African servals, exotic cats as pets

Where Have All the South American Spots Gone? by Jean Hatfield
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I was asked to write an article comparing, in a way, the "old days" to today. That I, and others like me, represent the 70's. Actually, Kenneth and I got our first exotic, Mittens the Margay, in 1961. Back then, importing was common, bad information was rampant - "feed your ocelot beef or horsemeat" with no mention of vitamins or calcium. Pet shops couldn't tell an ocelot from a margay from a leopard cat from a geoffroy. Many a margay of 3-4 months was sold as a 6-8 week old ocelot! There were no restrictions, no laws, just beautiful spotted kittens whenever you wanted one - with no one to help, to tell you what to do, how to care for it, guidance in any way. Then we found Catherine Cisin's club, and other like-minded people.

Dave Salisbury formed the Florida Chapter of the LIOC and we found many more folks. We would have bi-monthly meetings and there would be 5, 6, 7 or more ocelots, 2-3 margays, a jaguarundii, a golden cat, and/or possibly a cougar or two. What a sight that would be! Spots everywhere, some cats outgoing and some shy. Back then not too many people had the "big" cats, some but not a lot. Size-wise, an ocelot, margay, geoffroy type cat is a lot easier to handle!

In 1968, Kenneth and I left Hialeah and moved to what was then "way out in the country" of Ft. Lauderdale. We did this because we loved the exotics and decided to breed them in captivity and therefore be able to screen prospective buyers and then give them all the help they'd need after they got this little critter home. And - as important, preserve the breeds and eliminate the necessity of buying from an importer/pet shop, which in turn would protect the species in the wild. Even though in those days, most of the books said ocelots wouldn't breed in captivity, Kenneth felt they would. Which of course they did.

Captive husbandry knowledge was in its infancy and Ken had an opportunity to help contribute. Dr. Stephen Seager was researching artificial insemination back in the 70s. He spoke at the 1978 LIOC convention and was one of the first researchers in the country refining this process. He came to our facility and with Kenneth, tranquilized our black leopard male and did the electro-ejaculation process. Don't know if it helped the doctor's research much, but we found out why no black babies; he was sterile.

Cooperation between zoos and privates was rare, but did exist. For instance, I recall Lance Giller and his cheetah female. He took her to Crandon Park Zoo (Dr. Sampsell was one of the 'exceptions') to breed with their male. They were put into a small, temporary corral-type enclosure while waiting for the large area to be readied, as everyone KNEW they wouldn't breed unless she had lots of room to run. Well, She didn't know that - and produced 5 babies. I thought it rather comical, if I recall. The point, however, was that they allowed a private owner to bring his cat to the zoo to breed with theirs.

Then, the government in it's infinite wisdom decided to "protect" these endangered species we were doing so very well with, thank you very much, which they have - right to the point of extinction here in our country. Loss of habitat is taking care of eliminating the wild populations.

First it was 'No Importing', then it was 'No selling outside of your own state' on the federal level, so that by the 1980s it became almost impossible to do anything with all the kittens other than within the breeder's state. Then STATES started with all their ban/regulation laws. Here in Florida, we do have a reasonably workable permit law but it did start out with the requirement that a person spend 1000 hours in training. One Thousand hours. That's 125 8-hr days. Which is a LOT of weekends. At least, we do so far have the possibility of obtaining a permit; I just hope it remains that way. However many, many other states have just banned exotics altogether. And it seems to be spreading almost like a nasty contagious virus. Soon we in Florida may be the only place in the country where exotics are legal - now that is one scary thought!

So, what is a breeder to do? In our circle of breeder-friends, they placed what ocelots they could elsewhere and we took in the rest. That left basically my colony producing a few kittens (this was in the 1980s) but not too many as the number of appropriate homes in Florida was limited. Most of our cats had been born or acquired in the 1960s & l970s and by the mid-1980s I stopped keeping any young males or females - what was the point?? In the mid-1990s, my younger female was placed with another breeder, as I had no unrelated male for her. My oldest and last female just passed on in April of this year at age 21. It is so very, very sad to think of all the many cats we had. All the bloodlines we had. All gone. Without even looking up records, I can sit here and think of at least 10 totally unrelated lines of ocelots and 3 of margays of just my cats; who knows how many there actually were.

Today I believe there are 4 or 5 breeding or potentially breeding pairs of ocelots in the country and of those, most of the pairs (or at least one of each pair) are from the same bloodline. As for jaguarundi, margays, golden cats - none. And why? Because laws prohibit private ownership, to say nothing of the private breeder. And the ban laws are spreading everywhere; so that soon there will be no private ownership of any exotic cat anywhere. And if there is no private ownership, who is left to keep the various species alive? How many more years will it be before someone will be writing an article about how she "used" to have a breeding colony of servals or of caracals, and now they're all gone?

Many thanks to Jean Hatfield for allowing the use of this article on in cooperation with the Feline Conservation Federation. This article is copyrighted 2005 by Jean Hatfield , and originally appeared in the FCF Newsletter. All rights are reserved. FCF members receive a bi-monthly newsletter containing a wealth of articles like this one, and I highly recommend becoming an FCF member to learn more about exotic felines.


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© Jessi Clark-White, 2005
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