(aka) Spots and Stripes Forever
Serval Son/Spots & Stripes Forever
FOREWORD – and DISCLAIMER
I first learned about serval cats—the “poor man’s cheetah” — during one of my courses at Ralph Helfer’s Wild Animal Affection Training School in Colton CA in 1977-78. I was assigned to train a pygmy goat and to tame an adult serval cat named Sneakers.
Training a goat is child’s play. They teach themselves to walk on 2x4’s while you’re still lifting the boards into place! They’re naturally curious, naturally playful, and naturally “ascendant.” Build it and they will climb!
But…tame a serval cat?! YIKES!!! That was a whole different matter—a greater level of difficulty. Mr. Helfer said I’d pass the course if I could get Sneakers just to sit or lie quietly near me without hissing or slapping. He wasn’t completely sure I could accomplish this feat, so he set the bar low...
Sneakers had apparently been abused (emotionally if not physically) during his time on earth. And servals look pretty ferocious and lethal when they hiss—which they do a lot, sometimes for reasons no one can discern. When they add slapping and backpedaling or crouching and preparing to spring onto your body, they look even scarier. And Sneakers did that… a lot!
Of course, I didn’t know any of this at first; I learned as I went along. All I knew about Sneakers was that he was housed in a wooden barrel inside an enclosure that measured about six or eight feet square. I was supposed to go in there and tame him.
Long story short: Over the course of the next eight weeks persnickety Sneakers segued from being one po’ed putty tat to a purring, head-rubbing critter who fell asleep in my arms as I lay beside him under a tree on test day. Helfer came by, saw the two of us cuddled up like Romeo and Juliet, and smiled, “You pass!”
Was I proud? You bet I was. I woulda burst my buttons had I been wearing any to burst. I had tamed an adult serval cat. I mean, taming an adult feral domestic cat is next to impossible, so this was quite the feat, was it not?
Not so fast. I later learned that servals and cheetahs are the Perry Comos of the cat world: you can tame adults caught right out of the wild. Africans did it for millennia, using them as “coursing hounds” to catch faster prey (dik dik and other larger antelopes), then taking the kill, rewarding the cat with a few mouthfuls, and using the rest for their own purposes.
Probably not even Ralph Helfer knew this. During the course, I also was taught “never ever” to leave a serval cat alone with any other critters, because servals were rated among the “wildest” of wild animals and should never be trusted with other creatures. I obeyed this precept until my own serval, Deaken, taught me how utterly nonsensical a notion it was. I denied him other companionship for more than six years that he should have had...but more about that later.
You can’t believe everything you read in books—except mine. (I’m a straight arrow.)
My 17 years with Deaken were an eye-opener, a heart-warmer, a trauma-inducer and a cherished relationship I expect never to repeat again. And here comes …
I don’t believe in exotic or wild animals as pets (especially wild cats, wild dogs and simians) for a lot of reasons. The primary reason is that probably less than one tenth of one percent of the people who get them knows what they’re getting into, so both parties suffer grievously. There is usually a traumatic and premature parting of the ways. As Ralph Helfer told us in class, “You are responsible for all you tame.”
It isn’t like you can change your mind and find your critter a new home and a new life with a reputable, responsible caregiver all that easily. Your charges do bond to you, especially since their first few weeks of life are so vital to establishing a relationship that must last into adulthood; one that is safe, sane and sustainable. And too few people have the proper permits to take over if you falter or fail; those who do are usually filled to the brim with other peoples’ cast-offs as well as their own broods. And who is going to watch over your wild one when you go on vacation, fall ill, or in some other way have to leave them behind for a time for any one of a dozen legitimate reasons?
I knew what I was getting into. I was trained. I read copiously. I had experience. I had the permits. And I’d had at least 20 domestic kitties before. I was—and remained—committed to nurturing Deaken’s life as he grew, and grew, and grew to knee-high and three feet long from tip of nose to tip of tail. How much different could it be to raise Deaken when I had raised so many house cats?
Still, I had no idea. Looking back, it was great discipline. Looking back, it was herculean. Looking back, I smile and feel very blessed, but also extremely lucky that it worked out as well as it did. There were times when it could have gone tragically wrong. I carry the emotional scars of all that. I still have nightmares about trying to move heaven and earth to keep Deaken safe from people and people safe from Deaken. Looking back it is a miracle that more people weren’t hurt… that Deaken himself survived largely unscathed.
So no… I don’t advocate wild animal ownership. Although I expect you to fall madly in love with my serval son as you get to know him better, I want you to pay exquisite attention to what it took to sustain the relationship, what it took to meet requirements, what it took to protect lives and property.
It’s not a game. Pet ownership itself is a tremendous responsibility. Wild animal stewardship is a whole other level. It is not for amateurs. It is not for dreamers. It is not for people who expect to have children or to have them around. It is not for people who want to take vacations.
Wild animal stewardship is only for people who will dedicate themselves entirely to the wellbeing of their wards. It’s a tall order. You’re about to discover how tall.
I hope that in learning about Deaken you’ll also learn about why sharing him vicariously with you concerns me a little. I know you will love him. Please just don’t love him so much that you decide you simply MUST have one of your own. Becoming a wild one’s parent is an overwhelming commitment that no one should take lightly. Not even you.
I know your heart is good and that it’s in the right place. Enjoy the ride but please don’t let this story compel you to take on more than you can commit to wholeheartedly… and legally. If you do it wrong, everyone gets hurt.
Imagine loving like this and losing your pet to the authorities because you weren’t properly licensed or because your furry darling grievously injured someone. It happens all the time. Lawsuits accrue. Next door neighbors panic.
How quickly everything can change from idyllic to catastrophic.
Few stories end up the way Deaken’s and mine did. Remember this as you go along, and I will feel satisfied that you’re receiving the whole story, not just the heart-warming parts.
You are responsible for all you tame. Don’t do it unless you can honor and truly treasure the obligation from Day One to the day your charge crosses Rainbow Bridge.