African servals, exotic cats as pets

Ramblings on the Subject of Caracals
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At some point this will turn into a coherent article or two, but in the meantime I offer my unedited notes and ramblings on caracals as pets should they be useful to anyone.

Caracals have had a special hold on me since I first saw a group of them in the San Diego Zoo. I was touring the cat section, and while I saw many beautiful and rare cats, the caracal was the most captivating of all. Grouped together in their cage, these felines with the most spectacular ears I had ever seen didn't look much bigger than housecats. They were lounging in the sun, grooming themselves and licking each other affectionately, reminding me of my own domestic cats.

That one memorable experience started me on the long path that has led to my owning a serval, becoming a licenced educational exhibitor, and running two exotic cat websites.

Years later I was bored and decided to look up caracals on the internet. That's when I found to my astonishment that people actually kept these magnificent animals as pets. At first I wasn't quite sure I approved of such a thing, but after doing a little research I realized that it wasn't any different ethically from keeping a domestic cat as a pet or housing one of these animals in a zoo.

I kept reading, at first without even considering actually getting an exotic cat. As my interest grew stronger, I noticed that many caracal breeders also had servals, and it didn't take me long to realize that there was a lot more information available on servals and many more breeders. I started emailing breeders with questions about servals, caracals, and exotic cat ownership in general.

I got a lot of conflicting information about caracals, their personality, and their suitability as pets. Many people seemed to feel that servals were a better choice. I was still more drawn to the caracals, but I didn't want to make an uninformed decision based on conflicting information and end up doing something I would regret. As these thoughts were forming, I realized that something had changed. A part of me was actually contemplating getting an exotic cat.

I began calling breeders in search of more information, and spoke to a number of very knowledgable and dedicated people who spent hours on the phone answering my questions. However, the caracal information still conflicted.

One breeder told me that all of her caracal kittens stopped using the litterbox shortly after going to their new homes, and seemed to be missing the "pee in the litterbox" gene. Another told me that the caracals she had sold were almost all good at using the litterbox, and the servals were far more likely to have litter problems.

One told me that caracals were more timid and far less social than servals. Another breeder said that caracals were tamer, more stable, and more outgoing than servals.

I got descriptions of individual cats ranging from "nasty and downright malicious" to "the most affectionate animal I have ever known."

Nairobi hissing at me.
One thing that everyone made clear to me from the beginning is that inexperienced people are more likely to be intimidated by caracals because of misreading their unique body language. Caracals communicate a wide range of emotions though hissing and positioning their ears, messages that mean only one thing to a domestic cat owner: aggression. A caracal, on the other hand, may hiss if it is interested, excited, nervous, etc. And when those impressive ears add to the mix, a caracal can be hard to read. I wonder how many caracal owners have problems based simply on intimidation and inability to read their cat's body language correctly.

I was getting a far clearer picture of the personality and behavior of servals than I was of caracals, partly because there were so many more serval breeders and owners I could talk to. I was torn because despite the flashy beauty of the servals, I had never met one in person, and I knew I loved caracals. But I didn't want to make a bad choice for one of those incredible felines.

Finally one breeder offered an opinion and a perspective that made good sense to me. She explained that caracals could make excellent pets, but they were a "higher ocatane" cat that fared better with someone who had some exotic cat experience. She suggested that I get a serval, as she felt that they were the easiest exotic cat for a novice to work with but would still present quite a challenge. She advised that if I got a serval and was able to handle that successfully and integrate him into my household, and if I still felt confident about having a serval after the first couple of years, then I could at that point probably handle the additional challenge of a caracal.

Her advice rung true, and within a few months I welcomed a tiny spotted bundle of fur named Sirocco into my life. My fears that I would see a serval as merely a surrogate caracal melted away as I fell completely in love with the little kitten who was to launch my obsession with exotic cats. Sirocco has tried my patience, drained my finances, and taken up countless hours of my time. Yet he is one of the best things to happen in my life, and now, two and a half years after we met, I'm starting to wonder about the possibility of adding a caracal to the family. I have a feeling that if that happens, it'll be a matter of adopting an unwanted cat rather than purchasing a kitten. For now, I'm keeping my ears open, waiting to hear of that nice young caracal that needs a new home with a serval buddy.

I've never regretted my choice to get a serval. Sirocco has been a delight but also a huge challenge, and I'm glad I didn't try to take on a more challenging cat first (although I'm not entirely convinced that caracals are harder to handle than servals). Now that I've had some experience and been in contact with more exotic cat owners, I feel pretty confident in my ability to raise and live with a caracal should the opportunity arise.

I've also had the opportunity to meet two caracals without the bars of a zoo seperating us. I'll share these experiences, should they be useful to someone trying to make a decision.

The first was an adult male caracal named Nairobi housed in a exotic cat sanctuary. He had been well cared for, raised by an experienced exotic cat person who had a change of circumstances and had to place him in the sanctuary. The original owner reportedly described him as a "nasty cat" and was herself unable to handle him, even though she had raised him from kittenhood. The owners of the sanctuary were able to enter his enclosure but not touch him.

Nairobi is now relaxed on his platform, playing with the interactive toy I brought with me.
During a visit to the sanctuary, the owners allowed me to enter his enclosure with a camera to take pictures, and I was able to hang out in his enclosure alone for a while. He greeted my approach and entry with fierce hissing and ears pinned back (and believe me, those ears make such a display quite impressive!). However, he soon relaxed when I didn't attempt to approach him, and quickly became interested in the long, flexible wand I had brought as a cat toy. He jumped to a platform in the enclosure and started to toy with the stick I was holding as I stood perhaps four or five feet away.

The fierce caracal settles in for a nice nap.
As time passed the hissing decreased dramatically and finally disappared as I slowly ventured closer, within touching distance. I saw him relaxing as I spoke to him. He laid down and started closing his eyes contentedly. The behavior I was witnessing, as a complete stranger meeting this cat for the first time, seemed completely at odds with what I had heard of this "nasty cat." It had never been my intention to attempt to touch him, but by this point his body language seemed to be almost inviting it.

Touching Nairobi.
His paws were stretched out towards me, and I carefully placed a hand next to him on the flatform, only a few inches away. He was aware of the move, but barely opened his eyes. I began to gently stroke his paw (while snapping photos!), and to my astonishment he pushed his paws firmly into my hand, a remarkable gesture of trust and affection from a "wild" creature. I didn't attempt to handle him any further, not wishing to spoil what had taken place.

After I left the enclosure, I found the owner of the sanctuary and showed her the digital photos on my camera screen as I explained what had happened. If it weren't for the photos, I'm not sure she would have believed me!

The second was a hand-raised, 6-week-old kitten that attended the FCF convention in Las Vegas with his breeder. This little guy was well socialized and comfortable around people, but often turned into a little spitfire when he didn't want to be held.

Buckwheat's getting a little disgruntled with me.
At one point I was holding him, and after considerable squirming he decided to get serious. He looked me in the face, pinned his ears back, gave a throaty if small snarl, hissed, and finally took a firm swipe at my face with one paw. Quite a fierceome display, but the remarkable thing was that his claws were sheathed. He made no mark on my face, and he did not attempt to bite. For someone accostomed to domestic cats, this is pretty remarkable. If a domestic cat is hissing and snarling at you with its ears pinned back, and if you are unwise enough to be holding that cat at the time, you are guaranteed some bloody scratches and a set of teeth imbedded in your flesh. Watching people handle him was an interesting excercise in observation. People who didn't own exotics would try to hold him too long and too firmly, prompting an intimidating flurry of spits and flying claws, which was usually quite successful in getting them to let go!

Cuddly caracal kitten.
More experienced people would provoke those displays less often, and were not the least bit fazed by them. I even saw one woman kiss him on the top of the head as he hissed and spat; the result: he calmed down and started purring!

I was somewhere between the two. My experiences with Sirocco had taught me that an exotic cat can be remarkably gentle while looking extremely threatening, and I knew about the caracal's general hissiness. Nevertheless, I found this behavior somewhat off-putting. I studied him carefully and realized that although his body language was saying something like "Die, evil human die!" to me, what the cat was actually thinking was something along the lines of "Listen, lady, I've really had it with being held. Please, in the name of all that is holy, just let me go!"

Buckwheat showing his softer side.
When he wasn't upset at being held, little Buckwheat would play, investigate things, and fall asleep in people's arms. He was remarkably unfazed at being the center of attention in busy conference rooms bustling with strange people.

I would venture say that a caracal would not be a good choice for someone easily threatened by animals, or who's ego would be bruised by being hissed at, or who would consider such behavior a personal challenge. This is a creature you can make friends with and develop a loving relationship with, but not subjegate or overpower.

At the convention, someone explained that caracals are sort of like turbo-servals; faster, stronger, smarter, bolder, more sensitive in ways, fiercer, and more affectionate. That seems to agree with my limited hands-on experience.


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© Jessi Clark-White, 2005
Caracal - Caracals as Pets - Caracals vs Servals