Escaped Serval Proves Exotic Pets Require Balance of Knowledge and Work

By Josh Sweigart, Staff Writer Updated 9:54 PM Saturday, September 4, 2010

GERMAN TWP. — The calls had gotten worrisome.

A full-grown African lion had reportedly left paw prints in a pumpkin patch near Baker Road, and a semitrailer driver almost hit it. Then it was two lions, and they had allegedly mutilated a cow in German Twp.

Clark County Humane Society Director James Straley had no choice but to take the calls seriously. “It’s not beyond the realm of possibility,” he said.

“The worst thing that could have happened is it turns out to be true and I’m not prepared,” he said, explaining why he had a vet order tranquilizers strong enough to bring down such a creature.

“I am ready to go on an African safari in Clark County,” he said.

Luckily, he never had to. The reports turned out to be overblown rumors stemming from a serval cat that escaped from a German Twp. home.

It’s name is Serafina, and it is the pet of Jim and Cindy Shaffer.

At 20 pounds and 3 feet long, it’s bigger than your average housecat. It’s no Mustafa, but it could have been.

Ohio has lax laws on keeping exotic animals. Some say that’s a good thing, because it doesn’t interfere with the rights of animal owners. Others worry that it opens the door to a risky hobby.

“Exotic pets are something people keep quiet and secret, and then we walk into a mess,” Straley said, though he was well aware of Shaffer’s pets.

Having exotic animals a right?

“We’ve had her since she was 3 weeks old. She slept in the bed with us,” Shaffer said of Serafina, who looks like a minature cheetah.

She bought the cat from a licensed breeder, she said.

“I had friends who had some and I really like them and I decided I’d like to try my hand at it,” she said. “They’re much more dog-like (than housecats). They’re more affectionate in some ways. They’re much smarter. In other ways they’re much, much more independent.”

Because she keeps Serafina as a pet, Ohio law doesn’t require a license to have a serval cat.

Shaffer said she is a member of the Ohio Association of Animal Owners, a group that works to protect the rights of animal owners. In addition to Serafina, she shares her German Twp. property with raccoons, possums, foxes and other unusual pets. All were raised in captivity, she said. She has a license to breed raccoons, foxes and possums. She said none is a wild animal.

When she sells a pup or cub, she says she warns the buyer that such pets are a lot of work, and they will never become as domesticated as a common dog or housecat. “We try to educate people before they bite because we look out for the safety of the animal, too,” said Jim Shaffer, Cindy’s husband.

And yes, they can be dangerous if people aren’t careful, Cindy said. “Little kids die in swimming pools all the time. Are we going to put out a thing where people can’t have swimming pools?”

“I certainly believe people should be able to own exotic animals as long as it’s under the proper permits, and the proper housing,” Cindy said.

Straley said he gets several complaint calls every year about Shaffer’s animals. All complaints are investigated, he said, and “we’ve never found anything illegal.”

“She has always worked with us to get her issues resolved,” he said.

Only Springfield ?has ordinance

Straley said he responds to three to four exotic animal calls per year.

“We’ve had alligators and crocodiles and all kinds of crazy things we’re totally unaware of until we walk in and we have to catch it and get it and we have to find someplace to put it,” he said.

He said the humane society has a list of 200 rescue organizations for every animal imaginable.

The alligator was found last year in the basement of a home on Edwards Avenue during a police drug raid, Straley said. It was 2.5-feet long and lived in a pond the owner had built in the basement. The gator was shipped to a reptile rescue in Mason.

Springfield has an ordinance requiring owners of exotic or dangerous animals to report an escape to police within an hour of realizing it. But outside the city, only the minimal state and federal laws apply in Clark County, Straley said.

So while the Serafina is not considered a threat to the public — though residents are advised to call police if they see her and not try to catch her for fear of getting bitten — someone in Clark County may very well have a pet lion Straley doesn’t know about.

He just hopes it doesn’t get loose, because the vet told him it takes about three minutes for those tranquilizers to kick in.

“I’m thinking that’s going to be the longest three minutes of my life if I pull the trigger,” he said.

Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0374 or jsweigart@coxohio.com.
http://www.BigCatRescue.org
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