Breeders of 'Misunderstood' Hybrid Cats Dispel 'Myths' of Wild Animals

PHOTO: Coco, a Savannah cat, leaps over Georgie, a British shorthair cat. Their owner, Brigitte Cowell hopes to dispel a "myth" that Savannahs are wild, dangerous cats.

Breeders of cats bred with non-domesticated species outside the U.S. say they hope to dispel the "myth" that their pets are wild and dangerous.

Kristine Alessio, 46, is an attorney and city council member in La Mesa, Calif., about 10 miles east of San Diego. She breeds cats as a hobby and six of her eight cats are Savannahs, which share their ancestry with the African Serval cat.

Savannahs' ears, necks and legs are longer than those of the typical domestic cat. Despite their distinct appearance, sometimes resembling miniature versions of wild cats due to occasional distinct markings, Alessio said concerns about Savannahs and many other "hybrid" cats are overplayed.

"They're so people oriented," she said of her Savannah cats. "It's like a puppy that never wants to grow up. It's like having a dog, but it uses a litter box. They're happy to see you. They wait for you to come home."

Owners of cats descended from cross-bred ancestors were stirred last month when the New Yorker magazine published a story about breeders titled, "Living-Room Leopards."

PHOTOS: 'Hybrid' Cats Cause Controversy

Many, including Alessio, were disappointed by the story's depiction of Savannah cats as wild and expensive. Kathrin Stucki, a breeder who runs A1 Savannahs, said her rarest female Savannahs have sold for $35,000.

Alessio said the highest she has heard of someone buying for a first-generation hybrid cross, an F-1 Savannah, was $14,000. The higher the number, the further the cat is removed from the Serval ancestor.

"My sense of pricing is that it's the same as any other pedigreed cat or dog, in my opinion: between $1,000 and $5,000 as a general range," Alessio said.

Hybrid animals are banned in New York City. In the rest of New York state, Savannahs must not have a Serval in their five-generation pedigree.

Alessio, South-West Regional Director for The International Cat Association (TICA) and Board Liaison to TICA's Welfare Committee, said New York City's ban on Savannahs is "poorly drafted legislation."

The Savannah, or other "hybrid" cats are not new to the U.S. The first known Savannah dates back to April 7, 1986. It was then that a female domestic cat gave birth to a kitten from an African Serval. The Savannah was accepted for championship status by TICA in 2012. To be eligible for shows hosted by the International Cat Association, Savannah cats must be four generations removed from the Serval.

Like the other members of TICA, Alessio knows a lot about cats, but she said she's just "an average person who happens to raise Savannah cats." As a member of TICA's Legislative Committee, she also keeps abreast of legislation in the U.S. that governs domestic cats.

Weeks ago, the Iowa legislature approved as pets Savannahs and Bengals, the latter of which are originally developed from crosses with domestic cats and the Asian Leopard Cat. Legislation in Connecticut would permit cats in that state recognized by TICA, the Cat Fanciers' Association, or the American Cat Fanciers Association. The legislation was passed by the state House and Senate and is awaiting signature from Gov. Dan Malloy.

The Cat Fanciers' Association does not recognize Savannahs and Bengals as breeds. "The Cat Fanciers' Association, Inc., does not encourage or promote the breeding of non-domestic (wild) cats of any species to any domesticated cats. Furthermore, The Cat Fanciers' Association, Inc. will not consider for registration the offspring of such a breeding. CFA will be reviewing its registration policies with the delegates from its member clubs during its Annual Delegates' Meeting on June 28, 2013 in Vancouver, Wash.," the assocation said in a statement.

Jim Mendenhall, president of The American Cat Fanciers Association, said his group does not accept any cats bred with non-domestic animals with the exception of the Bengal. Mendenhall said the Bengal was grandfathered in as a breed before the association banned cats mixed with non-domestic ancestors.

Speaking for himself and not the group, he said, "It's plain wrong."

"I don't see anything to be gained in crossing them into the domestic cats, except for creating designer cats that someone can sell for thousands of dollars."

Mendenhall said he knew a cat owner who had a first generation Bengal that would attack the owner's dog.

"The only person who could handle it was the woman who bought it," he said.

Most states follow the federal USDA definition in regards to Savannahs, Bengals and Chausies as domestic cats from the initial cross with the non-domestic ancestor, Alessio said.

But Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA's senior vice president of cruelty investigations, said breeding animals is cruel, and points to the different gestation periods of a domestic cat, which is 10 days shorter than that of the African Serval. Part of her concern is that hybrid kittens are born prematurely.

"Their trophy is how beautiful that animal is. To me, it's the exotic pet trade -- reptile breeders who breed snakes for particular coloring," Nachminovitch said.

Among PETA's concerns is also that Serval cats are included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as "least concern," and "relatively abundant and widespread."

Alessio acknowledges the different gestations of the two animals but said there is little data to prove Savannah cats have higher rates of premature birth than other cats. In about five years as a breeder, she said she has seen two litters that "didn't look completely full-term."

Libbie Kerr, a Bengal cat breeder in Central Ohio, said the reason she is selective is to have the healthiest cats she can.

"I place them very consciously and carefully," she said. "I work on enriching peoples' lives. That is something all of us need to do."

Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant since 2006 with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, owns Bengals and Savannahs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

She said Bengals and Savannahs are "extremely safe," and other cats descended from "hybrid" mixes are "just like any other domestic cat." Krieger owns six cats and has been running her business, The Cat Coach, since 2005.

"It always depends on the individual cat and doesn't have to do with the breed," she said.

Australia has banned Savannah cats, but Brigitte Cowell, a Savannah breeder born in Sydney said the threat to native wildlife by domestic cats is more of an issue there than in the U.S.

"If you read the 40-page government report that was submitted for this ban, it proved nothing but that domestic cats are very bad for the native fauna and that they assumed that because Savannahs were huge cats, then the threat was intensified, as either they would be better hunters or need to eat more native animals to survive," Cowell said.

Cowell and other cat breeders say they are wary of speaking to the media after depictions of Savannahs and other hybrid cats in the media.

"I was extremely disappointed in the New Yorker for publishing such a biased and inaccurate story such as "Living Room Leopards" by Ariel Levy," Cowell said. "The lack of fact-checking and the inability to present a balanced argument resulted in an impression of an amateur 'fluff piece' with an anti-breeder agenda."

Cowell objects to the characterization that Savannahs are "wild" animals and their owners are out of control.

"I find it completely disturbing that the author hunted out what seemingly are freakish cat breeders, ones that see nothing wrong with ignoring veterinary advice and self-medicating their breeding cats through gory unsuccessful pregnancies, that see nothing wrong with proudly reporting how viciously their cat might react to a dog, that see nothing wrong with owning so many cats they don't have names but only microchip numbers. This is NOT the norm for a cat breeder," Cowell wrote in a letter to the editor of the New Yorker.

Cowell also said the Serval, the Savannah's ancestor, was also mischaracterized as eating gazelles and springbok. The San Diego Zoo states that its diet includes birds, reptiles, frogs and large insects.

Cowell said her Savannah cats get along fine with her traditional domestic cats and her pet beagle, Georgie.

"All the Savannahs adore Georgie. He's "Uncle Georgie" to all the kittens born here. Georgie knows if he wants to play he doesn't have to look far to find a Savannah playmate, but if he's feeling sedate he just ignores them," she said. "They are very different cat breeds but are very compatible."

Alessio also said her daughter, who was two and a half years old when she and her husband got her first Savannah, got along fine with the cats.

She said many of the misperceptions of Savannahs or other hybrid cats, even built into some laws, come from the Internet.

"I think these laws meant well and you get someone in there that completely doesn't understand what the breed is and they interpret it the way they want to," she said.

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