Raising a Stink


Civet in the wild

© Karl Ammann

A recent WSPA investigation in Ethiopia has revealed acute suffering for African civets caught from the wild and confined in captivity for extraction of their musk. Here, the cruel tradition behind the perfume industry is disclosed.


Last year, a WSPA investigation confirmed concerns raised some 25 years earlier about conditions for captive civets in Ethiopia. African civets are kept for their musk, a valuable commodity which is bought world-wide by fragrance houses as a component of perfume. The African civet is fox-like in face and size, with distinctive markings. It belongs to the viverrid family, which has been in existence for the last 40-50 million years. Once found throughout tropical Africa, civets are disappearing from large areas as they are cleared for food production. Very few are left in the north of Ethiopia.

The investigation into civet farming carried out by WSPA’s Manager for Africa, Mike Pugh, was the first inspection of the industry for 25 years. “During that time, the attitude of the general public has changed radically to the use of animals and animal products in the production of cosmetics”, he said. “People feel they have a right to know about the methods involved in the production of what they buy. This knowledge would enable them to make a moral judgement as to whether they want to buy or boycott these products.”

In captivity, civets spend 24 hours a day in their tiny cages for up to 15 years

To facilitate the collection of musk – or civet, as it is known – wild animals are captured and housed in tiny cages where the restricted space makes handling them easier for farmers. Conditions on all of the farms inspected did not take even the most basic welfare needs into account, especially considering that all of these animals have been taken from the wild. Attempts to breed civets in captivity have repeatedly failed. Several thousand civets are kept on farms in Ethiopian, and in other parts of Africa, although exact numbers are not known.

Musk is an animal secretion, used in nature by animals for marking territory and attracting mates. It is used by the perfume industry to provide a distinctive odour, and also acts as a fixative to preserve the smell of other more delicate fragrances. Civet has been used in the production of perfume for centuries and was reportedly presented as a gift to King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba (1013-982 BC) when she visited him in Jerusalem. Methods of capture, handling and collection have not advanced in the last 100 years.

There is no legislation concerning the capture or husbandry of civets. At 14in tall and 3½ft long – significantly bigger than a cat – each civet lives in a cage about the size of a cat box. In a space which doesn’t even accommodate its full length, it will exercise, feed, defecate and groom for the rest of its life. When civets are first caught and imprisoned, they are unable to even turn around inside the cage’s tiny interior until they have lost weight.

A fire is kept burning all day to maintain high temperatures, resulting in an atmosphere thick with smoke


Civets are nocturnal, and so their cages are kept in a dark room. A smoldering fire maintains high temperatures, which farmers believe increases the amount of musk produced. Ventilation is poor, and the atmosphere thick with smoke. Although temperatures plummet at night, no bedding is provided, and hypothermia is a common cause of death.


A cauldron contains a soup of bones and maize

Maize and ox meat is fed to the civets in the evening, and after musk-extraction butter, eggs or meat are given to replenish and boost production. Spilt food attracts flies, and maggots are often found in and around food containers. One of the most abhorrent threats to a civet’s life is the possible invasion of army ants, which can suffocate an animal that has no escape by crawling on mass into its ears and nostrils.

Officially, a permit is needed for the capture of a civet, but the vast majority of farmers do not even apply for one. “Although legislation exists for the protection of wildlife in general, this is not enforced,” explained Mike Pugh. “The is no legislation specific to civet farming. This means that no official in Ethiopia has the right of entry to civet farms.”

Musk is taken every 9-15 days. The cages are made from sticks and twine woven together, and for extraction, the sticks are removed from one end of the cage. While a rod is poked through a gap to trap the civet by the neck, a sack is held over the opening to grab the hind legs of the civet. Once secured, its rear end is pulled out so that the perineal gland at the base of the animal’s tail is exposed. The gland is opened up and squeezed until the musk exudes. This process can take several minutes, after which time the animal is often distressed. Injuries can easily be caused, and wounds are never treated.


Catching a civet for extraction, using a stick


Securing the back end of a civet for musk extraction.


This part of the process can take several minutes and can result in injury

Verifying exactly which companies are guilty of using civet is an uphill struggle. This is due both to the secretive nature of the perfume industry and to the concern of cruelty accusations. Between 1985 and 1996, 13,678.78 kg. of civet was exported from Ethiopia. Theoretically, this would have helped to produce 118.367 million 30ml bottles of perfume, generating an income of $6,391 million. Although many manufacturers have now stopped using civet in favour of synthetic musks, large quantities are still being produced and covertly used. However, synthetic musks are not necessarily a humane alternative to real civet, as they may have been developed through painful animal experimentation. The only truly cruelty-free perfumes are those that have been thoroughly investigated and found to have a reputable policy with regards to animal welfare.

Mike Pugh concludes, “Our findings underline the ongoing abuse of civets in Ethiopia to provide musk for the perfume industry. This exploitation is totally unacceptable, and appropriate pressure should be applied to ensure that the deplorable conditions for animals on farms can be brought to an end.

WSPA is urging the fragrance industry not to use natural civet musk, as well as any synthetic musks that may have been developed through painful animal experimentation. We would also urge consumers not to buy products containing natural civet.”

See also Why Natural perfumes