Mon, May 16, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Claws out over hybrid felines

The half-domestic-half-wild Savannahs fetch a pretty penny but are illegal in much of the US

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Savannahs, like this one in Greenwich Village, are illegal in several US states. Darjeerling out for a stroll in New York.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Darjeerling and Bunnicula are two kittens who prefer shrimp cocktails and steak frites to pet food. They sleep on Burberry beds in their Greenwich Village apartment and wore matching crystal-studded collars until a few weeks ago, when they chewed off all the stones.

They live a life of luxury, to be sure, but it is life on the lam.

They are outlawed in New York City, members of a new designer breed growing in popularity called the Savannah, an offspring of a wildcat -- the African serval -- and the domestic house cat.

"If I have to move to New Jersey to keep these cats, I will," said their owner, a 29-year-old hedge-fund analyst who equates life in downtown Manhattan with life itself. "That's how much I love them," she said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity.

The cats -- which can cost from US$4,000 to US$10,000 -- are visually striking with their long necks and oversized ears, and they can be intimidating. They look like little leopards and grow to more than twice the size of normal cats. They love to leap and splash in water, and they don't mind taking long walks on a leash. Some people describe them as dogs in cats' bodies.

"More than ever, everyone's been calling me about the Savannah, and I'm like, `What's going on?'" said Bash Dibra, an animal trainer in New York whose sessions, at US$300 to US$500 an hour, are often the last resort for people who cannot control their Savannahs.

Taking care of them on the sly -- as New Yorkers must -- can be tricky. Across the US, however, the Savannah is not always illegal: A hodgepodge of city and county regulations and state laws govern pets that are part wild.

HARD TO KEEP

In New York authorities do not scour the streets for such pets. Owners are often in hiding from their neighbors who might report them. For instance Darjeerling and Bunnicula rarely appear outdoors in the light of day. In an apartment on the Upper East Side, another Savannah named Tiger is tended by the household help in the middle of the night. And Kara LoDolce, who recently moved to a new town on Long Island with her Savannah, Mazi, will not even tell her friends where she lives.

"It's hard to have, hard to keep," said Dibra, who calls that part of the Savannah's appeal. It makes it "more mystical to own," he said.

New York City banned ownership of any wild or part-wild animals long ago. The state followed suit last year. Bethany Schumann, an aide to Assemblyman Paul Tonko, a Democrat from Amsterdam, who sponsored the state law, said her office had heard from hundreds of angry cat owners for and against the Savannah in the last couple of years.

"For whatever reason, these cats are cats many people would like to have," she said. "There is some sort of wow factor to the 35-pound cat (16kg) in your Manhattan

apartment."

But they come with too many unknowns, she added. "We have no idea what this cat's habitat should be," Ms Shumann said.

The cats are growing in popularity elsewhere in the country too. It is hard to estimate exactly how many Savannahs are kept as pets. Their numbers are surely small compared with the average cat. But animal trainers, veterinarians and pet-business owners say they are seeing the Savannah more frequently, while they were rare five years ago.

In Chicago, Cynthia King, a Savannah owner and breeder, said: "I had to wait two years to get my kittens, and I had cash I was waving in the air. For a first-generation pet, we're talking a US$5,000 minimum expenditure. That's how popular they are."

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