Serval on the loose: Can you legally own exotic cats in Georgia?

Recent wildcat escape in Buckhead highlights state regulations
Nala the serval.

Credit: Anna Fyfe

Credit: Anna Fyfe

Nala the serval.

An African wildcat recently escaped in a quiet Buckhead neighborhood, giving a sleeping resident quite a wake-up call and prompting a multi-day search.

The animal, a serval, was eventually captured and returned to its owner, who was forced by state authorities to surrender her pet. Georgia law prohibits hundreds of wild animal species, including most exotic cats, from being owned as pets, so the serval will eventually end up at a state-approved wildlife sanctuary.

While the Netflix documentary “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” brought exotic cat ownership to mainstream attention last year, in Georgia, there’s a long list of wild animals prohibited as pets and servals are on that list.

Anna Fyfe, the serval’s former owner, said she brought it from South Carolina, where ownership of servals is allowed, to Georgia where she now lives. Fyfe, who said she’s a student at the University of Georgia, also appears to be a social media influencer under the name “misslambodoc,” a reference to Lamborghini vehicles. Her Instagram has more than 54,000 followers, and her TikTok has more than 120,000 followers. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

She previously said she understood state authorities were just doing their job but was upset she couldn’t take her serval, named Nala, back to South Carolina. Instead, she’ll have to visit her at a wildlife sanctuary like any member of the public.

“They are not letting me keep her,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week after Nala escaped near Capital City Country Club and entered a neighbor’s home, jumped on a bed and frightened a sleeping woman. “They are taking her away to a sanctuary — I completely understand, they’re only doing their job. I’m just devastated because Nala is my baby.”

This is a picture of the serval, which authorities are trying to find.

Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

icon to expand image

Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

How does Georgia distinguish what is and isn’t allowed? Can your average pet owner try to become a wild animal rescuer?

All of those answers are available through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which regulates exotic animal permits and wildlife sanctuaries. The DNR is also the agency handling Fyfe’s case, which is an ongoing investigation. DNR spokesman Mark McKinnon told the AJC on Wednesday there are no updates on the investigation or where Nala will be placed.

What is legal?

The DNR’s website has a lengthy list of all the exotic animals that can not be kept as pets in Georgia. The list includes hundreds of animal species, varying from monkeys, elephants, hawks, crocodiles, piranha and cobras.

The agency specifically points out that most exotic cat hybrids are not legal in Georgia, and neither are wolf hybrids.

For any of these animals to legally be in Georgia, they must be in the care of a permit-holding wildlife rehabilitator. To get a permit, a resident must pass a 100-question exam and maintain a state-inspected wildlife facility.

There are multiple permitted facilities across the state, including some in metro Atlanta. Yellow River Wildlife Sanctuary in Lilburn houses more than 30 species of wild animals, including a serval. The serval named Simba — a name inspired from Disney’s “The Lion King” like Nala — was donated to the sanctuary from a Buckhead owner.

“It is possible to own a cross-breed of a serval cat and a domestic cat, which is called a Savannah cat, as a pet (with the proper permits),” the sanctuary’s website said. “Simba was kept as a pet but is not a Savannah cat like the owner thought he was.”

What is ethical?

While Georgia’s exotic animal laws are among the more restrictive in the Southeast, wild animal regulation has been controversial for decades across the country.

Alicia Prygoski, senior legislative affairs manager for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said wild animal escapes often don’t end as peacefully, such as Nala’s capture in Buckhead on July 5. In 2017, a Bengal tiger was shot and killed in Henry County after escaping a circus transport truck and attacking a dog.

“Wild cats escaping from private homes does happen more frequently than one might think,” Prygoski previously told the AJC. Over the past three decades, more than 400 incidents where wildcats have escaped and either injured or killed people have been documented in the U.S., she added.

Her organization, which focuses on protecting animals through the legal system, is lobbying for federal legislation to ban private ownership of wildcats as pets. The effort is called the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which has the endorsement of celebrities including Joaquin Phoenix and Glenn Close.

“It’s because of incidents like this, where wildcats are escaping into the community,” Prygoski said of the law proposal. “The legislation would protect both the big cats and community members who have to deal with escaped wildcats.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund reached out to the DNR and offered to place Nala at a wildlife sanctuary in North Carolina. As of Wednesday, Prygoski said they have not received an answer.

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