6 min read

Meet The Animal Who Smells Like Buttered Popcorn

Some people call him a bearcat.

But he is neither bear nor cat.

In fact, the binturong is so enshrouded in mystery that even the meaning of his wonderfully wobbly name - pronounced bin too wrong - is long lost, along with the language used to name him.

And despite an astonishing arsenal of sounds at his disposal - hisses, grunts, wails, even chuckles - we suspect even if this woolly mammal spoke English, he wouldn't tell us much about himself.

A riddle wrapped in fur, the binturong is famously elusive, spotted fleetingly in his native habitat, the thickest jungles of South and Southeast Asia.

Indeed, a binturong is nature's private puzzle, an animal with the face of a cat, the body of a small bear.

And, of course, that monkey's tail - a story unto itself. Imagine sleeping while hanging, hands clenched on a ledge.

But this animal makes it all seem so natural, wrapping his prehensile tail around a branch as a kind of safety knot before nodding off.

He also has the distinction of being only one of two carnivores with prehensile tails, alongside the equally delightfully dubbed kinkajou.

Then again, the binturong is a mammal of many distinctions.

Notably, his smell. He's famously fragrant, often described as smelling like hot buttered popcorn.

That's actually the animal's pee, which shares the chemical compound that gives popcorn its savory scent.

Binturongs don't come face to face with each other very often. So a strong-scented pee is crucial in conveying a lot of information for meet-ups with prospective mates - things like gender, health and even information about a female's reproductive cycle.

Urine is like Tinder for binturongs. Like what you smell? Follow the yellow pee road.

And they make sure that road is as easy to follow as possible by drenching their bushy feet in pee.

Humans, on the other hand, are unlikely to get close enough to a binturong to get much of a whiff. Most of the animal's life - they live up to 18 years in the wild - is spent in trees, high up in the jungle canopy.

Maybe giving the binturong so many fascinating qualities is nature's way of paying back the binturong for being such a model conservationist. Flowers, almost literally, bloom wherever he goes.

That's because the animal, despite being classified as a carnivore, tends to eat a lot of fruit. Seeds from the fruit grow out of his dung, a contribution that's credited with maintaining the rain forest.

But, like all good things, the binturong population appears destined to end. The animal is fast disappearing from his native range in South and Southeast Asia. The species is classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. In fact, over the past 30 years, the binturong population has declined by more than a third.

The culprits? Habitat loss, IUCN notes, due mostly to pesky human development. Rampant logging and deforestation are tearing the trees from under the binturong.

Tragically, there's also a booming trade in binturongs as exotic pets.

Maybe that's why the binturong insists on staying up in those tall trees - lest he, like the very language used to name him, disappears forever.