EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. -- Farmers operating in the Ozark Mountains see a lot of wildlife, but when a farmer near Ava, Mo., spotted a medium-sized cat on his property he knew it wasn't any animal he should be seeing in Missouri.
The cat was about the height of a bobcat but sported a bright tawny coat with dark spots and stripes, long legs, and a smaller head with huge ears. Over a six-month period, the cat was spotted several times. Finally, on Jan. 14, the animal was captured using a live trap. After a call to Missouri Game and Fish, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, near Eureka Springs, Ark., was contacted for assistance.
It's not clear where the serval may have come from -- whether it was released into the wild or escaped private ownership -- but this isn't the first time Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge has been involved in rescuing a serval on the loose.
In October 2019, New Mexico Fish and Game captured Hunter, a male serval, in a park near Santa Fe. Hunter's front feet were declawed. In July of 2021, a woman in Brookhaven, Ga., woke up to a serval hopping into her bed in the wee hours of the morning. It came into the house through an open door when the family got up to let the dog out. A family called the police in Escondido, Calif., in December 2021 when they discovered a serval in the bathroom of their home. In January of 2022, a 40-pound, 4-year-old African serval was roaming around Lincoln, Mass. Yet another serval was reported by his owners as escaped and missing in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 2022. At least three servals were reported on the loose in Vancouver, British Columbia, in October 2022 -- two from one owner and the other from another individual -- both cases were unrelated. The list of African servals on the loose is growing every year.
African servals are native to the savannahs of Africa. They thrive in warm, arid weather and prefer to live near a water source. They are ill-equipped to deal with the harsh winter weather experienced in most parts of the United States. Their likelihood of survival decreases dramatically if, as in the case of Hunter, they have been declawed. Servals are wild animals and, even if they've been raised in proximity to humans, will retain their wild nature. Another pair of servals that call Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge home were relinquished by their owner after the female serval had escaped and gotten a taste of roaming. Her owner said she was never the same after that and it became very hard to confine her.
Servals are very intelligent and good at problem-solving. One of the escaped servals in Vancouver had learned how to open the door and let herself out. Tanya Smith, Turpentine Creek's president, was contacted the morning of Jan. 17. The farmer near Ava had spotted the cat off and on for the past six months. Within 12 hours of setting up the live trap, she was captured. She was examined by a local veterinarian who identified her as a female serval, probably about three years old and in good health.
Servals can experience frostbite, and it's a wonder this serval was in such good shape. She appeared to have been living under hay bales in a hay barn, which likely gave her some protection from the weather.
"It was amazing that this young serval could survive six months like she has, but she obviously was successful by the amount of bird feathers we found on site," said TCWR president Tanya Smith.
Upon arrival at the open-ended barn, our team noticed bird feathers under the round bales of hay; the skilled huntress had obviously been bringing her kills back to her adopted den to consume them in safety. We also noticed that her eyes appeared runny, but this was most likely due to the hay particles she'd been surrounded by.
"Luckily for this serval, the people that trapped it took very good care of it. They fed it some venison, gave it fresh water, and took it to their local veterinarian. The vet said the serval was in good health, which was awesome to hear. Where she came from is a mystery," Tanya Smith said. "The veterinarian could not find a microchip. We don't know if she was an attempted domestication as a pet and was released, or even part of a backyard breeding scheme and escaped."
Within an hour of receiving the call, the team at Turpentine Creek had their rescue gear loaded and were on the road. The serval was still being held in the live trap and was in a relatively calm state. She was hissy and did charge the fence once, behaving as a serval would be expected to in this situation. She transferred easily from the live trap to the carrier crate the team had brought to transport her for the 2-hour drive back to the Refuge. On arrival at Turpentine Creek, the serval was moved to a recovery enclosure at the onsite Jackson Memorial Veterinary Hospital for quarantine. She is eating and drinking normally and seems to like playing in her mulch bed. She has been very calm. She will remain in quarantine for the near future.
A medium-sized cat, when fully grown, an adult serval stands about two feet tall and weighs between 20 and 40 pounds. They can jump as high as 10-12 feet and take birds in flight out of the air with razor-sharp teeth. Servals have been smuggled in from Africa to breed with domestic cats, creating the hybrid Savannah cat. This latest addition will bring the total number of servals at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge to ten. They prefer solitude, and they do not make good house pets. Four of the servals in TCWR's care were relinquished by former owners. Fortunately for this serval, she has found her forever home.
About Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
Founded in 1992, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and rescue operation protecting survivors of the exotic animal trade. The 459-acre refuge, located 7 miles south of Eureka Springs, is an ethical animal tourism destination. The organization does not buy, sell, trade, loan out or breed its animals, and they do not offer cub petting or harmful pay-for-play opportunities. They are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an American Association of Zoo Keepers member, and licensed by the USDA and Arkansas Game and Fish. Their mission is to provide lifetime refuge for abandoned, abused, and neglected "Big Cats," with emphasis on Tigers, Lions, Leopards, and Cougars. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge has rescued and provided sanctuary and assisted other accredited sanctuaries and zoos in rescuing and transporting over 500 animals since its inception. For more information, visit tcwr.org.