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Civet Cat Farmers Fighting to Save Their Own Hides

Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, Zhu Mingda took all his savings, borrowed from relatives and friends, and rented a patch of land in this smoky factory town on the outskirts of Shanghai. Then he went to work, raising civet cats.

Caring for civets, with the body of a small fox and a face like a weasel’s, is tedious and unending. But the payoff can be huge: Prized for their fur and meat, mature civet cats command as much as $250 apiece.

Or at least they could, until severe acute respiratory syndrome broke out and researchers announced that they had found evidence of the virus in civet cats. It was also linked to raccoon dogs and ferret badgers, other animals traditionally sold in food markets in China.

Zhu first heard of the link from nearby watermelon farmers but dismissed the matter as a joke. Then he went and got a copy of the Xinmin Evening News, a Shanghai daily.

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“Civets have SARS!” Zhu recalled seeing on the front page, pantomiming a powerful slap to his forehead. “I could not believe it. I was too weak to stand up.”

The discovery of a SARS link to animals has prompted a rash of local laws, banning consumption of many kinds of game long popular in fancy restaurants. Other markets are out, too: Japan, for instance, just announced a ban on imports of civet cats and certain other wild animals from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao.

The backlash over such consumption has cheered animal-welfare advocates and is perhaps of no great concern, one way or the other, to those whose culinary tastes have never run to badger, civet or raccoon dog.

For Zhu and other game farmers, however, who say they have followed all the rules and invested their fortunes in raising the animals, it is an unwarranted and unfair affront.

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In what is still a somewhat unusual step in China, they have even gone very public with their plight -- with Zhu, a personable man of 57 sporting a mop of black hair, emerging as one of their spokesmen.

Zhu has invited Chinese television crews out to his plot of land and offered to arm-wrestle reporters to demonstrate his vigor, the obvious point being that he is not infected with the disease.

“I definitely do not believe my civet cats have the SARS virus,” Zhu said the other day as he showed a visitor around his Yide Animal Farm, where he grows beans, corn and wheat to feed the animals. (Omnivorous, they also like to feast on pumpkin rinds, fish and chicken heads, Zhu said.)

“I have been dealing with these civets every day for two years,” continued Zhu, gesturing to the pens where he keeps them. “If they had the SARS virus, there would be 10 Zhu Mingdas dead on the ground, right in front of your eyes. I would be dead 10 times over.”

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It is highly unlikely that anyone would die from eating one of Zhu’s 19 civets, often called masked civets for their white-and-black facial coloring. They have been tested every day, sometimes twice, by health inspectors, and have shown no signs of the virus. Their cages are sterilized twice a day -- an added item in an expense log that Zhu says is driving him quickly toward bankruptcy.

New emergency regulations in the face of SARS require that the animals remain in quarantine, and he is forbidden to sell them. If any escape or are abandoned, he could face a stiff fine from the Wildlife Protection Center of Shanghai’s Municipal Forestry Bureau.

Zhu’s fellow investors -- a younger brother, two younger sisters and several friends -- have been relatively understanding about his predicament, although he said the civet problem has resurrected echoes of a fierce debate they had all had about where he should invest the money.

“My first plan was to open a hardware store,” Zhu said. “So of course, now a lot of them are asking why I didn’t just do that instead.” He is not alone in his predicament, but the problems of Zhu and other game farmers have generated a surprising amount of sympathy in the Chinese press.

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China Daily, for instance, recently profiled some of the game farmers, focusing on their mounting economic losses. For one of them, Wang Guangxing, the owner of 400 civets in Zhejiang, the civet-eating ban had “shattered his dreams of prosperity,” the newspaper reported.

While most of the farmers’ businesses are small, the cumulative impact of the ban is noticeable: In Hubei province in central China, there are at least 60 farms, with annual sales topping $2 million, according to the provincial forestry bureau.

The operations are legal and government-inspected, which these farmers say puts them in a different category from those who traffic in endangered wild animals.

Recently, authorities in southern China’s Guangdong province launched a campaign to crack down on the illegal trade and help prevent SARS transmission, confiscating more than 30,000 exotic animals, most of which were intended for food markets. The search swept through 990 markets and 6,617 hotels and restaurants, authorities said.

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Zhu and other civet farmers say that they have nothing to hide and that repeated tests show their animals are safe to handle and eat.

Scientists are still studying how the virus is spread, and some evidence has emerged to show that there could be a much larger number of animals potentially involved in the transmission. While many scientists and government officials say it is best to err on the side of caution while the research continues, some say that outright bans on the domestically raised animals may be unfair to farmers.

“We have confirmed that ‘mad cow’ disease comes from cows, that avian flu comes from chickens,” said Jiang Haisheng, a director of the South China Endangered Animals Research Institute in Guangzhou. “But have we abandoned eating them?”

For now, Zhu tends his civets, hoping the ban will be lifted. Economic ruin is on the horizon unless he gets an official seal of approval to sell the creatures, or a bailout. “If the government continues to stop me from selling these animals, I have to ask the government to solve the problem.”

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