An insight into obtaining and living with an African Serval...........by Jayne Bradbury.
(featuring her Serval Nala )
A facination with big cats led CLA member Jayne Bradbury to acquire a Serval to keep at her Cheshire home. Here she shares her experience and explains the legal requirements of owning a dangerous wild animal.
"It took me 3 years to acquire Nala and all the hard work has been worth it. She makes a wonderful addition to my family", Jayne says. "She plays with my domestic cats and is very affectionate towards me and my family members". Serval's are known to have a sound reputation as being safe and good-natured within their family units, however they are known to be shy when it comes to strangers due to their natural instinct, as in the wild they are heavily preyed upon. In the wild a Serval will live an average of six years, however in captivity they can live an average of twenty years. Servals are not classified as endangered, however there are concerns in some quarters about them being hunted for their attractive pelts and their small numbers.
"The cost of buying, looking after and housing Nala, has been much the same as my horse" she adds " Nala plays out in a purpose built enclosure in the day and comes into the house in the evening to sit and watch TV with the family. She happily lives with my domestic cats and I work hard at providing her with a stimulating environment, as Serval's are highly intelligent. She is very well behaved when in the house and uses a litter tray, although her litter tray comes in the form of a baby bath".
Jayne has always been facinated by big cats and came to be made aware of the Serval breed when on holiday in Egypt several years ago. "It is believed that the Ancient Egyptians kept Servals and the breed was one of the first forms of domestic cat. The cats feature highly on tomb painting and are illustrated as the cat with pointed ears, standing waist height, next to a human form. They are excellent hunters and would keep rodents out of the food areas". It is believed the Ancient Serval in part produced the Cheetah, as the Cheetah carries 50% of the Serval gene.
In the wild today Servals are widely distributed in Sub Saharan Africa. An adult weighs around 30-45lbs and stands about 22-26 inches tall at the shoulders, with a golden coat containing bold black spots (they are sometimes mistaken for small Cheetahs). The female on average being slightly smaller in frame than the male. Their large ears afford acute hearing and they have long legs and necks, well adapted to peering over tall grass, swift running and leaping up to nearly ten feet in the air to grab small birds in flight. Rodents and insects are also typical prey.
Once Jayne had become facinated by these amazing cats, she researched and talked to wild animal professionals and began the practical steps of providing suitable housing and acquiring one.
"I'm aware of only five individuals in the UK who own Serval cats and not all of these have breeding pairs, outside zoo ownership". In the USA many people have them instead of dogs and it is commonplace to see them. Many videos can be seen on U Tube, one of Jayne's favourite clips being "The Worlds Smartest Serval" as it reminds Jayne so much of the relationship she has with her own cat. In the USA many of these cats have been seen out on a lead as they can be very `dog like` in character when hand reared. In parts of America a dangerous wild animal licence is not required, so it is lawful to exercise your cat in a public place. Quite a few of these cats do end up in rescue centres due to the cat growing too big for someone's home, however this is also commonplace with dogs and other animals.
Jayne looked to America when she realised how hard it was to get a serval cub in the UK. Her own experience lead her to visit breeders in the USA and look at importing as a last resort. However, the cost of quarantine was £6000-£8000 and a cat that hasn't been touched for six months from a young age can be nervous and not so friendly. This can also be said for a domestic cat. The cost of buying a serval cub in the USA ranges from three to eight thousand dollars. I found that cubs priced at the lower range had related parents, which can lead to problems down the line. Jayne had concerns about importing as she had come across people who had paid for a cat from abroad and had not got the cat in the end and those individuals had lost their money.
I finally found a reputable breeder in Scotland at HotSpotExotics. The lady there originally rescued her Servals from Canada and does a lot of conservation of the breed. Private ownership and zoos are the mainstay of modern conservation work. I had to prove to her that I understood and could care for the cat appropriately. I've had horses, cats, and land and could prove a history of my commitment to an animals long term well being. My horse I had owned since a foal and I had kept him for the last twenty-five years. After providing the breeder with confidence and working with her to provide suitable housing I was able to buy my wonderful hand-reared, bottle fed cub. Only one or two cubs a year are sold to help fund her own animals upkeep. Any other cubs she may have are gifted to conservation programmes. It would have cost me a lot more to buy and import one, with the quarantine charges. In addition to this the cat would have been 12 months old before I would get it and it would not be so friendly. Due to having Nala from a cub I have an amazing relationship with her. She always greets me with a head butt, a wagging tail and an amazing purr.
After building appropriate housing for her serval, Jayne set about obtaining a licence in line with the Dangerous Wild Animal Act which came into force in 1976 in response to the trend at the time for keeping exotic animals.
You have to apply to your local council for a licence. The first step is to receive and fill in the form. The form asks you to detail the type of animal you wish to keep and the housing you are able to provide. Details of the vet you are registered with and the people who are able to care for your animal in your absence. The council will come out to check that you are able to keep your animal in a suitable and secure anvironment, that it won't be a nuisance or cause danger to the public, and that you are able to care for the animal properly. A vet will be in attendance for one of these visits which you will have to pay for. For me this was a cost of £110 on top of my licence application cost. The licence cost me £136 and I need to be vetted every two years, some councils may charge a little different. A council cannot refuse you a licence, however, they can refuse to issue you a licence if you fail to meet the requirements in relation to providing a suitable and secure housing for your cat. In addition you require Dangerous Wild Animal insurance, the average cost is around £200 a year to cover public liability. Vet fees will not be covered by insurace companies from my experience for such a cat.
My enclosure is a converted 32ft long x 16ft wide stable which has a large wired outdoor enclosure attached. My inside enclosure has rugs, hammock and lots of toys. My outdoor area has trees, grass, sand and climbing frames with a tree house as she likes to hide away sometimes. It is very important to provide a stimulating environment for these amazing cats. I am lucky enough to have several acres of land, however the enclosure makes forn an impressive garden feature. The more space you are able to provide the better. All doors going into my enclosure have a lockable door on door situation, to prevent my cat ever getting out.
In the evening, Nala comes into the house and watches TV with me. My house has a `door-on-door` security as I have a porch and utility door. I also have procedure in place to check all windows are closed and locked when she comes into the house. It may sound like a lot of work but all the requirements cover things that someone who really cares about their animal would want to do anyway.
Jayne feeds her Serval on shop-bought meat and raptor food which is bought in frozen from the local pet store. In time she might acquire a second serval as to get involved in conservation work to safe guard the breed. Jayne finds great inspiration from others like "lion man Kevin Richardson".
There will always be people who say that you should not keep such cats as they are bnot domestic, but who are we to say what is or isn't domestic ? To me every animal has its own mind. Nala is no wilder and has no less will than any of my domestic cats. As with all my animals, her individual needs are met and she lives in a stimulating environment. She has lots of space to exercise and has companionship. I take great responsibility in her care and I am fully aware of my lifetime commitment I made to her safekeeping and wellbeing. My cat will only ever know kindness and understanding and I appreciate her for what she is. The truth is, in the changing world in which we live, private ownership and zoos do play an important role in the conservation of many breeds.
Jayne also owns an F1 Savannah, known by the Americans as the Super Cat. This being a first generation Serval and Domestic Cat cross which she also aquired from HotSpotExotics. This male cat will grow up to be an additional companion for Nala and will grow to be spaniel size. Savannahs hold the record for being the largest domestic cat standing some 18 inches to the shoulder.
Jayne concludes..."It is a big commitment to own a Serval which can live for 20 years in captivity and you need a trusted support network to look after these amazing cats in your absence..However it is so worth it, if you are serious about owning such a very special cat
For details of the Dangerous Wild Animal Act 1976 and licensing, see