There is a short video and a 4-minute radio clip at the website.
Big Cats Obsess Over Calvin Klein’s ‘Obsession for Men’
A Certain Animal Magnetism Makes the Fragrance a Hit With Zoos
By ELLEN BYRON
To wine and dine Sasha, a 450-pound Siberian tiger at the Bronx Zoo, try serving beef and rabbit. To lure him for a snack, whip out the frozen treats his zookeepers call “bloodcicles.” But to really get his olfactory engines running, you need the secret weapon: Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men.
Zoos have long spritzed perfumes and colognes on rocks, trees and toys in an effort to keep confined animals curious.
In 2003, Pat Thomas, general curator for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo in New York, decided to get scientific about it. Working with 24 fragrances and two cheetahs, he recorded how long it took the big cats to notice the scent and how much time they spent interacting with it.
The results left barely a whiff of a doubt. Estée Lauder’s Beautiful occupied the cheetahs on average for just two seconds. Revlon’s Charlie managed 15.5 seconds. Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps took it up to 10.4 minutes. But the musky Obsession for Men triumphed: 11.1 minutes. That’s longer than the cats usually take to savor a meal.
“Oh, yeah, he loves that scent,” Mr. Thomas said as Sasha blissfully cuddled up to a tree sprayed with Obsession for Men. “Just look at him.”
Mr. Thomas’s findings spread quickly through the Wildlife Conservation Society’s network of global operations. Now, Obsession is widely used not only in zoos, but in the field, where it has helped produce breakthroughs in wildlife biology and conservation.
As it happens, big cats of all stripes are obsessive when it comes to the scent. Roan Balas McNab, a Wildlife Conservation Society program director in Guatemala, has been using Obsession for Men since 2007 to help study jaguars in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a protected tropical forest spanning 8,100 square miles.
One of his goals is determining the size of the jaguar population. But the reclusive habits that made the jungle cats an object of reverence for the Maya people also make them difficult to count. In his 14 years working in the reserve, Mr. McNab says he has had only one random spotting of a jaguar.
He and his colleagues rely on heat-and-motion-sensitive cameras stationed along animal trails in the jungle. If they can get jaguars to linger, they can identify individual animals by their unique spot patterns, which are then loaded into a database, much like fingerprint records.
“But this technique is only effective if animals pass through the cameras’ detection range and we get adequate photos,” Mr. McNab says. Pre-Obsession, some 30% to 40% of the photos were inconclusive.
After hearing through a colleague of Mr. Thomas’s scent test, Mr. McNab’s field biologists began spraying Obsession for Men near their cameras. Researchers squirted the cologne onto a rag tied to a stake in the ground. The elusive jaguars, which scientists say can detect smells from up to a kilometer away, crept forth. Three times as many of the cats walked by camera stands spiked with the cologne than those without it. Camera footage showed curious cats sauntering up to the scented rag, sniffing it, then lingering nearby. That diversion gave researchers the chance to get clear, full shots of the jaguars and their spot patterns.
Beyond mere counting, the jaguar survey project has begun to capture rarely seen jaguar mating rituals, including a male’s coy nipping and days-long pursuit of a potential partner.
“We’re just starting to get an idea of how jaguars behave in their habitat,” Mr. McNab says. “Before we used Obsession for Men we weren’t able to get these images at all.”
Obsession for Men launched in 1986, just as the Calvin Klein brand was pushing the boundaries of sexuality in advertising. Early ads typically featured nude models and little else. Today, it remains among the Top 10 best-selling men’s fragrances world-wide. The cologne, which is made and marketed under license by privately held Coty Inc., posted sales of about $85.5 million last year, according to estimates by market-data firm Euromonitor International Inc
The Wildlife Conservation Society says it has shared its research results with Coty, but has not asked the beauty company for sponsorship or product donations. A spokeswoman for Coty declined to comment.
Ann Gottlieb, the “nose” who helped create Obsession for Men, thinks there could be a number of factors in the fragrance that wild animals might find irresistible.
“It’s a combination of this lickable vanilla heart married to this fresh green top note—it creates tension,” she says. The cologne also has synthetic “animal” notes like civet, a musky substance secreted by the cat of the same name, giving it particular sex appeal, she adds. “It sparks curiosity with humans and, apparently, animals.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Jaguar Conservation Program plans to expand the use of Obsession for Men to more of its population studies, tentatively scheduled for next year in sections of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. “I’d like to use this in every survey that we’re involved with,” says program coordinator John Polisar.
Obsession works so well that Mr. McNab hesitated at first to reveal its potency, fearing poachers would also use it. But he decided that spreading the word to other scientists outweighed the potential risk, particularly since poachers already use their own effective bait—dead animals—a tactic researchers’ ethics forbid.
The challenge for researchers is finding enough of the stuff, given the cologne’s price of about $60 and scarcity in shops near the rainforest. Mr. McNab has made a habit of checking duty free shops during his international trips just in case he can snag a good price. He asks friends and colleagues to bring along a bottle when they travel to the region.
The Bronx Zoo relies on donations to keep up its supplies. Stella Miller, president of the Huntington-Oyster Bay chapter of the Audubon Society on Long Island, N.Y., says she has donated about 300 bottles of fragrance, collected from friends and acquaintances over the past five years.
At the zoo, keeper Michelle Medina stores about a dozen fragrances in a large plastic pail amid her supplies for the large Tiger Mountain exhibit. During a recent visit, her sample-sized bottle of Obsession for Men was almost empty.
To keep her cats content, “I’ll need to find more of this,” she says.