‘I’m just devastated’: Owner of African cat must give up pet after escape

Servals, often mistaken for cheetahs or leopards, are illegal to own as pets in Georgia
Nala the serval.

Credit: Anna Fyfe

Credit: Anna Fyfe

Nala the serval.

The search for an exotic cat spotted near a Buckhead country club has come to an end, but the owner said she will be forced to give up her pet.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources said Thursday that a serval, a large cat native to Africa, had been located and taken to a temporary holding facility until it can be taken to a wildlife sanctuary. The cat was first reported on the loose June 30 near the Capital City Country Club after a woman said it came inside her house and jumped on her bed while she was sleeping.

The owner, Anna Fyfe, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via text that she’s from South Carolina, where it is legal to own servals as pets. Now living in Georgia to attend college, she said her pet — named Nala after the character from Disney’s “The Lion King” — usually stayed with her parents. Fyfe had brought the serval to her Georgia home when it escaped.

“The DNR did an amazing job at helping catch Nala and making sure everyone is safe, even thought she is just a kitty and is harmless,” Fyfe said. “They are not letting me keep her. 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.”

In a terse statement, the DNR said an investigation has been opened into the case, because it’s illegal to own servals in Georgia. But Fyfe said she has been told by investigators that no charges would be filed.

She said she brought Nala to Georgia for emotional support after a relationship ended.

“I wanted to bring (Nala) over to Georgia to stay with me because I couldn’t even sleep at night,” Fyfe said. “She really helped me get through everything ... I couldn’t have got through any of this without her.”

‘Not a normal house cat’

Three residents called Fulton County Animal Services on June 30 to report a large wild cat was in the area. Kristine Frank told the AJC the serval hopped in her bed after her husband left the door open to let their dog use the bathroom outside their Club Drive home.

“I just heard this thump in my bed, and I felt something land in my bed,” she said. “I opened my eyes, and there was this cat in my bed staring at me ... and I just kind of screamed to my husband that this is not a normal house cat.”

She initially assumed it was a bobcat, adding that she never suspected it could be a neighbor’s escaped exotic pet. Neither she nor her husband were injured, but he was able to take photos of the fleeing serval to provide to state authorities.

Frank’s daughter, a law student, connected them with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit that focuses on protecting animals through the legal system. Frank said she hopes the serval can find a new home — just not in a residential neighborhood.

This is a picture of the serval, which authorities searched for in early July.

Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

icon to expand image

Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

“This was very frightening, and I truly think that this cat needs to be in a (wildlife) sanctuary,” Frank said. “I feel like it would be better in a sanctuary rather than in someone’s home.”

Alicia Prygoski, senior legislative affairs manager for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, agreed. She said servals are smaller than other wild cat species, such as lions or tigers, but they can weigh about 30 pounds and are adept hunters.

She said servals typically aren’t aggressive unless they feel threatened, which is why she’s thankful nothing escalated inside of Frank’s home. Over the past 30 years, the American Legal Defense Fund has documented 400 incidents where wild cats have escaped and either injured or killed people.

“These are not the same as the domesticated cats that a lot of us share our homes with,” she said. “A situation like the one that occurred is very concerning, because you have a serval cat walking into someone’s home, which is an unfamiliar environment, interacting with unfamiliar humans.”

Nala’s future home

Fyfe said she understands why she has to give up Nala, but she doesn’t agree with the decision. She said she’s raised her pet since she was a cub, and that Nala had never had a violent incident.

“I think the DNR should return Nala back to (me) as long as she is taken back to South Carolina immediately,” Fyfe said. “It’s unfair to her to live out the rest of her life in a new environment.”

According to emails provided to the AJC, the Historic Brookhaven Neighborhood Association initially warned residents not to approach the serval, saying she could be dangerous. But after learning it belonged to Fyfe, subsequent emails said Nala is “a friendly, housebroken pet that has been declawed and won’t bite.”

A neighbor was able to capture Nala on Monday and returned her to Fyfe. Prygoski said she was dismayed to learn the serval was returned to her owner rather than authorities, because housing a serval in Georgia is illegal.

Mark McKinnon, spokesman for the DNR, said game wardens planned to pick the cat up sometime Thursday to take her to her new home, but he wouldn’t say where it would be.

“That is all I can release at this point since the case is still under investigation,” McKinnon said.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund has reached out to the DNR and offered to place the serval in an animal sanctuary in North Carolina.

What is a serval?

They are wild cats native to African savannahs. With black-spotted coats, long necks and long legs, they are often mistaken for leopards or cheetahs. Servals typically weigh about 30 pounds and can run up to 50 miles per hour.

Source: African Wildlife Foundation