If you had asked me what my favorite species was when I was in elementary school, I would have said the cheetah. In the second grade, I did my formal school report on the cheetah and was enamored with their speed and non-retracting claws.
By high-school, I was obsessed with tigers, big cats in general, but mostly tigers. I was certain I would work with tigers for the rest of my life. They were majestic and powerful - yet they needed our help because they faced an uncertain future.
*Side note here. If you haven't already figured it out, this is going to be a long post.
In college, I was introduced to a turkey vulture and my world was never the same. (If you have been following me on social media over the years you know I am talking about Puppy, the amazing turkey vulture at America's Teaching Zoo located at Moorpark College.)
One of the many lessons I learned in college: All species are fascinating and the more you understand them, the more you fall in love with them. And the more you fall in love with all of them, the less likely you are to have a favorite.
Leaping ahead in my life, I worked with domestic and exotic animals in a variety of places and landed at the San Diego Zoo in 2000 as a keeper. As I worked my way into being an ambassador and spokesperson for wildlife, a question would inevitably come up, "What's your favorite animal?"
I will admit, I often felt it would be inappropriate to pick just one favorite. After all, I had worked with so many different species of reptiles, birds and mammals - Why would I - how could I - pick just one as a favorite? But that was also kind of a lazy way out of really thinking about it. And honestly, my heart already knew it was the binturong.
The binturong is also known as the bearcat, which is kind of misleading because they are not related to bears or cats. The nickname, bearcat probably comes from the fact that they kind of look like what you might get if you could cross a bear and a cat... which you can't. So don't try it. So what are they and what are they related to? Well they are classified scientifically in the family Viverridae, which has over 30 individual species, most are civets and genets, a couple of linsang, and of course the binturong. Being the exceptional tree dwellers that they are, binturongs are primarily found in the Southeast Asian forests and surrounding areas. And although they have the tooth structure suitable for a carnivore, they are omnivorous in behavior.
So why is the binturong my favorite animal? It has everything to do with the very first binturong I worked with. His name was Bandar and he was about four years old when we first met in 2000. Unfortunately, he lived in the era before social media. An era before everyone had smartphones with high quality camera's in their pocket. So, sadly I have very few photos of him. Thankfully the internet is filled with awesome people like Lori Fagerholm who volunteered to create an illustration of Bandar for this post. (Thank you Lori, it's good to see Bandar illustrated, you have absolutely recreated my good friend in your illustration.) Give her some love and learn more about her here: Lori Fagerholm - Illustration and Graphic Design.
When I first started working with Bandar, I was told that I was the first man he had ever worked with. Given that he was already an adult and was raised by women, there was talk/questions about how well he would respond to me. So we took it slow and he was completely and totally indifferent. And that meant that he didn't dislike me, which is a good thing. We worked together, doing presentations, special events and guest interactions. But it was very much just a working relationship. Different from the relationship he had with those who had raised him. He played with them. Made longer and more significant eye contact. There was an obvious relationship there that we didn't have.
Then somewhere around the six month mark of working with him, it happened. We were doing a presentation for an event at the zoo. While working with Bandar and talking about the cool adaptations binturongs have for life in the trees, he was climbing onto a raised platform. Then he stopped, turned quickly towards me and proceeded to do a half summer-salt. Landing somewhat upside-down in an awkward ball, looking up at me from behind part of his tail.
He was trying to initiate playing with me. I knew this because I had observed him doing this many times before with the other trainers.
In a split second, my mind ran through the pros and cons. I could join in like his other trainers do and play and have fun with him. Or I could join in and he could decide that although he wanted to play, he didn't really want to play with ME. (Did I mention their very sharp teeth and claws?)
Well, I did what his other trainers did, played with him the way they did. And from that day forward our relationship was very different, in a positive way.
Over the years, working with him was like having a best friend at work. A short, furry best friend with a tail, but a best friend non-the less. We had a a lot of great days together. We did keeper talks, TV interviews, presentations to kids, families and even adults at countless events at the zoo.
As Bandar aged he ended up with a couple of medical conditions, including a form of diabetes that required he receive daily injections. And near the end of his life, I was one of the few people he trusted enough to give his injections. He was fortunate to have one of the best veterinary teams to keep him in good health and living well, right up to the day he passed away. And I was fortunate to have been befriended by him and trusted enough to help with his care.
(Photo at left/above on mobile: Bandar, pictured here in his later years. We would often go for slow walks into the sun. Sometimes just sitting & enjoying the warmth.)
It was because of that relationship, because of Bandar, that binturongs are my favorite animal. I tell people that I suppose it's similar to those who grew up with a certain breed of dog as a pet. Later in life as an adult, you have a fondness for that breed because of that past emotional connection.
Oh and yes. They are truly fascinating animals, with countless awesome adaptations and an fragrance of buttered popcorn about them... But that will have to wait for a future post.