Coffee luwak is brewed from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet, locally known as luwak. While traditionally coffee beans were sourced from wild civets, today they are mostly collected from caged civets living in dreadful conditions. Concerned about the plight of the nocturnal animals, Tracy Wilkinson has decided to make a difference.
Tell me a bit about yourself. Why Bali?
I moved to Bali in 2015 after I was diagnosed with Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I had had eleven heart attacks by that stage, and was told there was no chance of surviving much longer. My body didn’t cope with fluctuating climatic conditions and I required an intense treatment and medication regimen to buy time, which was unaffordable and mostly inaccessible in Australia. Bali was always my favorite holiday destination, so I took a chance on the island saving my life. So far, so good.
What is the story of the first civet you rescued?
I fell in love with a luwak at Tanah Lot some years ago. He kissed my face and snuggled in my hair. I put the word out that I was looking for a baby to raise. A friend called and I rode 13 hours across Bali and Java to pick up two tiny baby luwaks whose mother had been shot and killed by a farmer. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing but was determined to save them. The little girl died shortly after, but the little boy survived.
How many civets have you helped to return to the wild since then?
Since Mokka and Moose, my first two, I have rescued another seven luwak babies. After a while, I developed a bit of a reputation for rescuing them, and people started tagging me in Facebook posts whenever a luwak was in distress. My latest rescue was captured by a domestic cat and brought home to show the owner. The owner posted on Facebook, asking for help. She asked me if I could take her because she was so tiny. She was only about three days old, still with her eyes closed and umbilical cord attached. I wasn’t sure I could save her because she was injured, and she couldn’t suckle. A month or so later, she is thriving and has grown heaps.
What are the biggest dangers for civet cats in Bali?
Because luwaks love ripe fruit, they are not popular with farmers and sometime get shot and killed. They are also a money maker for a variety of people. I have witnessed kids catching a luwak and taking it to a local “breeder” in the hope of selling it. The breeders make money by leasing the luwaks to coffee producers to make kopi luwak. Some of the plantations keep them caged to attract visitors to their facilities, looking to sell coffee to foreigners who don’t know what really happens behind the scenes.
What are the highlights that come with caring for civets?
It is such a privilege to raise luwaks. I build an incredible trust with them and they soon know me as their mother, from the early days of milk feeding them every hour or so to taking them riding on the motorbike or for an adventure to the beach. I get endless laughs out of watching them learn. I think the funniest thing is when they are learning to pounce. They get all the body action happening, but can’t get all four feet off the floor at the same time. When they are learning to climb, they get stuck in all sorts of places and then call out until I come and get them down.
What are the greatest challenges that come with caring for civets?
Luwaks do not have a history of domestication. They are essentially a wild animal. Their instinct is very strong, and they naturally want to return to the wild when they are mature enough. Any thoughts of them being a regular pet are misguided, and they are extremely aggressive if not cared for appropriately. Sadly, many owners cut their teeth and their claws to minimize the damage they can do if they are upset or frightened about something and feel the need to defend themselves. This practice takes away the luwak’s ability to hunt and fend for itself. I find it barbaric.
Luwaks are nocturnal, so forget about having a regular sleep pattern if you are rescuing one. After their first month of development, when they sleep about 20 hours a day, they really come to life and think every night is a party. Sadly, most luwak owners cage them overnight when they should be most active. My rescues are 100% free at all times. My whole house is their playground.
Once rehabilitated, how do you ensure the safe return of each civet to the wild?
At the moment, this takes care of itself. I live in a farming area, and my rescues decide for themselves when it is time to move out of my home. Moxie had the most dramatic moving out. She climbed to a high point in my garden and called out for a mate for almost two weeks. It is the most heartbreaking sound. Eventually, Prince Charming came along and whisked her away. She now lives in a nearby tree with her husband and babies. She comes to visit every now and again, but won’t let me handle her anymore. I am a proud granny.
Someday, I would love to establish a proper facility for rescuing and rehabilitating luwaks. I could help repopulate the forested areas they naturally live in with a more restructured release program. For now, I have to trust that my rescues know when they are ready and are savvy enough hunters to be fine on their own. Because I don’t cage them, they learn to hunt early in life. I’m always sad when they go, but it is about their life being fulfilled, not mine.
Kopi luwak trade is the main culprit that leads to the abuse of civets in Bali. What do you think is the best solution to this problem and how could it be achieved?
Once upon a time, battery hens producing eggs was the norm. With education and awareness, the public began to put pressure on egg farmers to adapt their practices and become more humane. Today, people know about free range eggs and barn raised chickens, and many steer away from caged suppliers.
My dream is to create a sanctuary that educates both the public and the farmers about what is possible in responsible kopi luwak production. I have friends with charity and community organizations involved in coffee farming. They are already thinking about sustainable production, organic cropping, and other ethical strategies. We need to make it worthwhile for the farmers to change their practices. As money talks, the goal would be to have them make money producing wild luwak coffee, where no animals are harmed.
How can people help the cause?
I am surprised by people’s ignorance. Tourists visit coffee plantations and are wooed by the quiet, sleepy luwaks in cages. They spend their money sampling the various types of coffee and buying packages to take back to their home countries. Rarely do they ask anything about the behind-the-scenes production of this very expensive coffee. If they took the time to find out more, it is unlikely they would ever buy farmed kopi luwak. There is not nearly enough education about the plight of the luwak.
I am unaware of any luwak sanctuaries in Bali, so there is no foundation to donate too. If enough people rallied together, I would certainly change this and build a facility that rescues and rehabilitates luwaks, educates the public about the impact of farmed kopi luwak, and, work with coffee farmers to adapt their practices to support wild luwaks.
What do you think the future holds for civets on the island?
I would love to see an end to caged luwaks in coffee production. Nothing would delight me more than seeing wild luwak plantations opening all over Indonesia. Without voice, things cannot change here. There is an overwhelming need to educate people from farm to coffee cup. Yet, so few people make noise and do what it takes to effect the necessary changes. It is possible to do away with the cruelty in kopi luwak production. The egg production industry changed for the better. It is time for the same to happen for the luwak.
Get in touch with Tracy at: email@example.com
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