Lawrence Bates, COO of the Wildheart Animal Sanctuary shares his thoughts with BIAZA on our campaign to ban hybridizing domestic and wild cats in the UK.

When we first heard about the rescue of two Serval kittens from a house in France we knew we had to step in to give them a new home at our sanctuary here on the Isle of Wight. What we didn’t know at the time was how much these two cats would do to shine a spotlight on the relatively unheard-of practice of hybridizing wild cats with domestics, fuelling the vanity of owners who crave exotic new breeds.

Tafkap and Xirus as they are called were smuggled out of the Czech Republic at an early age and illegally sold to a private owner in France. When discovered by authorities in an apartment bathroom and bedroom they had deformed and broken bones, were malnourished and terrified. Still only six weeks old they were seized and taken to the rescue centre AAP in Holland. There they started their rehabilitation and it was at this stage that we became involved and started to uncover the extent of the Serval pet trade and hybrid cat problems around Europe.

Servals are of course the foundation species for Savannah cats, a hybrid cat that was recognized in 2001 as a new breed. These cats are increasingly popular as pets around the world, with celebrity owners such as Justin Bieber driving interest amongst their millions of followers and the rich and famous using them as a status symbol of wealth, hardly put off by their £20,000 price tag.

Quite surprisingly it is perfectly legal to not just own a Serval in the UK, but to breed it with a domestic cat to produce these Savannah hybrids. This practice is a wholly unregulated one, with little to no legislation covering standards of care, welfare or enclosure size. Furthermore, the trade in these animals is out of control. Dozens of Facebook sites and hundreds of ads advertise kittens for sale across the UK. From what we have seen, these sites are in breach of the few regulations that do exist to monitor sales, with no licence number being displayed in the adverts and no cross checks of buyers or breeder taking place.

This in turn leads to hundreds of rescue cases appearing as people discover that a wild animal or its closely related offspring do not make for good pets. Battersea and Cats Protection have reported a surge in hybrid cats being dropped off at their centres, as the wild nature of these animals makes them unmanageable.

Just before Christmas an advert appeared on one Facebook site advertising Serval kittens for sale and for people to PM them for details. One wonders if the public would take notice if they were tiger cubs? Different species but the same sentiment.

It’s not just the UK either, the trade is fuelling a huge surge in rescues across Europe. Before 2020, AAP reported an average of only 1 medium sized felid rescue a year, in 2020 this leapt to 20 rescues and in 2021 this was trending towards 40. An obvious an upward trend with the large price tag driving illegal and illicit activity which inevitably leads to Servals suffering.

So why does the UK, a country that espouses to be leading the charge in animal welfare, fall so far behind others when it comes to cross breeding a wild animal with a domestic. After all Australia and many states in the US have banned this breed for the danger it poses to people, wild native species (they are prolific hunters) and the Serval population themselves. Well, it seems to be that this has quite simply fallen through the cracks.

That is why Tafkap and Xirus became ambassadors for our SERVIVAL campaign, which calls on the UK government to ban the hybridising of exotic felids with domestics. Now the spotlight has been shone on this subject, it is clear there is wide ranging support for it with several national newspapers and TV programmes adding their voices to end this practice. In addition, the public outcry to a Premier League footballer kicking their pet cat provides further reassurance that our country is after all a nation of animal lovers.

We are pleased with the support we have received so far and are talking to MPs and Peers from all sides of the divide, who are lending their voice to our campaign. We’ve even had endorsement for a private members bill on the issue, calling on the government to push new legislation through. And with meetings lined up with DEFRA our hope is that following the success within the Kept Animals Bill to end the suffering of primates in the UK, similar tough legislation, which includes a ban on cross breeding, can be extended to felids.

In the meantime Xirus and Tafkap have settled in well here and remain oblivious to the commotion they are causing.

If you would like to learn more about the campaign or to sign the petition, please visit www.servival.uk

By Lawrence Bates,

CEO of the Wildheart Sanctuary, Isle of Wight