The Obsession effect

October 25, 2013 05:15 pm | Updated 05:15 pm IST - chennai:

Not an obsession. The leopard returns. Photo: Rom Whitaker

Not an obsession. The leopard returns. Photo: Rom Whitaker

Steve Gooder placed the round bottle on our dining table with a flourish and said, “And you’ll need this.” I watched the amber liquid sloshing inside the bottle before reading the large letters — Obsession for Men.

“Why would we need that?” I asked.

“It works like a charm on cats.”

I looked at him sceptically.

He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head as if to say, “Trust me.”

Steve, a wildlife documentary producer, was visiting us to discuss a film on leopards. The story pivoted around the one prowling our neighbourhood, and he wanted a video recording of it. He brought 12 video camera traps that filmed by infrared light, invisible to humans and most animals. He instructed us to spray the men’s eau de toilette around the cameras to lure the leopard.

Every evening, Rom and his assistant Vineet spent an hour rigging these traps all over the farm and baiting each with Obsession for Men by Calvin Klein. Rom and I eschewed strong smelling personal products. They are olfactory beacons in the forest, giving our presence away. It seemed counter-intuitive to spray these human-use products to attract cats.

Every morning, the two men retrieved the camera traps, and we examined the images to see what the night had brought. There were porcupines, jungle cats, spotted civets, palm civets, but no leopard.

Within a week, I couldn’t walk on the path without thinking, “This farm reeks of a masculine bordello.”

One morning, Rom and I were amused to see a palm civet repeatedly mating with a female on camera. Is this why humans wear perfume? To act as aphrodisiacs for local wildlife? If this was the Obsession effect, then it was just a matter of time before the leopard made an appearance. No such luck. Steve sent desperate sounding emails. Where was the leopard? Were we spraying the cologne?

I was intrigued by his confidence in the men’s fragrance. According to the description, the “scent is a compelling blend of botanical, spices and rare woods.” Why would cats be attracted to these vegetarian smells?

But Steve wasn’t alone in trusting the scent. Scientists in Guatemala and Nicaragua used it to successfully lure jaguars. A pair of these elusive cats even mated on camera like our palm civets.

Besides botanical fragrances, the men’s perfume also contains civetone, the musk secretion of civets. Now I understood why the palm civet couldn’t stop himself. Today, the perfume industry doesn’t rely on these anal secretions of animals, but instead uses a synthetic version made from palm oil.

But why would large 100-kilogram-jaguars and 60-kilogram-leopards be affected by the territorial markings of five-kg-civets? Did wild leopards go into paroxysms of pleasure sniffing spotted civet markings? The last thing prey animals want to do is attract predators. This didn’t make sense.

Our leopard missed his chance of becoming a television star. Steve finished the film by downplaying his role, but we wondered what became of the cat. A couple of months after ‘ Leopards: 21st Century Cats ’ premiered in the U.K., he sauntered by, triggering one of the cameras.

Was our leopard averse to the come-hither perfume?

In 2005, Pat Thomas, general curator at Bronx Zoo, New York, tested 24 well-known men’s and women’s perfumes on captive and wild cats. Bored captive cheetahs spent more time rubbing their cheeks against spots sprayed with Obsession in their enclosure than any other perfume. The alien scent challenged the cats’ ownership of territory, and the animals reclaimed it by rubbing their own scents.

However, in a game reserve in South Africa, lions, leopards, and cheetahs, like our neighbourhood cat, ignored the perfumes. Perhaps they were used to tourists and their smells.

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