’ chickens is often accepted as meaning that the chickens roam freely on vast acreage, the term ‘authentic wild’ civet is accepted as meaning that the animals are free and wild, and existing in their natural habitat. In reality, ‘cage free’ chickens might well indicate chickens which are kept tens of thousands of animals crammed into a small shed–unconfined to cages, yet still unable to move more than a few inches in any direction–and ‘authentic wild’ civets might be authentically wild-born civets who have been captured, and are now kept caged. It’s all an insidious word game, one in which the public ignorantly allows themselves to become pawns.
Hand-in-hand with the word games of marketing and advertising, comes the peculiar sort of peer pressure of the jet-set. There is a bizarre prestige associated with, and a desire to mindlessly agree with the status quo. A pressure to be grateful for being offered something so rare and expensive that the majority of the population will never be able to afford it.
How it’s portrayed:
If someone stopped you on the street and offered you the chance to drink a beverage derived of animal feces, you would likely provide your choice explicative, and keep walking. But change the setting to a high end venue like Harrods, and have the person offering you the poop beverage be a millionaire jet setter, and suddenly if you refuse, you feel like an uncouth and ignorant pauper, part of a crowd wherein only the uncivilized would fail to appreciate the rarity and fabulousness of such a beverage. So you drink it, because really, who says no to a millionaire? And so the cycle continues.
How it’s actually made:
It’s a cycle not unlike that which surrounds the pseudo-sanctuaries such as Black Jaguar White Tiger, and their high end celebrity benefactors. If you actually are an established actress/actor or celebrity, you risk status-suicide if you criticize your contemporaries for their exploits in cub petting at *the* premier ‘it’ place to be seen holding baby lions and tigers. And if you’re just a common person, you risk being called jealous, ignorant, and worse if you have the balls to call out celebrities for their actions in supporting the abuse of such animals.
Civet coffee remains one of the most expensive and sought after coffees in the entire world. A coffee made from poop. And yet the adoration of it keeps growing. In a perverse modern interpretation of the Emperors New Clothes, the hype surrounding the flavor of kopi luwak has attained such mass that one who has never tasted it is subsequently obligated to support the claims of its taste, or be ostracized for being too uncultured to recognize the delicate flavors. Never mind that the difference in taste between civet coffee and other types of coffee is something still being debated. Just as if you’re a celebrity invited to romp with the animals of Black Jaguar White Tiger, you’re faced with accepting the invitation, and joining the ranks of the touted, or speaking out against them and being publicly placed into the ‘haters’ category.
Poop coffee and coddling wild animals. Neither one seems like a good idea, and yet thousands of people participate in both, and millions more ignorantly support the ideas. Why? Because it’s what everyone else is doing, and no one wants to be the squeaky wheel. No one wants to be the uncultured one, no one wants to be in the hater category. Thus, the animals continue to suffer.
So, as I finish off my second cup of non-civet-poop-coffee, I challenge you to be the squeaky wheel, the hater, the one with the balls to stand up for the animals. Tens of thousands of civets are suffering at this very moment just so someone somewhere can pay a $100 to sip coffee made from their poop. Tens of thousands of more wild civets are at risk for exploitation. Wild populations of civets have not yet been damaged enough to fall within the ranks of conservation status. But that will change in the very near future if the drive for civet coffee remains as it is. Between the continually expanding civet farms used for coffee production, and the encroachment of civilization, the civets face imminent loss of habitat. It’s going to take a lot of squeaky wheels to change the status quo, to stand up and say that no supposed flavor is worth the torture and abuse of animals.
In a world full of celebrity-enamored doormats, be a squeaky wheel.
Author: Artemis Grey