Matthew Denaburg stands on his back porch, reflecting on the daily habits of his pet, Jasper. “He’s almost like a dog,” he said. “I tell people he plays half of fetch, because if you throw anything he’ll dart over and catch it, but he doesn’t bring it back. But he is definitely much higher maintenance than a dog.”
Jasper is not a dog — he’s an African serval, a species of wildcat native to Africa and loosely related to the leopard family.
At 14 months old, Jasper currently weighs in at 25 pounds and is expected to gain five to eight more, Denaburg said. Jasper may seem out of place walking around Denaburg’s Birmingham neighborhood to some, but according to Alabama law, it’s legal for him to live there, given certain circumstances.
Alabama’s exotic pet law prohibits the ownership of certain listed species but fails to include exotic animals such as big cats, wolves, and primates. While there are national laws which enforce the penalties regarding the selling, transportation, and private ownership of such creatures, activists for exotic animals clash over whether or not the laws are strict enough.
“The Rabies Code”
Alabama law currently states that no person shall own, sell, or transport into the state certain species of fish, including but not limited to “walking catfish or any other fish of the genus Clarius, any Piranha or any fish of the genus Serrasalmus, and any Black Carp of the genus Mylopharyngodon.” It also prohibits the ownership or transport of “any species of Mongoose, any species of wild rabbit or hare, and any member of the family Cervidae (to include but not be limited to deer, elk, moose, caribou), species of coyote, species of fox, species of raccoon, species of skunk, wild rodent, or strain of wild turkey, from any area outside the state of Alabama.”
The code also states that no individual shall possess “any live, protected wild bird or wild animal, except by written permission of a designated employee of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources authorized by the Director of the Game and Fish Division to issue such permits.” Facilities that are given such permits are usually classified as zoos, animal sanctuaries, or rehabilitators.
In 2007 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service passed the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, a federal law which tightened the regulations regarding the transportation and ownership of large species of cats. The act prohibits any individual who is not “exempt” from the bill from importing, exporting, and selling certain breeds of felidae (including lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, cougars, and all subspecies of the aforementioned animals) across state lines and national borders. However, the act does not address the possession of these animals but instead refers to individual state laws.
Any facility or individual who wishes to own exotic felidae or canidae must meet the requirements of the USDA, which lists the details relating to the animal’s living environment, overall health and diet, and guidelines of general animal husbandry. Denaburg, whose home is registered as a certified professional cattery by the International Cat Association (TICA) under the name CustomCatsCattery, said that Jasper’s enclosure “far exceeds” all of the proper USDA requirements.
Sue Steffens, the executive director of Tigers for Tomorrow, a preserve for rescued animals, said the laws were created to make sure that people weren’t taking native animals out of their natural habitats for domestication. But she still encounters people who think animals such as raccoons can be pets. “I get calls all the time from people that are taking [animals] out of the wild, and they think they’re doing something great by doing this, and a year and half later they have an animal that was raised in their house, and it has no idea what it’s supposed to be and it’s not supposed to be in a house or in a domestic situation,” she said.
Steffens added that the laws like the Captive Wildlife Safety Act are there for a reason. “The laws are working,” she said adding that there are “a few people who have these animals in their backyard and have had them there for years.” She expects such situations may change. “I believe that as time runs out things will change for them also…some of the states are changing their laws also. And we happen to be one of those states this year which is [trying to] doing that,” she said.
Steffens was referring to House Bill 172, which was introduced in the Alabama legislature in early February. The bill would amend the current law to include species of canidae and felidae for which there is not a regulated rabies vaccine and incorporate penalties for those who violate the listed terms. Mindy Gilbert, the Alabama director of the Humane Society of the United States and one of the supporters of the bill, said that HB 172 was created not to punish people who already own exotic animals, but to make the process of obtaining additional species in the future more difficult.
“People who own those types of animals usually fall within two categories: they might be a zoo, or they might be a USDA licensed exhibitor, … but we occasionally run into individuals who, probably with the best intentions, have somehow acquired these animals and have them as their pets,” said Gilbert. “So what he have tried to do is figure out a way to beef up the existing law and sort of turn off that acquisition process without harming animals that are already owned by people.”
Gilbert added that people should not feel that their animals are in danger of being taken away. “We certainly don’t want to pass a law and then run around trying to take animals away from people,” she said. “What we want to do is turn off the faucet and to stop people from getting these animals, moving forward by amending the existing law and putting a penalty in there for violations and set some conditions so the animals that are currently owned can remain where they are.”
The conditions set in the bill include that the owner in question must be able to provide a disaster plan to local law enforcement on the chance that a breach in containment occurs, maintain their acquisition documents, and promise not to use the animals for any commercial endeavor such as breeding and selling. Gilbert added that the bill does not affect licensed exhibitors but only private owners. Violating the provisions of the bill would be a class-A misdemeanor, meaning a fine of up to $6,000 or imprisonment for up to a year.
Gilbert said that the current laws fall under the umbrella of what she calls the “rabies code,” meaning that the animals listed in the current law are rabies vector species, the kind that may carry the disease. While most reported cases of rabies occur in raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes, and some coyotes, Gilbert added that does not mean every specimen of the creatures listed has the virus. Still, many health departments in the country advise the euthanization of rabies vector species for testing rather than quarantine, due to the high rate of infection caused by the disease. This is usually recommended after such an animal has an encounter with another animal or human.
There have been prosecutions under the current law. In July 2016, Dr. William Weber with Eastwood Animal Clinic was charged with 30 counts of wildlife possession when authorities collected 24 raccoons and six coyotes from his home and office. Despite Weber’s protests that the animals did not in fact have the rabies virus, the animals were put down for testing.
Weber declined to comment to Weld about the ongoing trial, but his attorney Alan Baty released the following statement: “Dr. William Weber has cared for animals for over 54 years. He has always made the well-being of those animals his first priority and would never expose any of his patients to dangerous diseases. Despite his five decades of demonstrated high quality care for animals, the State of Alabama recently seized animals in his care and killed them just to test them for rabies. None of the animals showed symptoms of rabies, and all of the ones old enough for vaccination had received a rabies vaccine.
“The State of Alabama now has confirmed through testing what Dr. Weber already knew; the animals did not have rabies. It is a tragic irony that in order to confirm the animals were healthy, the State killed them. Not only did the State take the animals and kill them, the State issued citations to Dr. Weber for possessing the animals. We look forward to a just resolution of those citations in court. Dr. Weber appreciates the support shown by his friends and clients.”
Gilbert said the state doesn’t issue permits for native species such as raccoons or badgers, but that licensed wildlife rehabilitators of these animals are regulated by the Department of Conservation and Fish and Wildlife Services. “Rehabilitators are not keeping these animals for the rest of their lives. They’re making decisions about taking an orphaned baby and allowing it to mature and then slowly integrating it back into its natural habitat,” she said.
Rehome, Not Rescue
Steffens, of Tigers for Tomorrow, said there are many misconceptions regarding exotic animals, including about the way sanctuaries and zoos acquire the animals. “People come in here and they think that we are pulling these animals out of the wild or that some cruel person went and pulled them out of the wild. I can pretty much guarantee, except for the foxes and the birds of prey which were wild and are non-rehabilitative, we’re probably between eight and 40 generations of [big cats] being born in captivity [in Tigers for Tomorrow],” she said “The majority of the cats that you see here have been bred for generations upon generations in the United States.”
Steffens said that while zoos do still take species out of the wild, there are many facilities, like Tigers for Tomorrow, that do not. She added that “zoos are not bad” for taking animals out of the wild but are acting according to the Species Survival Plan, a program developed to help ensure the survival and safety of selected species that are threatened in the wild.
The sanctuary, said Steffens, currently houses 171 animals, ranging from chickens to lions. Steffens said that not all of the animals have a sad backstory, “like some want to believe. I don’t even like to use the word ‘rescue’ anymore. I like to use the word ‘rehome.’ A lot of times people take ‘rescue’ and they hear ‘abuse’ and ‘neglect’ and ‘malnourished’ immediately, and that’s not always the case. So we like to use ‘rehome,’ and when you come here you’re not going to hear a lot of sad stories,” she said. She added that it is “more important to educate people.”
Steffens said that some rescue facilities embellish the backstories of their animals — making them sound worse than they are — in order to garner public support. That, she said, should not be necessary. “You’ve got to really go out and find out rather than believe everything that people put out there,” she added.
Kevin Chambers, executive director of the Feline Conservation Federation (FCF), credits many of the misconceptions about exotic animals to the media. Chambers added that some attacks on humans by animals are accidental. “You get these people that [have] raised these animals since they were a baby, and they get it in their head of, ‘Oh, they’ll never hurt me. They love me.’ And while they [the animal] may not mean to — I’ve been scratched by a cat before. Now imagine that cat weighs 800 pounds,” he said.
Officer Kyle Breece with the north precinct of the Birmingham Police Department said that, while the BPD does not receive many calls regarding exotic pet ownership, owners in the city are “typically really responsible. If someone owns a tiger — I doubt there’s someone that owns a tiger in Birmingham — but if they own a tiger, it’s not living in, like, an apartment. It has its own enclosure,” he said.
While Denaburg said that all animals, including servals like Jasper, are capable of aggression, he hasn’t had any worrisome confrontations. “A lot of people assume that all of these cats are eventually going to turn against you. I can’t even count how many people have said, ‘Oh, you’re an idiot. That cat [is] going to kill you when he grows up.’ And I mean, right now he’s a giant baby. I can still hold him and carry him around. He’s never shown a single sign of aggression towards me,” he said.
Another common misconception involves numbers, Steffens said. “For years and years and years, we all heard that fallacy: ‘Oh, there’s more tigers in backyards in Texas than in the wild.’ And the last time we did that census, it was not true, and I believe it won’t be true again,” Steffens said.
According to the data published in the 2016 Feline Conservation Federation census, approximately 76 big cats are currently housed at various zoos and sanctuaries throughout the state of Alabama, a significant drop from the 2011 census, which counted 106. The cats accounted for in the 2016 census included tigers, lions, cheetahs, jaguars, snow leopards, and cougars, while the 2011 census primarily tallied tigers, lions, cougars, and cheetahs. Sixty-five animals (primarily lions and tigers) were imported into the United States from other countries within the past five years.
Steffens said that the biggest misconception is that animals cannot live happily in captivity. “People should be judged on their individual care and love and dignity and respect that they give the animals,” she said. “The size of the enclosure is not what’s important. I’ve seen animals in small enclosures that are so very happy [and] they get a lot of attention from their keepers, and they’re just so healthy and happy and they’re well animals. And I’ve seen animals in big enclosures that are just not happy. So always be aware. Look at the animal. Don’t necessarily look at the size of what it’s living in.”
Steffens is convinced that not that many people want to own exotic pets like big cats. “There is a percentage that has them. But just simply by the world becoming more populated, zoning laws changing, state laws and regulations changing, it’s just not happening as frequently as it used to. And that’s a great thing.”
Not Your Typical Housecat
Denaburg, who also owns 11 non-poisonous snakes, said his fascination with exotic animals goes back as far as he can remember. The idea of becoming a serval owner, however, started seven years ago, when he worked at the Birmingham Zoo. He bought Jasper from a breeder in Illinois when the cat was six weeks old.
Despite Jasper’s physical differences from an average house cat, Denaburg said life with the serval is quite similar. “He is extremely inquisitive. I’ve had to what I call ‘serval-proof’ the house,” he said. “I no longer have any picture frames sitting on side tables; I don’t have any lamps. Really, anything that can be knocked over, I don’t have anymore. And soon [I’m] going to have to change the light fixture in [my] kitchen, because it’s a chandelier and Jasper loves to play with it.”
Playtime is an important aspect of Jasper’s routine, he said — the difference between a happy serval and a destructive serval. Denaburg said that whether or not an animal becomes violent or agitated depends on how often the animal is socialized. “If you have a serval in a zoo or a sanctuary that’s raised by its parents, even if the keepers go in there frequently, that’s not going to be enough to socialize a serval. You’re going to have to pull them at an early age and bottle-feed them to really imprint,” he said.
“I mean for the first, I’d say, eight to 10 months, it is just nonstop interaction. Otherwise, they are wild animals! I mean if you don’t spend enough time with them they will go to their wild nature. And at that point they can, I’ll just say, be much more difficult to deal with,” he added.
Denaburg said he spent approximately six weeks training Jasper to focus his energy on stuffed animals. “Every time I played with him he would start getting rough with my hand … and I would already have the stuffed animal in my other hand, so as soon as he got rough I would put the stuffed animal in there and soon he made the association that he only plays rough with the stuffed animals. And of course that means we go through hundreds of stuffed animals, but it’s much better than the alternative,” he laughed.
Denaburg said the biggest difference between Jasper and an average house pet is his diet, which consists mainly of raw meat. “Chicken is definitely his favorite, but he’s on a whole prey diet, so he has to get stuff other than chicken,” he said.
Whole prey, as its name suggests, means that the animal ingests every part of the animal it is eating, including the bones and organs. However, Denaburg said Jasper is a picky eater. “He will not eat literal whole prey. I’ve offered him full items and he just has no interest in it. But if I offer him, like, a drumstick, or just organs individually, he’ll eat those. So he eats everything he needs to get, he just doesn’t eat the actual prey item. So nothing like a wild serval, really.”
Jasper’s physical health is, Denaburg said, the top priority, but there are very few veterinarians in the Birmingham area willing to care for a serval. “The bigger issue is finding someone that’s qualified because servals are not the same as domestic cats. They, in my opinion, need someone who has serval experience, or at the very least big cat experience, and there’s a very short list of that in Birmingham,” he said.
“He does get some vaccinations. Obviously he’s required to have his rabies [shots] and the other normal cat vaccinations. He is a little more sensitive to vaccinations, so they have to be spread out. … Also, for example, there are certain anesthetics that you don’t use with them because it’s dangerous,” Denaburg said.
The Youngest Child
The experience of exotic pet ownership varies depending on the animal. Kandi Glover bought her pet ring-tailed lemur BuDa seven years ago when he was, like Jasper, six weeks old. Glover said that looking after BuDa is the same as “taking care of a set of two-year-old twins.” “[I] get up, change his diaper, feed him, of course, get up and ready for work. He’s very loving. He jumps all over the house from wall to wall [so] you can’t have anything hanging. But he loves to love. He purrs like a little kitten,” she said.
She even calls him her “youngest child.”
BuDa came from a breeder near Cullman, whom Glover found after months of online research. “I’ve always wanted a spider monkey. But then I did my research and totally changed my mind,” she said.
Glover said that BuDa has become more than a pet. “I have epilepsy,” she said. “We didn’t send him through any [special] training or anything, but the first time I had an episode he stayed with me and went and got my husband at the time.”
Basic training for BuDa, Glover said, was very similar to training a dog. “While we’re at work he stays in, like, the biggest possible of the dog kennels and he has ropes and hammocks to play with,” she said. “When we come home he’ll come out and run around. … He goes on a leash everywhere.”
“We wanted to litter train him, because of course we didn’t want to buy diapers for the rest of our life, but there wasn’t many options. We could have trained him on the potty or litter trained, but I just didn’t see that going well with him liking to eat everything,” she said.
BuDa is not a picky eater, although he does make choices. “He’s a vegetarian. For the first probably four years of his life he ate primate food and I had to order it online, [but] he’ll eat cereal, and he loves yogurt,” she said.
The average cost of a ring-tailed lemur from a breeder, Glover said, is $2,000. “People freak out over that, and I just say, ‘Think of how much people spend on pomeranians.’ It’s pretty much the same, except mine is cooler.”
What You’re Getting Into
A lemur, like any wild animal, can be destructive, whether on purpose or by accident. “Once BuDa reached maturity, he had a thing totally against females. He’s actually attacked my daughter and I,” said Glover. “But he’s gotten closer to us, and he lets us love on him again. If my ex and I are play fighting [BuDa] will interfere and go for him like a dog would.”
Denaburg said that with Jasper any destructive behavior is usually due to catlike play. “For Jasper specifically, if you wear clothes that are too flowy, like a long dress, he — it’s not aggressive — but he loves to play in blankets, … so he will run over and try to play with whatever you have that’s flowy. And that can sometimes end in a dress torn, which unfortunately has happened,” he said.
While she said she hasn’t encountered many negative responses to BuDa, Glover said she understands why people are apprehensive to accept animals like ring-tailed lemurs as pets. “When dogs and cats started being pets, you know those were outside animals. Those were wild. But you just need to know what you’re getting into before you do it,” she said.
What’s Best for the Animals
In March, Tigers for Tomorrow premiered their Big Cat Playground, a 2.5-acre area of land with a pool and jungle gym for the cats. Steffens said that each year the preserve gets more and more visitors throughout the park, including their educational programs, and that makes her hopeful for the future. “Our goal is to bridge that gap between humans and animals and to help people to better understand not only the animals that we have here in captivity but animals that are in the wild and that it’s so important to take care of all the species that are out there,” she said.
Steffens added that she worries about the declining numbers of endangered animals. But people don’t need to adopt a tiger to save the species, she said. “We just have a huge number of species every year become extinct in the wild, and that’s very, very sad because if we can’t save the animals … I really feel like, ‘What are we going to do with ourselves, and what are our children going to do in the future?’ You know, I would hate for my niece’s daughters and sons to never be able to see a live big cat. But at the same time there has to be regulations. They have to be taken care of well.
“Do I think all private owners are bad? No, I have seen one or two really incredible owners. But do I feel like private owners should live up to the same requirements, as far as safety, that we have to? Yes, absolutely. I think that they should have to be able to have a perimeter fence and the correct enclosure and the correct diet and the protocol if there is a disaster or a storm. I think those things you need to be able to do,” she said.
Owning an exotic pet, in any case, takes a commitment. “There are people who do excellent jobs and there are people who do terrible jobs,” Gilbert said. “And the people doing an excellent job, this is their focus and this is what they live for. And when we think about somebody that their boyfriend gets them a tiger cub for Valentine’s Day, are they trained? Are they prepared? Are they experienced? Are they knowledgeable? Are they able to make a commitment for decades?” said Gilbert.
“When people ask about getting a serval, I do always say that you need either prior experience or you should at least look into trying to find someone who has a serval and can talk to you to get you prepared,” said Denaburg. “Because a lot of people don’t know what they’re getting into, and that’s why so many servals end up in rescues. It’s not because they’re [wild] animals, it’s because the people didn’t know how big of a commitment it would be. They didn’t know how they were going to have to socialize them in the beginning, they didn’t know they were going to need an outdoor enclosure, they didn’t think that their serval would ever pee outside of a litter box. You know, stuff like that that you’re just going to have to expect.”
Because of that commitment, not everybody should even consider owning an exotic animal, even if the law allows it. “Everybody is always like, ‘I want one! I want one!’ but I deter people from doing it,” said Glover. “Unless you are a stay-at-home person — like, don’t work or anything — because they do require a lot of attention. … It takes a lot of time, and if you don’t have that time, then you don’t need to get one.”
For more information on House Bill 172, visit alisondb.legislature.state.al.us/alison/SESSBillStatusResult.ASPX?BILL=HB172&WIN_TYPE=BillResult
For more information on Tigers for Tomorrow visit their website at tigersfortomorrow.org.