It was a couple of decades ago when I first saw these funny little creatures at a zoo; they were about the size of a housecat, with striped tails like their cousins, the raccoons. But these cute animals were more lithe than the bear-shaped raccoons, with tan bodies and cat-like faces—they were nimble and playful. The overall effect was extremely appealing! The zoo's sign identified them by the misleading moniker "civet cat" and the funny name "cacomistle."
As a matter of fact, civet cats are neither civet nor cat, but a member of the Family Procyonidae, a group that includes raccoons. They are indiginous to the southwestern region of North America. Their disposition makes them good-natured and playful companions, and they excel at keeping the local rodent population in check. Back in the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Grizzly Adams, frontiersmen sometimes kept ringtails as pets, they were occasionally known as "miner's cats."
I thought these little animals were pretty cute—who wouldn't? I even put a throwaway joke on my personal website, amid the real information (hobbies, occupation) and the joke stuff (historical figures I would not invite to a dinner party, nicknames I'm glad I don't have) I put "Favourite North American Mammal: the cacomistle".
Some years later, I got an email from a woman who has pet ringtails. She had a a vivid memory of a young Texan boy being absolutely enchanted with her pets, decades ago. Could it be that I was that young cacomistle-enthusiast, all grown up?
Alas, it was some other lucky child, so many years ago, who became entranced by these lovely little animals. But, our emails taught me a lot about ringtails...
The name cacomistle is derived from an Nahuatl word tlacomiztli which means "part mountain lion."
Sometimes subclassified as Bassariscus astutus arizonensis, the name Bassariscus astutus supposedly means "smart little fox" I have heard this from three different sources, but I can't find any Latin or Greek dictionaries where basarus (or anything even remotely close) means 'fox.'
While they are pleasant pets, ringtails love to be outdoors quite a lot. They are omnivorous, and in the wild they eat bugs, rodents, fruit, agave, small snakes, eggs, and those sorts fo things. As pets, they prefer a lot of meat in their diets. They are excellent climbers, as anyone who has ever had one in their home can apparantly attest.
In recent years, the name cacomistle is more often used to refer to the southern cousin Bassariscus sumichrasti, which lives in Mexico and Central America. The ones you would find in Arizona or New Mexico are usually just called ringtails these days.
reworked: January, 2007
America Zoo Online http://www.americazoo.com/goto/index/mammals/265.htm
American Zoo Ass'n's Small Carnivore Website http://www.pjc.cc.fl.us/sctag/cacomistle/Cacomistle.htm
Bridges, William, “Wild Animals of the World” (Garden City Books, Garden City, NY, 1948)
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology's Animal Diversity Web, on line at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Bassariscus_sumichrasti.html