Farmers Find Wild African Cat Wandering Around Missouri

A wildlife refuge took in the serval last month and is nursing it back to health

Cat in kennel with the door open
The serval surveys her new recovery enclosure at the sanctuary in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

Over the last six months, a farming family in rural Missouri began to notice bones and feathers between their stacks of hay bales. Occasionally, they’d catch a glimpse of the possible culprit: an animal one family member described as a “crazy-looking cat.”

Eventually, they decided to put an end to the mystery and set a live trap. Within 12 hours, they’d caught the four-legged perpetrator—an out-of-place wild cat known as a serval, which would’ve been much more at home in the grasslands of Africa than in the Ozark Mountains near Ava, Missouri.

Where the feline came from was anyone’s guess, but the family fed it venison, gave it some water and took it to a local veterinarian, who determined the wild animal was a female. The veterinarian did not find a microchip that could’ve helped identify the creature’s owner.

So, the farmers called Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, located about two hours away in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Concerned about the cat’s health, crews from the wildlife refuge immediately hopped in the car and traveled across the border to rescue the serval.

“You never know what the day will bring around here,” says Tanya Smith, the refuge’s president, in a January 20 statement announcing the rescue.

serval in a cage
Veterinarians described the serval as "very, very lucky" to be rescued in a video. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

After transferring the serval to a crate and driving her to the refuge, the center’s team helped her get comfortable in a much larger recovery enclosure. They set her up with boneless chicken, toys and a mulch bed that she “seemed to really enjoy,” per the statement.

In an initial veterinary exam, the refuge’s team found the serval was suffering from several problems. One of her toes had a puncture wound that had become infected, and she was anemic from a bad flea infestation. They also amputated a small piece of her tail that they suspect fell victim to frostbite.

“All of this has now been treated, and she’s being kept under observation in quarantine at our onsite vet hospital,” Cheryl King, the refuge’s marketing director, tells UPI’s Ben Hooper in an email.

The as-yet-unnamed animal weighed 29 pounds; refuge veterinary staff members guessed that she was around five years old. They’re now soliciting donations to help cover the costs of her care. They hope one passionate donor will commit to supporting the serval for the rest of her life and, in return, get the honor of naming her.

Serval looking out of cage
Servals have the largest ears for their size of any cat. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

Staff at the refuge don’t know how the serval got to the Ozarks or what she experienced over the last six months, but they have a few hunches. She likely escaped from a backyard breeder or, possibly, the breeder released her into the wild for unknown reasons. Fortunately, she still had her claws, and the refuge’s staff found evidence that she’d been doing a little hunting to keep herself fed, likely catching birds, rats and mice.

“Who knows how long she was out there,” says Smith to FOX Weather’s Chris Oberholtz. “If we hadn't rescued her, I’m afraid that she wouldn’t have lived more than a couple more weeks, because the infection in her paw was pretty significant.”

In December, President Joe Biden signed the Big Cat Public Safety Act into law, banning the private ownership of big cats and restricting direct contact between the wild animals and the public. However, per the refuge, the serval is not protected under that law.

“There are a lot of animals that are not considered under the Big Cat Public Safety Act, like servals and Bengal cats and the smaller cats like Savannahs,” says Smith in a video posted to the organization’s Facebook page. “We’re seeing a bunch of these animals being let loose all over the country. It’s really strange that people will get them and then release them—because they’re scared of them, most of the time.”

Servals typically live in the savannahs of central and southern Africa, often near streams and rivers. They stay out of the heat during the day and are most active around twilight and dawn.

These sleek, slender cats can weigh up to 40 pounds. They have the longest legs and the largest ears for their body size of any cat species, per the San Diego Zoo. Their ears are so large, in fact, that if humans had proportionately sized ears on their heads, they’d be as large as dinner plates.

Servals have long legs and an extra-long neck that’s earned them the nickname of “giraffe cat.” Most of their coat is tawny in color and covered in spots and lines, while the fur on their bellies is white.

Though these cats usually take a “wait and see” approach to hunting, they can spring into action and climb a tree if being pursued by predators like hyenas, wild dogs and leopards; they’ve also been spotted playing around in water. Servals eat nearly anything they can get their paws on, from frogs and reptiles to crabs and birds.

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