How Humans are Hijacking Scent

December 13, 2018

From repelling pests with coyote urine to luring big cats with cologne, humans are using odors to influence animal behavior.

The villagers of Maharashtra state held their breath as the body count climbed.

Animal activists knew her as Avni. The Indian government called her T1. But no one knew quite what to do with the tiger, the mother of two cubs who was blamed for 13 mauling deaths in two years.

The Indian government deployed a small army to bring Avni in. Hundreds of foot soldiers, infrared drones, paragliders, snipers, and elephants combed the jungle fruitlessly for nearly two months. By October, with wiley Avni still at large, it was time to break out the big guns, the final line of defense, the Hail Mary. It was time for Obsession for Men. The cologne by Calvin Klein.

Musky colognes like Obsession tap into an invisible system of animal communication—the information superhighway of scent. Urine, musk, and other excreta can serve as a stinky form of “message in a bottle” to the next animal that comes sniffing, providing crucial information that they use to navigate the world.

Some humans hope to crack the code, and to start leaving our own smell-messages—like Obsession—to purposely influence the behavior of animals fluent in the language of the nose. And that smells like trouble.

Blindness and deafness are considered disabilities—but what’s the word for someone who can’t smell?

Humans give scent—arguably the most primal of the senses—short shrift. We outsource our sniffing jobs to canines and do everything we can to suppress our own bodily odors. But from scent alone, humans can identify individuals, assess the relatedness of potential mates, and detect illness.

On a conscious level, we’re overwhelmingly visual creatures, so it’s easy to overlook the olfactory landscape—a whole plane of sensory information. But for many animal species, scent is as important as sight and a primary means of communication.

Scent markings work as animal billboards—at the most basic level, they say, “I’m here.” Depending on the sender and the recipient, that can be read as “come find me” or “stay away.”

These messages can be left intentionally for members of the same species—tigers like Avni deposit scent markings to draw territorial boundaries for rivals nearby, while female pandas rub their butts against trees to leave a ‘come-hither’ smell for males when they’re sexually receptive.

Other scent marks are inevitable—everybody poos—and reveal information competitors can easily exploit. Carnivores track rodents by following a breadcrumb trail of feces pellets, and predators like Avni might as well send up a signal flare for prey animals whenever they urinate.

Hijacked scents

As human populations increase exponentially and wild places shrink, animal-human conflict is on the rise—and with it the demand for products to control animal behavior.

There’s a whole industry providing natural and synthetic animal smells—from bottled bobcat urine to “ground, aged and preserved otter glands, ”it can all be yours, and with free shipping to boot.

Some scent-messages are easy to hijack. Every deer hunter worth her salt knows a bottle of doe urine will bring bucks running to the stand, and since deer don’t have the most discerning palate, a homemade brew of urea, ammonia, and water is close enough to do the trick, according to hunting websites.

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