I saw my first civet cat on the last day of my holiday in Bali, Indonesia. It was tethered to a wooden tabletop outside of an upscale coffee shop, squinting at the afternoon sun as it struggled to sleep. Tourists swarmed around the animal, poking its fur and snapping photos. It didn’t take much to see that this civet cat was scared, and very stressed.
When I approached the coffee shop owner to express my disgust at the animal’s treatment, he brushed me off. Then the owner thrust a pamphlet into my hands about “kopi luwak,” the type of coffee he sold inside the shop. “This is how we make our living,” he said, gesturing to the civet cat on the table.
As I came to learn, kopi luwak is a specialty coffee made from beans that have passed through the digestive tracks of civet cats, or “luwaks” in the Indonesian language. Despite it repulsive origins, coffee aficionados claim that kopi luwak has an extraordinary taste resembling chocolate or caramel. This translates to an extraordinary cost: a cup of kopi luwak can sell for $30 to $100 in the United States. But what many people don’t realize is that kopi luwak is produced at an even higher cost to civets.
Many traders and cafes sell the coffee as sourced in the jungle from the droppings of wild, free-roaming civets. However, undercover investigations by animal rights activists and journalists have shown that in many cases, the animals are held captive in cages where they are force-feed coffee cherries to keep up with the growing demand for kopi luwak.
Civets are shy, nocturnal creatures, which find being held in tiny cages is incredibly stressful. Ashley Fruno of PETA Asia-Pacific explains that video footage has shown caged civet cats exhibiting neurotic behavior, such as spinning, head-bobbing, and pacing. “This shows that the animals are going insane with boredom and depression,” Fruno says. A 2013 BBC investigation even revealed caged luwaks chewing their own legs off.
In addition to being stressed, civets experience medical problems from the copious amounts of coffee they’re force-fed. Anthony Wild, author of Coffee: a Dark History and founder of the Facebook campaign “Cut the Crap!” has worked out that luwaks ingest the equivalent of 120 double espressos each day to produce kopi luwak. While this caffeine over-consumption is known to contribute to malnutrition and fur loss, Wild believes it’s also responsible for the displays of neurotic behavior. “If you drank that much espresso, you’d be pacing around, chewing your own leg off,” Wild says.
Coffee farmers only started caging these animals in the last 25 years. Prior to the 1990s, kopi luwak was a rare drink produced from the scat of wild civet cats living around coffee plantations. Then in 1991, Wild imported a kilo of kopi luwak into the UK, which he used to generate media coverage. Kopi luwak was an instant hit, going on to be featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and mentioned by Jack Nicholson in the 1997 film The Bucket List. “It had become a global phenomenon,” Wild says, “and with it came the arrival of caged kopi luwak.”
The animal cruelty issues of kopi luwak have been well documented, but the environmental consequences of producing this coffee are often overlooked. Captive luwaks usually die within a few years, so farmers poach wild luwaks from the rainforest to keep their operations running. The poaching of wild civets goes largely unchecked, and it could have a huge impact on the natural environment if not curbed, explains Jan Schmidt-Burbach of World Animal Protection.
“Civets are very opportunistic in their food habits, but they mostly eat fruit,” Schmidt-Burbach says. “As a result, civets are prime contributors to the dispersal of seeds such as palm tree seeds, and they contribute to the regeneration of forests.” Schmidt-Burbach also points out that civets prey on mice, snails, scorpions, and other animals considered “pests.” So when civets are taken out of the ecosystem, these pest species proliferate.
Once Wild discovered how civets were being abused to produce this coffee, he felt guilty for playing his part in introducing kopi luwak to the western world. This motivated him to get involved with the BBC investigation, and to initiate the “Cut the Crap!” campaign. According to Wild, both ventures have been successful in raising awareness about kopi luwak, and prompting suppliers to stop selling this cruel coffee.
Wild and World Animal Protection are both campaigning for the introduction of wild-sourced, cage-free kopi luwak. As Wild wrote in an article published in The Guardian, companies like Rarefied have set up coffee plantations near patches of elevated rainforest, where wild luwaks wander onto the farm to feast on coffee cherries. Rarefied employs about 40 local farmers who collect civet scat containing coffee beans, and transport them to a central processing factory. The workers are closely monitored. If they try to sell beans by caged civet cats, they’re banned from the industry. Wild believes these genuine wild kopi luwak plantations have an environmental advantage. “These plantations need to be next to virgin rainforest, so there’s a value in retaining the rainforest. You can’t have a monoculture coffee plantation and expect luwaks to thrive,” he says.
Yet, it appears that the practice of caging civet cats is continuing, and has perhaps even increased, in Indonesia. PETA’s Fruno says that it’s virtually impossible to maintain a profitable business using coffee sourced from wild civets. “This is why farmers are driven to keep civets in cages,” Fruno says. “When there is a demand for an animal product, the reality is that profit will always prevail.” Fruno also explains that many farmers falsely advertise their beans as “wild-sourced” when they actually come from caged civets. “Two Indonesian farmers who cage civets told our investigator that they’d be able to manufacture coffee bearing the “wild-sourced” label,” Fruno says.
As international demand for kopi luwak continues to grow, it may become more difficult for coffee buyers to assess whether or not the kopi luwak they are drinking is genuinely wild-sourced. In 2014, Newsweek reported that 500 tons of kopi luwak were being produced each year, which is a thousand times more than what can be produced from wild harvests. Wild says there’s every reason to believe that number has gone up even more. “The demand is growing worldwide, particularly, and rather ominously, in China,” Wild says. “If the Chinese get excited about something, then it’s a huge market.”
Perhaps a more ethical solution to the kopi luwak problem is finding a way to artificially manufacture the unique taste. A biotechnology company called Afineur has created a cultured coffee that replicates the taste and aroma of kopi luwak. Afineur’s coffee, is still pricey – ranging from $50 to $100 a pound. But there’s a clear benefit: it won’t cost animals’ lives or the environment.
An earlier verison of this report incorrectly stated that Afineur's coffee wasn't on the market yet.