I would like to address some of the statements that I have found on the web and in prohibition bills that portray servals and other small wild cats as unpredictable and dangerous creatures. This is a clear case of “what you don’t know you will fear.” First of all, I’d like to make it clear to everyone that we are talking about hand-raised domesticated pets raised in the United States. It’s not like you take a trip to Africa, strap on a serval and drag it home hissing and spitting!
In his best-selling book Bold, security and threat analysis expert Gavin de Becker writes: “Unfortunately, when it comes to security, the American way has often been to implement procedures that are more relevant to calming public anxiety than to reducing risk.” Prohibition laws are an excellent example of action that can ease anxiety, but does not make the nation safer.
By saying that domesticated feral cats are “extremely unpredictable and dangerous creatures,” people show their lack of understanding of animal behavior. These statements are wild exaggerations of reality. Even wild animals in situ (that is, roaming untamed in the wild) do not behave in dangerous and unpredictable ways. Each animal has specific behavior patterns of its species. These behaviors can be learned and understood by the owners of such animals in captivity, especially since they are very similar to the behaviors of a domestic cat.
These behaviors are not very different from those of pets. For example, the pattern of natural behaviors in wolves and domestic dogs is practically identical. A poorly socialized domestic dog with a careless or uninformed owner can be much more “dangerous” than a serval or caracal.
Our society’s standard for a safe and lovable pet predator seems to be the domestic dog. However, even man’s self-proclaimed best friend has been known to injure us and sometimes kill us. Statistics suggest that between 2 and 5 million dog bites occur each year. In fact, during the five-year period between 1989 and 1994, domestic dogs killed 45 children. Why doesn’t this sad figure surprise us more deeply?
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that over a similar time period, an estimated 4,605 children were killed by humans (Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training). Approximately 5 children lose their lives every day due to child abuse maltreatment and homicide (US Advisory Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1995).
To put this in perspective, we must now consider the fact that even with the enormous number of dog bites each year and the number of deaths due to dog bites, a child is statistically safer in the presence of an average pet dog than with your pet. Own family! The number of children killed each year by their own parents and guardians overwhelmingly dwarfs the number of people killed by dogs. We ourselves are the most dangerous and unpredictable animal on the planet.
Am I saying that servals and other exotic cats are not dangerous? No, if we define “dangerous” as having the potential to cause harm to a human being. All animals can be dangerous and all humans can be dangerous. One thing I teach my clients about dog behavior is that all dogs have the potential to bite. They will show aggression if placed in the wrong situation, just as even the most benevolent human beings will react violently when provoked enough.
However, these cats are certainly not inherently more dangerous than a comparable size domestic dog. In fact, they are probably safer than domestic dogs; There has never been a report of a serval killing a human, and their owners are generally very responsible for keeping them in check.
Whether an exotic dog, person, or cat eventually hurts someone depends on an uncertain balance of genetics, temperament, environment, and the unique circumstances in which they find themselves.
Horseback riding is an example of a much more dangerous animal-related activity. In fact, many stable and equine event centers post signs informing customers that participation in equine activities is inherently dangerous. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 1,218 people died while riding an animal between 1983 and 1994.
Horses have been known to brutally attack and kill their keepers and even people who enter their pastures. A single kick from a horse can cause serious injury or death. Horses are so powerful that even the strongest person has no chance of holding one back if they are determined to let go. When scared, they run away and can easily trample one to death. However, horse riding remains a popular youth sport.
Why doesn’t your neighbor’s 1,200-pound horse or Great Dane inspire as much fear as your cougar? I think there are two factors involved: fear of the unknown and fear of predators. One of the most fundamental fears of man is that of being eaten by a wild animal, of being hunted instead of a hunter. Police canine units are so effective at subdueing violent individuals that officers report that criminals are often more afraid of a dog than a gun. Bullies are more willing to risk death than a non-fatal bite from a German Shepherd.
Horses and dogs are very familiar to us; We have lived with them for centuries, we have seen them on television, we read cute and confusing stories about them, and we associate them with companionship and service. When one attacks or kills us, we see it as an anomaly.
We know little about exotic cats from direct experience; For most of us, exposure is limited to wildlife shows that emphasize its murderous power and the occasional sensational news article announcing the mistreatment of some unfortunate zoo employee. When you think about it, it’s no wonder we develop a disproportionate fear of these animals.
The text of a failed Oregon ban bill read “It is almost impossible for an exotic animal to adapt to traditional domestic settings” and that “exotic animals are by nature wild and dangerous and do not adapt well to captivity.” These statements are contradicted by the thousands of examples of exotic companion animals living healthy and happy lives with Americans across the country.
I would challenge anyone who really believes those words to watch my serval Sirocco as he greets me with an ecstatic purr and rubs against my legs when I get home from work, and then to watch him snuggle up next to me, purring and licking my face as we look. a movie together. This is not unusual; in fact, it is typical of the experiences of most exotic cat owners. This cat is as much a member of my family as the domestic dogs and cats that you yourself have lived with and loved.
The failed Oregon HB 3065 stated: “This Act of 2003 being necessary for the immediate preservation of public peace, health and safety, an emergency is declared to exist.” There is no emergency. Try to find any evidence of a public health or safety crisis caused by exotic animal ownership. I assure you that you will not find any. The number of people in the general public killed by runaway exotic cats in the past decade, across the United States, is believed to be zero. This includes not only small cats such as servals, caracals, and lynxes, but also lions, tigers, and cougars.
Now turn your attention to how much death and destruction drunk drivers, parole violators, shoddy construction contractors, and even Catholic priests have caused. Shouldn’t we, as a country, focus our efforts on legitimate threats to public safety, rather than discriminating against the safe and legitimate activities of citizens?
These bills are redundant. Laws already exist that provide for the criminal prosecution of those whose actions (and the actions of their animals) recklessly endanger the public. Our civil system is already a more than adequate means of punishing those whose animals harm or annoy members of the public and to provide restitution to those who have been harmed. The extremely low number of incidents involving exotic animals demonstrates the effectiveness of these current laws.
This article may only be reprinted in its entirety. Permission is not granted to reproduce in edited form or to endorse completion of exotic pet ownership.