African cat apparently prowling Anchorage
Theory is that somebody’s illegal pet got away
By JAMES HALPIN
Published: November 7th, 2008 02:28 AM
Last Modified: November 7th, 2008 07:34 AM
Like a phantom, a mysterious, spotted cat has been seen prowling Anchorage in recent days.
No one knows for certain what the animal is, why it’s in town or how it got here. Described as having spots resembling a leopard’s, the cat, however, appears to be a long way from home and is likely here illegally.
It’s also likely to fall victim to colder winter weather ahead, wildlife officials say.
In the past week, three reports of the cat wandering near Fort Richardson and Point Woronzof, some 10 miles apart, have reached Rick Sinnott, Anchorage-area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Though he has not yet laid eyes on the animal, its reported solid spots and size appear to describe the serval, a small- to medium-sized African wildcat sometimes kept as a “designer” pet, he said.
“They’re not on the clean list for pets you can have in Alaska, but I strongly suspect someone has one and it got away or they let it go,” Sinnott said. “They’re not going to be a danger to any people unless, obviously, if you try to catch it and it doesn’t want to be caught. Just like any cat, it could probably rake you up pretty good.”
The cat has been spotted along the Glenn Highway, but the most recent report came Thursday from employees at the Salvation Army’s Clitheroe Center near Point Woronzof. Employee Rob Marx was among those who saw the cat a few weeks ago while touring the perimeter of the building. The cat walked out of the woods, apparently unconcerned with the nearby people, and lay down in a patch of grass, he said.
They didn’t report it until Thursday because of disagreement over what they had actually seen, he said.
“We had some real serious cat-lovers. We thought it was an ocelot and then the cat-lovers said, ‘Well, there’s a bunch of people that breed cats to look like this ocelot,’ ” Marx said. “It was a very impressive-looking animal, but who knew it could have been from Africa?”
Some of the reports have the animal wearing a red collar, while others, like Marx, were not so sure.
In the wild, the solitary animals roam territories of up to five square miles, according to the Honolulu Zoo, which has one serval on its roster. Servals grow to be about 30-35 inches long, not including their tails, and about 2 feet tall at the shoulder, said Richard Ball, the zoo’s mammal specialist. Their weight can range from between 25 and 40 pounds and they live up to 20 years, he said. In the wild, their diet mainly consists of small game and birds.
“I doubt very highly that they make good pets unless you were going to take some measures when they’re very young,” Ball said. “People may take them in and trim their claws and hope for the best, but these are exotic wild animals.”
Because servals are native to Africa, they do not have thick fur coats needed to survive an Alaska winter, Sinnott said. Nor do they have big paws like lynx that would equip them to catch hares and other game, particularly in deep snow, he said.
Despite their slim chances of survival in Alaska, servals are illegal here because they are exotic and the Board of Game, which is fairly conservative on such issues, does not want to risk them spreading disease, Sinnott said.
“Most states don’t have very high standards like Alaska does because we’re kind of perched out on the end of the world, and we have a little bit of hope to control the spread of invasive species,” Sinnott said.
Possessing such an animal is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine, he said.
If the chance presents itself, Sinnott said, he will try to capture the cat and find it a home, but he doesn’t plan to spend a lot of time tracking it down.
“I would mostly save it for itself, because I don’t think it’s going to survive. Maybe do the snowshoe hares a little bit of a favor,” he said. “I’d like to move it to a neighborhood that had lots of feral rabbits in it so it could eat all the domestic rabbits that people let go, but I don’t know if that would be appreciated.”
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.
Scientific Name: Leptailrus Serval
Name Origin: Serval is Portuguese for “wolf-deer”
Size: Wild adult servals weight 30-45 lbs. and stand about 22-inches tall at the shoulders with males larger than females. They are 25-40 inches long, with a 12-18-inch tail.
Description: Servals are a medium-sized cat with golden coats containing bold black rosettes. They have big ears with distinct white oceli (spots on the back of the ear) and long, slender legs.
Habitat: A serval’s habitat ranges from tall grasslands, savannahs, woods, brushes, forests and marsh.
Range: Servals are found through the middle and southern parts of Africa. They are almost always centered around water, which is why the range does not include the driest areas of the continent including parts of the Sahara desert.
Diet: The typical diet consists of rodents, insects and small birds caught in mid-air.
Life Span: Servals can live 20 years in captivity.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org