Ok, I’m guessing you don’t know what a Kinkajou is, so let’s start there. I didn’t either until very recently and since that first encounter, they’ve cropped up a few times in my life so I felt drawn to find out more. That, and they are rather cute (which sadly means there is a horrific pet trade issue around them). They have short, woolly hair that’s golden brown on their backs and creamy yellow on their tummy’s.
According to A-Z Animals, the name kinkajou comes from a native Algonquian word meaning wolverine that was taken by the French and applied to the kinkajou. A reminder to us that words aren’t neutral and can have their own, important history, in this case a history that feels like it’s probably linked to colonialism. Other names suggested by the A-Z Animals website include night ape and night walker as well as la Llorona which means crying woman and refers to their loud call.
A long, prehensile tail is probably the Kinkajou’s most defining feature but perhaps their second eye catching feature is their large eyes. As nocturnal creatures living in tropical forests in Central and South America, large eyes are beneficial. Often, nocturnal animals either have very small eyes or very large eyes depending on how much they use sight vs other senses.
During the day, they are often found sleeping in dens created in the hole of a tree with their social group, apparently using their tail as a snuggly blanket! Come dusk, time is spent grooming each other and socialising before heading out alone to search for food.
Their prehensile tail acts a lot like another arm, aiding their balance and they often hang from it, incredibly it can take the entire weight of the kinkajou! This is a unassumingly powerful creature with hidden skills. They are deliberate in their movement, carefully placing their legs and tail for good balance and their tail allows for reaching and grasping branches, or ideas if you’re thinking symbolically or metaphorically.
Incredibly, they are able to turn their feet backwards to run easily in either direction along branches which puts me in mind of moving forward and backwards through time or journeys. This flexibility and manoeuvrability is enhanced by an extremely flexible spine and is perhaps a reminder that life is not always about moving forward. Sometimes you need to revisit the past or perhaps if you’re grieving, it’s a reminder that the so called stages of grief aren’t steps, they are a process and you may, will, move around within that process.
Their nimble claws are dexterous as as we’ve seen with the racoon, it helps them to manipulate food. They can feel more nuance than perhaps the average creature and that might be an encouragement to lean into nuance. Whilst we tend to view the world in very black and white terms, there is so so much greyscale that’s really worth looking into. So often two things can be true at once even if they seem like competeing ideas.
As we’ve seen from the opening statement, the kinkajou doesn’t have a solid image or identity as seen by others. But then nor do we, how people view us or define us depends partly on the lens that they are seeing us through and partly on how we are presenting at a particular point. This doesn’t mean you aren’t a fully integrated whole person, just that the self we show more of in the workplace is different to the self we show more of when we’re catching up with our best friend or on a night out.
Whilst originally thought to be solitary, they actually have complex social interactions with a social group often comprising of two males, one female and offspring. Dominant males mate with the females of their home group as well as females on the edge of the territory. Like with so many animals, scent marking is important for communication, including sexual communication, and kinkajous use scent glands to mark tree branches. They also communicate through grunting and growling, chattering and screaming and when they’re happy, they make a kissing noise! Maybe your communication could be clearer to others?
When it comes to parenting, it’s down to the mums but, as Animal Diversity said whilst “males do not provide any direct care [they] are not aggressive toward young and have been found to regularly share fruiting trees and day dens, and will occasionally play with the pups.” This seems like a key nudge around gender roles in your life – if the kinkajou has shown up for you, what might need rebalancing it terms of gendered work. Are you always the one in the relationship who’s keeping a mental track of upcoming birthdays? Do you wait until the night before the kids run out of clothes to do a wash? None of these are judgements, but if you are in a relationship, you may need to take some time to consider the roles that you’ve fallen into. If you’ve consciously chosen a role that fits your skills and interests (maybe you love to cook) does that mean that your partner is picking up a role that they don’t want (like taking out the bins).
As they eat a lot of seeds and pollinate when they feed on nectar, they are carrying out the role of forest gardener which is an important role to play in an environment. Further, they are food for predators such as birds of prey, jaguars and other predators. Both their roles as food and creating food are vital for the local environment they live in – how are you being benefited and benefiting the place you live?
Superstitions and beliefs
There is a Colombian superstition that if a kinkajou barks during the day, a family member will die. This is often the case with nocturnal animals.
There’s a really interesting link between the kinkajou and tobacco and I’m thinking perhaps I’ll dig into tobacco itself more separately. But for now, the kinkajou are seen by Yanomami people as the animal-person responsible for discovering tobacco and celebrating it.
With the South American Yanamomo people, there was a man who was crying as he walked through a forest. He was crying because there was something he needed, he dodn’t know what it was but his craving for it made him emotionally numb. He came across the ancestral tobacco god, kinkajou. Kinkajou knew just what the man needed – it was tobacco. Kinkajou gave it to the man who started chewing it and wherever he spat it’s juice, tobacco plants grew and flowered and hummingbirds came and sucked the nectar and this resulted in tobacco becoming widely spread.
Other myths expand on the addictiveness of tobacco and there are various versions of these myths, some involve the kinkajou spreading tobacco and some where an agouti was involved who taught the kinkajou how to cultivate the crop. In another version, it was Caterpillar who gave Kinkajou tobacco and there are various versions of man turning into Kinkajou and Kinkajou turning into man.
Regardless of which myth you lean towards, there are clear themes around intoxicating substances, addiction and transformation. How do these apply to where you are right now? Are you in need of a deeper, spiritual awakening through substances? Are you overdoing that use? Or are you in need of a personal transformation? Certain substances can change our perception of our realities, but it feels important to say that we can’t change our realities though our perceptions can make a huge difference.
- National Geographic
- Animal Diversity
- Caribean Critters
- Anthropology of Tobacco (PDF)
- Folk Literature of the Yanomami Indians (PDF)
- Intoxication in Mythology: A Worldwide Dictionary of Gods, Rites, Intoxicants and Places, Ernest L. Abel
- Monkeys, Wasps and Gods: Graphic perspectives on Middle Horizon and later pre-Hispanic painted funerary textiles from the Peruvian coast