AVA, Mo. – A Missouri family has seen some strange things prowl on their farmland in the Ozark Mountains, but discovering a wild African cat was a first.
The Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, received an email on Jan. 17 from a farmer in Ava, Missouri, that he had caught an African serval in a live trap. He told the sanctuary that the cat had been meandering on his property for about 6 months.
"Whenever it was little, I came home late one night, and it runs across the road … I thought, ‘wow, that was a crazy-looking cat,'" the farmer's son said in a video posted by the sanctuary on its Facebook page.
Refuge president Tanya Smith said the cat escaped somewhere or was let go near the farm.
"They had taken it to the vet and tried to find if it had a microchip in it, and it didn't," she said. "There was no identification for this little this African serval."
The 30-pound cat is estimated to be about 6 years old. African servals are typically found south of the Sahara Desert.
‘Nobody knew where this cat had come from’
The captured African serval had been successful at hunting and was able to find birds to eat, which was evident from the feathers scattered in her lair between some hay bales.
"It’s probably what saved it through this last big storm we had," Smith said.
After traveling about 2 hours north to Ava, Smith and her team were able to transfer the animal from the live trap into a pet carrier. They brought her back to the sanctuary and put her in their veterinary clinic quarantine area. She was full of parasites and worms.
"Nobody knew where this cat had come from," Smith said. "She was full of fleas and had some other issues going on with some frostbite on her tail."
On Friday, Smith said she took two calls from people who thought it was their cat.
"How many are out there? Crazy!," she said.
Looking for a lifetime of love
It can be a rough life in the wild for African servals. Even though they're not completely domesticated, they haven't really been taught to hunt like they were raised by their mother.
"Who knows how long she was out there," Smith said. "If we hadn't rescued her, I'm afraid that she wouldn't have lived more than a couple more weeks because of the infection in her paw was pretty significant."
The African cat species is not used to Ozark winters. Even at the Arkansas sanctuary, caregivers provide heated buildings for these animals because they are indigenous to Africa.
Smith said there's a problem with these types of animals being let loose. This was the third over the years that ended up at the sanctuary after it was released into the wild environment.
Today, the cat is doing well. As she recovers, the sanctuary is looking for somebody to sponsor her care. The non-profit is looking for anyone that wants to commit for the cat’s lifetime – which could be up to 20 years of age.
"This was an emergency rescue. We weren't really prepared for bringing another African serval in," Smith said. "We do have nine already at the refuge, but we have decided to keep her here, and we have made room for her."
African servals make terrible pets
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge was founded by Smith’s family in 1992. The nearly 500-acre ranch was started after a black-market breeder showed up on a woman’s doorstep with 42 lions and tigers in three cattle trailers. The breeder was on the run from the law in Texas and desperately needed to find a home for the cats.
A friend of the woman's family lived on a ranch in Eureka Springs and offered temporary refuge for the cats. The ranch, known today as Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, has rescued more than 400 big cats and 100 other animals over the last 31 years.
The sanctuary was also instrumental in getting the Big Cat Public Safety Act passed last year. Signed by President Joe Biden on Dec. 20, it officially ends the dangerous trade in pet big cats. It also helps ensure that no more cubs are ripped from their mothers at birth to be traumatized for profit, according to the Animal Welfare Institute.
While the law stops people from speed breeding big cats, the smaller cats, like African servals, caracals, and Savannah cats aren't part of that same legislation. Smith said she continues to get calls on these smaller breed exotic animals from people thinking they are going to make a good pet. However, they soon discover that they can’t train it right and stop feeding on raw meat.
"It's not going to be fine in your house," Smith said. "It's going to eat your other pets or attack your children or pee in your house, because they're very territorial."
They are predators, Smith warns, not pets.