To our knowledge, only two white servals exist in the world: Tonga and his brother Pharaoh. The white coat is just the outward indication of the deleterious effects of inbreeding. Tonga was 15 years old when he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. Although most arise without antecedent cause, in many species, especially in white cats, prolonged exposure to sunlight is a major predisposing factor. Being a wild cat, Tonga lives outside, and what cat doesn’t love to nap in their favorite sunny spot?
Tonga’s adult life has been pretty uneventful from a medical perspective. He had a bad tooth extracted in 2010 and he had an abscess treated on his leg in late 2011 but his blood work was pretty much routine for an elderly cat. (In the wild and in most other places Servals only live to be 10 or 12, but at Big Cat Rescue they have an average lifespan of 17). In July 2011 our Education Director Willow reported on the Veterinary Observation Chart that Tonga had a cut or scab on his nose. It was treated and went away but then in February of 2012 Keeper Bren reported it had recurred. It was treated with antibiotics and subsided, but recurred again in August of 2012. Something strange was going on here and this time it looked much worse, so despite the dangers in sedating an exotic cat we decided to do a full work up on him first by Dr. Wynn at the Ehrlich Road Animal Hospital and then by Dr. Jen Coyle and Dr. Wendy Gwin at the Blue Pearl Oncology lab.
White Serval Tonga Licks Paw
We were crushed when we heard the devastating news that it was cancer. After many tests and a full CT scan of his nose it was determined that the only way to save Tonga’s life would be to remove his cute little pink nose. The surgeons have to take a full centimeter extra, around the cancerous mass, in order to make sure they get all of the cancerous cells. That will mean removing his entire nose, but the good news is that they said it should heal very well and that he will be able to live outside again once the skin has completely healed over. He will just have higher nostrils on his face and more of a Persian profile than that of a normal Serval. He will still be beautiful to us.
The other bit of good news is that Tonga is strong, has a healthy appetite and zest for life and the cancer does not appear to have spread into his brain or nasal cavities, so he could live another two years. That is an average lifespan for our Servals and we feel like this surgery will give him a chance. To leave it untreated will undoubtedly result in the spread to the rest of his body and cats are so good at masking pain that we fear he would suffer and not let us know. The only clue we had that there was anything wrong this time was a recurring sore on his nose.
While waiting on test results and several expert opinions on what could be done we have wrestled with these options. It will be thousands of dollars for the diagnostics we have already done and the delicate surgery that he needs. Tonga could die during surgery. He could have a recurrence or have the cancer manifest in other organs. He may live a few weeks, a few months or a few years; we just don’t know. What we do know is that we have to try. We hope that you agree that every life is precious and worth trying to save by helping us fund the work here and specifically Tonga’s surgery.
Update 8/18/12: Tonga had three hours of surgery today at Blue Pearl to remove his cancerous nose. Tonga is back at Big Cat Rescue, in the Cat Hospital, and will recover in there until his nose heals over sufficiently that it will not be bothered by bugs or get infected.
Tonga’s Dental Video
Tonga has since been moved to a shadier area of the sanctuary to prevent any more potential sun damage.
More About Tonga the White Serval
White Serval Tonga as a Cub
Tonga was born at Big Cat Rescue before we knew any better back in the 1990s. When we first began we only had the guidance of those who bred and sold cats and believed that what they said was true. We started breeding some cats under the misguided notion that this was a way to “preserve the species.” We had not then figured out what seems so obvious to us today, that breeding for life in a cage an animal that was meant to roam free was inherently cruel. Tonga was born to parents Frosty and Nairobi, who has since been neutered and spayed. We didn’t know it at the time, but they must have been closely related.
Tonga has a white coat and very few spots, the spots that he does have are silvery gray. Tonga is a shy cat that likes to keep to himself, except at feeding time, when he magically turns into your best friend in the whole world. Like many of the servals at Big Cat Rescue, Tonga loves enrichment involving scents. One of his all time favorite enrichment items were some pine tree cuttings. He rubbed all over these pine limbs and was soon covered in a mixture of sap and drool, his coat transformed from snowy to muddy. He made a bed underneath the pine limbs and this became his favorite napping spot for several months.
Because white footed servals and white servals are rare, people will pay to see them, so breeders will inbreed to get the defective genes that produce the un natural coat color. They cannot survive in the wild because they could not hide from predators and cannot sneak up on prey even if they did manage to survive to adulthood. They do not live where it snows. There are only a handful of white footed servals in the world and only two white servals that are known to exist. These are not albinos as they have pale blue to green eyes and some golden patches. They are born and mature approximately 20% larger than the normal colored servals. For the first year, their health is much more delicate and we have never known of white serval females to survive more than two weeks. We will not sell (although we’ve been offered $75,000.00 each) nor allow others to breed to our white servals because we do not want them to be exploited and the only way we can control that is to control their offspring. The demand for white tigers causes many of the normal colored cubs, born to these litters, to be destroyed. We will not be a part of anything that could cause the same to happen to golden colored servals. We do not breed cats, nor sell cats at Big Cat Rescue.
Most of our servals were rescued from people who got them as pets and were not prepared for the fact that male or female, altered or not, they all spray buckets of urine when they become adults. Some were being sold at auction where taxidermists would buy them and club them to death in the parking lot, but a few were born here in the early days when we were ignorant of the truth and were being told by the breeders and dealers that these cats should be bred for “conservation.” Once we learned that there are NO captive breeding programs that actually contribute to conservation in the wild we began neutering and spaying our cats in the mid 1990’s. Knowing what we do about the intelligence and magnificence of these creatures we do not believe that exotic cats should be bred for lives in cages.
A pet Serval was confined to a tiny, two room apartment for the past 10 years. She was housed with a domestic cat, presumably for the purpose of breeding Savannah Cats which can fetch as much as $26,000. Her life was about as boring as can be imagined since she had to be kept secreted away from the world, but all of that was about to change.
Her owner was so ill that she needed intensive hospital care, but having no relatives and no one she could turn to, it was up to the authorities to have her Baker acted for her own good. Imagine the hysteria involved in being so incapable of making your own decisions that the police and paramedics had to be called to carry you to the hospital.
It was worrisome for the authorities as well because this woman’s neighbors all whispered that she kept a lion in that apartment. The lion turned out to be a Serval, but none the less, it left animal control in a strained situation. It is not expected that the owner will live and county law there gives Animal Control ownership and custody of animals who are not claimed within 10 days. They knew that it would be torturous to take a wild cat into a shelter full of barking dogs. They didn’t know who to call about placing a wild cat.
On the one hand, they found the cat in a house and originally thought that maybe they should seek out an exotic pet owner to take the cat, but as they interviewed candidates it became clear that no one had the cat’s best interest at heart, but rather were just looking for the novelty of owning an exotic pet. They investigated some exotic animal sanctuaries, but were dismayed by the over crowded cages full of pacing animals.
They asked a local vet for advice and he found Big Cat Rescue. After researching our facility and doing an interview with Big Cat staff, they knew that Big Cat Rescue was the purr=fect place for this Serval to go. The thought of this Serval having her own Cat-a-tat, her own den, her own trees and shrubs and grass and all of the wonder of the little creatures that she will be able to see and sniff and chase…it was just as good as it gets if you have to be held captive. (Being captive bred and born, she could never be returned to the wilds of Africa.) This Serval had been through enough and they wanted a place that was stable, reputable and that would provide a permanent home.
This is where you come in.
A Cat-a-tat for her will cost $1,500 and her ongoing care, for food, toys, vitamins, vaccines and vet care is roughly $500. per year. Your help now makes it possible for her to have a forever home.
If you have been following us in the AdvoCat you know that Cloe the Snow Leopard just had a very expensive procedure done to save her life. Veterinarians, Liz Wynn, Allyson Berent, Chick Weisse, and Haven Bade from the Animal Medical Center in NYC, and Demetrius Bagley MD donated their time and Bay Area Renal Stone Center donated the equipment but Big Cat Rescue had to pay for airfare, car rentals, food and lodging for the vets and that bill just came to $2,614.78.
Nairobi was the mascot in a pet store window until she came to live at Big Cat Rescue July 7, 1994. The pet store owner was afraid that she would bite the small children who were always taunting her and she was right.
Nairobi spends her days lounging in her huge natural Cat.a.tat and can often be found draped over her favorite log without a care in the world.
Kalahari and Serengeti were pets that became unwanted after a divorce. Even people with the best intentions are not usually prepared for the life time commitment involved in owning an exotic cat. Kalahari is smaller than her sister Serengeti, and she has a chronic heart condition for which she must be given medication every day. Several of the cats at Big Cat Rescue have chronic conditions that require medications on an ongoing basis. Sometimes it can be quite difficult to get a wild cat to eat their medication. Kalahari’s keepers have found that she really likes whole prey like the day old chicks that are purchased frozen from a wholesaler. The chick is thawed out and then keepers put Kalahari’s pill down the chick’s throat. Kalahari gets really excited when she gets her special chick each day and quickly devours the treat unaware that she has just been medicated.
Most of our servals were rescued from people who got them as pets and were not prepared for the fact that male or female, altered or not, they all spray buckets of urine when they become adults. Some were being sold at auction where taxidermists would buy them and club them to death in the parking lot, but a few were born here in the early days when we were ignorant of the truth and were being told by the breeders and dealers that these cats should be bred for “conservation.” Once we learned that there are NO captive breeding programs that actually contribute to conservation in the wild we began neutering and spaying our cats in the mid 1990’s. Knowing what we do about the intelligence and magnificence of these creatures we do not believe that exotic cats should be bred for lives in cages. Read more about our Evolution of Thought
More about Kalahari
Kalahari and Serengetti are two sister servals who were born here back in 1996 and are now part of the reason that we no longer breed exotic cats. At the time they were born we had two volunteers who were married to each other and who were a couple of the most dedicated volunteers we had at the time. Their names were John and Penny and they were people we could always depend on for cleaning cages, feeding the cats, giving tours and doing outreach. There didn’t want children and were wholly committed to helping protect exotic cats in any way they knew how. I could not have asked for a more dynamic team.
When Kalahari and Serengetti were born, John and Penny made their pitch for why they would be be the best home possible for the two youngsters. Their intention was to raise them with the kind of doting love and attention that two full time parents could give. They would be so confidant and socialized that they would be comfortable going out to schools and civic events as “ambassadors” to teach people about why we need to protect wild cats and wild places. Back then we didn’t realise that such “ambassadors” only cause people to want them as pets and are thus counter productive to the mission.
John would rave to us about all of the new tricks he had taught “their girls” and the rest of us kind of lived vicariously through his stories because he never actually brought “the girls” out for us to visit any more. They never did, to my recollection, take “the girls” out into the public as intended, but I believed they were loved and cherished and that was good enough for me. The two servals were raised until they were two or three years old; about the time that they became mature and were no longer fun and handleable as pets.
Then John and Penny divorced. They quit volunteering. Neither felt the other was an appropriate parent to “the girls” so they asked if I would take them back. Of course we did, but the only family they had ever known was John and Penny so they were not friendly to our keepers initially and didn’t enjoy visitors. That is why they aren’t on the tour path and why a lot of you have probably never even met them.
Kalahari has a heart problem and has to be given two types of meds every day and has had to be tended to by our current vet care staff for the past 10-11 years. The people who had vowed to be there for her and Serengetti aren’t there any more, but current Big Cat Rescuers are. Their story is just one of hundreds that we tell about why even the smaller exotic cats never work out as pets.
No one had more time invested in caring for servals that John and Penny did at the time of their adoption. They had seen lots of other servals go from being cute and cuddly kittens who grew up into spitting, hissing servals. They thought they were different. They thought they could do it better and I believed it too. I really thought the love and attention they would give these two would be far above what I could offer here, with volunteers who come and go, and I thought that they would have a forever home.
There were a lot of cats here, mostly those who were rescued from fur farms, some who were born here, that I put into what I thought were loving and forever homes, but almost all of those cats have come home to us. It is the family that makes up Big Cat Rescue who turn out to be the safety net for these cats and for those we rescue. As I watch huge sanctuaries get in over their heads and fail, I am ever reminded that we have to be smarter, more diligent and more accountable to each other than ever before if we are to be able to provide the forever home that is Big Cat Rescue.
Serval Rescue! An African Serval was limping along in the Arizona desert until she collapsed alongside a road.
She had almost completely given up the will to live. She was probably a pet or perhaps used in the hybrid breeding scheme that has become all the rage where Servals are bred to domestic house cats to produce Savannah Cat hybrids. The domestic cats are often killed in the process. The kittens sell for thousands of dollars, but when they mature they typically spray and bite and make awful pets. The hybrids are usually discarded by the time they are two or three years old.
This Serval was obviously abandoned and was placed by authorities at the Tucson Wildlife Center, a non-profit sanctuary dedicated to native wildlife. Lisa Bates-Lininger the founding president of the Tucson Wildlife Center said, “She was dehydrated and tired and just ready to give up. She may have died last night, but luckily we got her in. We got her emergency treatment, fluids for shock, and she’s also missing a rear leg.”
Despite 18 media posts including TV news in Tucson and a post on Craig’s list looking for the owner no one admits to having abandoned this Serval to die in the desert. Thanks to some very generous supporters the serval was flown to her new permanent home at Big Cat Rescue where she is recovering well. Servals can live into their late teens and proper care is thousands of dollars each year. Her new 1,200 square foot Cat-a-tat had to be specially modified to accommodate her three legged hopping. It seems that she only recently lost her leg as she has a very difficult time keeping her balance. We are writing vets in the Tucson area to find out if any of them know what tragedy caused her to lose a limb and to see if there is any way to prosecute those who exposed her to such danger.