I would like to address some of the statements I have found on the web and in proposed ban bills portraying servals and other small wild felines as unpredictable and dangerous creatures. This is a clear case of “what you don’t know you will fear.” First of all, I would like to clarify for everyone that we are talking about tame, hand-raised pets bred in the United States. It’s not like you take a trip to Africa, rope yourself a serval, and drag it home hissing and spitting!
In his best-selling book Fear Less, 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 assuaging public anxiety than they are to reducing risk.” Ban laws are a prime example of an action that may ease anxiety, but fail to make the nation safer.
By saying that tame wild cats are “extremely unpredictable and dangerous creatures,” people show their lack of understanding of animal behavior. These statements are wild exaggerations of the reality. Even wild animals in-situ (i.e. roaming untamed in the wilderness) do not behave in a dangerous, unpredictable fashion. Every animal has species-specific behavior patterns. 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 greatly different from domesticated animals. For example, the pattern of naturally occurring behaviors in wolves and domestic dogs is virtually identical. A poorly socialized domestic dog with a careless or un-informed owner can be far more “dangerous” than a serval or a 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 and sometimes kill us. Statistics suggest that between 2 and five million dog bites occur yearly. In fact, during the five-year period between 1989 and 1994, domestic dogs killed 45 children. Why doesn’t this sad figure shock us more deeply?
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that during a similar length of time, 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 maltreatment and child abuse homicide (U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1995).
To further 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 fatalities due to dog bites, a child is statistically safer in the presence of the average pet dog than with its own family! The number of children murdered each year by their own parents and guardians overwhelmingly overshadows 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 injury to a human being. Every animal can be dangerous, and every human can be dangerous. One thing I teach my dog behavior clients 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 of humans will react with violence when sufficiently provoked.
However, these cats are certainly no more inherently dangerous than a domestic dog of comparable size. In fact, they are probably safer than domestic dogs; there has never been a report of a serval killing a human being, and their owners are generally very responsible about keeping them controlled.
Whether a dog, a person, or an exotic cat eventually injures someone depends on an uncertain balance of genetics, temperament, environment, and the unique circumstances they find themselves in.
Horseback riding is an example of a far more hazardous animal-related activity. In fact, many stables and equine event centers post signs informing patrons that participation in equine activities is inherently dangerous. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 1218 people died while riding an animal between 1983 and 1994.
Horses have been known to viciously attack and kill their handlers and even people entering their pastures. A single kick from a horse can cause serious injuries or death. Horses are so powerful that even the strongest person stands no chance of restraining one if it is determined to break loose. When frightened, they flee and can easily trample one to death. Yet, horseback riding remains a popular youth sport.
Why doesn’t the neighbor’s 1200 pound horse or his Great Dane inspire as much fear as his cougar? I think two factors are involved: fear of the unknown and fear of predators. One of man’s most primal fears is that of being eaten by a wild animal, of being the hunted rather than the hunter. Police canine units are so effective in subduing violent individuals that officers report that criminals are often more afraid of a dog than a gun. Offenders are more willing to risk death than a non-fatal bite from a German Shepherd.
Horses and dogs are deeply familiar to us; we’ve lived with them for centuries, watched them on TV, read cute and fuzzy stories about them, and associate them with companionship and service. When one happens to attack or kill us, we see it as an anomaly.
We know little of exotic cats through direct experience; for most of us, exposure is limited to nature programs emphasizing their killing power and the occasional sensational news article announcing the mauling of some hapless zoo employee. When you think about it, it comes as no surprise that we develop a disporportionate fear of these animals.
The text of a failed Oregon ban bill stated “It is almost impossible for an exotic animal to adapt to traditional household settings” and that “Exotic animals are by nature wild and dangerous and do not adjust well to captivity.” These statements are both contradicted by the many thousands of examples of exotic companion animals living healthy, happy lives with Americans nationwide.
I would challenge anyone who truly believes those words to observe my serval Sirocco as he greets me with ecstatic purring and rubs against my legs when I come home from work, and then to watch him curl up beside me purring and licking my face as we watch a movie together. This is not rare; in fact it is typical of the experiences of the majority of exotic cat owners. This cat is as much a member of my family as the domestic dogs and cats you yourself may have lived with and loved.
The failed Oregon HB 3065 stated, “This 2003 Act being necessary for the immediate preservation of the 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 being caused by the ownership of exotic animals. I assure you that you will find none. The number of people in the general public killed by escaped exotic cats in the past decade, across the entire United States, is believed to be zero. This includes not only small felines like servals, caracals, and bobcats but also lions, tigers, and cougars.
Now turn your attention to how much death and destruction has been caused by drunken drivers, parole violators, shoddy building contractors and even catholic priests. Shouldn’t we as a country focus our efforts on legitimate public safety threats, rather than discriminating against the safe and legitimate activities of the citizens?
These bills are redundant. There are already laws in place providing 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 to punish those whose animals harm or otherwise disturb members of the public and to provide restitution to those who have been harmed. The extremely low number of incidents involving exotic animals proves the effectiveness of these current laws.
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