Ever since his escape from a Beaver County barn three months ago, "Binny" the itinerant binturong has reigned as the most celebrated Asian bearcat in Pittsburgh history.
But, as so often happens with celebrities, the whiskered wanderer now finds himself at the center of controversy.
While Binny has been relaxing in his temporary quarters at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, a debate has been raging over whether he should be neutered or bred.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission, which assumed control of the mammal's fate after his April 21 escape, has decided to place the binturong in an Austin, Texas, zoo, where he will be neutered.
That decision has outraged a Pennsylvania binturong breeder who insists Binny could play a valuable role in assuring his species' long-term survival.
"I'm disappointed beyond description. It's a sad day for him as an individual and for binturongs as a species," said Wendy Looker, the Dillsburg, York County, breeder who housed Binny for the game commission for two weeks in late April and early May.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists binturongs as "vulnerable," which means the animals face "a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future." The animal's numbers are believed to have dwindled because of poaching and deforestation in Southeast Asia, their native region.
Typically 4 feet to 6 feet long from nose to tail, binturongs live mostly in trees in the wild. Their long, white whiskers contrast with their coarse, black fur.
Looker, founder of the nonprofit organization Rehabit Inc., breeds the animals with the hope of someday reintroducing binturongs to their native habitat.
But, in deciding what to do with Binny, the game commission stated its objective was to find a facility that could accept the binturong as soon as possible, in order to relieve the Pittsburgh zoo of the burden of caring for the animal.
"The Austin Zoo was the only one who was ready to take it right now," said Jerry Feaser, commission spokesman.
Although it calls itself a zoo, the Austin facility is technically a sanctuary for unwanted and rescued animals. Unlike mainstream zoos such as Pittsburgh's, it is not certified by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
The Fund for Animals, a New York-based animal rights organization, lobbied the game commission to put Binny in the Austin Zoo, knowing that the binturong would be neutered there.
"The last thing the world needs is more captive binturongs," said Peter J. McKosky, a case worker for The Fund for Animals.
An estimated 400 binturongs live in captivity worldwide.
Cindy Carroccio, one of the Austin Zoo's founders, defends her decision to neuter Binny on the grounds that binturongs are being sold as pets in the United States.
"You know that the animals are overrepresented when they wind up in the pet trade," Carroccio said.
Looker scoffs at Carroccio's conclusion.
"You will find the rarest of animals in the pet trade," the breeder said.
Binny himself wound up in the pet trade.
Born at a Living Treasures Animal Park, which operates near Moraine State Park and in Laurel Highlands, baby Binny was illegally sold to Michelle Wilfong of New Sewickley in 1999. After Binny escaped from her barn, Wilfong pleaded guilty to two violations of possessing a binturong without a permit and paid more than $200 in fines and court costs.
The game commission, meanwhile, began looking for a suitable home for the animal.
Binny first went into quarantine at the Pittsburgh zoo, but after a week there, the commission shipped him to Looker's facility, which houses about two dozen binturongs.
Then in mid-May, a commission officer prematurely removed Binny from Dillsburg, mistakenly thinking that arrangements had been made to permanently place the binturong in an out-of-state zoo.
Binny wound up back in quarantine at the Pittsburgh zoo, which volunteered to care for the animal while the commission continued to explore options.
The Austin Zoo, which had been contacted by The Fund for Animals, expressed interest, as did the Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey.
Feaser said Cape May needed time to prepare an enclosure for Binny, so Austin got the nod.
"Our interest was in trying to get this animal placed in a permanent facility as soon as possible," Feaser said.
The Austin Zoo is making arrangements to fly the binturong to the Lone Star State later this month, though no date has been set.
In trying to resolve Binny's situation quickly, the commission was showing sensitivity to the concerns of the Pittsburgh zoo, Feaser explained.
"[Pittsburgh zoo officials] were interested in becoming relieved of [caring for Binny] as soon as possible," he said. "They have financial constraints, rooming constraints. They were doing us an enormous favor."
Lee Nesler, general curator at the Pittsburgh zoo, said the commission was acting in Binny's best interest in picking a facility that could accept the binturong immediately.
In conformance with standard procedure in animal transfers, the Pittsburgh zoo has been keeping Binny in quarantine to ensure that the receiving zoo gets a healthy animal. Binny will be much happier once he settles into a normal exhibit enclosure with natural materials, like the one being prepared for him in Austin, Nesler said.
The game commission, in its eagerness to find Binny a permanent home, did not study the issue of whether the binturong should go into a breeding program for the sake of his species' survival, Feaser acknowledged.
"We're not in the binturong business," he said. "We thought we did what was in the best interest of this particular animal."
Looker criticizes the game commission for neglecting to investigate whether Binny would be suitable for breeding.
"Genetically, he's very valuable," she said.
Nesler, though, said too little is known about Binny's lineage. He does not appear in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's binturong stud book, a genealogy registry used to help zoos enhance the species' genetic diversity through selective breeding.
"Without good records, we're not able to say whether this animal should be bred," Nesler said.
Living Treasures owner Tom Guiher said he knows Binny's parents and considers the 3-year-old binturong a possible candidate for breeding.
"He has been properly propagated. There are no problems with him or his genealogy," he said.
The only problem, Guiher said, is that Binny probably lacks the requisite social skills to woo a female, since he has spent so little time among other binturongs.
Even if Binny were determined to be suitable for breeding, a couple of questions would remain:
One, does it really matter to his species if he reproduces or not?
The stud book lists 123 binturongs, enough to ensure the viability of the species in captivity for the foreseeable future, said Dusty Lombardi, living collection director of the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo and Aquarium.
"One-hundred twenty-three is a good-size population," Lombardi said.
Looker, though, maintains that Binny has a valuable role to play as a father. She said he could contribute to the genetic diversity of his species.
Two, who would breed Binny?
The Cape May zoo, which does not have any binturongs now, had no plans for pairing Binny with a female, according to its director, Bill Sturm.
"I would not breed him," Sturm said. "We have nothing to breed him with."
Looker had sought to adopt Binny, but The Fund for Animals urged the game commission to place the binturong elsewhere.
Feaser said the game commission was going to receive criticism, whatever its decision.
"We were damned if we do, damned if we didn't," he said.
So Binny is Texas-bound.