By Jenny Neyman
When Joann Odd, of Ninilchik, discovered that exotic cats were outlawed in Alaska, she figured there was no good reason for the restriction. It was probably a silly oversight, she thought, an unintended byproduct of a protective game-management law written before exotic cats had become popular pets, prized for their wildcat appearances yet domestic pet personalities.
So she undertook a campaign to spread information about exotic cats in Alaska, in hope that the Board of Game will vote to allow the animals as pets in the state. As the board is set to meet this week in Anchorage, Odd is afraid her efforts will be for naught and exotic cats will remain illegal to possess in the state — and not just for no good reason, but because of outright incorrect ones.
Alaska has some of the tightest guidelines in the country regarding the import of game and exotic animals in order to protect native species. Wording regarding the possession of exotic animals is specific and restrictive, so a species needs to be purposefully placed on the “clean list” for it to be allowed.
Animals that are allowable to possess without a permit include domestic pets, like dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs and parakeets; barnyard-type animals, like horses, pigs, cattle, llamas, chickens and turkeys; and some more unusual critters, including nonvenimous reptiles, chimpanzees and one-hump camels. But game animals and hybrid game animals — a cross between a wild game animal and a domestic species — may not be possessed, imported or exported. The law is in particular a response to the issue of wolf hybrids and was written before most exotic cat breeds were even in existence. But since they weren’t specifically mentioned on the clean list, they aren’t allowed in Alaska.
In appearance, exotic cats, like bengals, Savannahs, chausies and charcals, still resemble the wild felines from which they were originally bred — Asian leopard cats, jungle cats and African wildcats, for example. They can range in size from 10 to 30 pounds or more, and their body structure, facial features and coats have shapes and markings reminiscent of leopards and other wildcats. In personality and behavior, owners say exotics are just like any domestic house cat.
“I tracked down some cats that have been here nine years, and there has not been one instance of any problems,” Odd said. “One of the game board members asked me, ‘How did all these cats get here knowing there is a law?’ The average person who read that regulation wouldn’t know they’re illegal. All it says is, ‘Any breed that’s listed’ — which would be cats — ‘that is a hybrid of a wild game animal.’ Now, who in their right mind would even consider that was their pet cat? Those people had no idea their cat was not legal here.”
Odd has spent months trying to share information about exotic cats. She started a Web site — www.savealaskacats.com — to coordinate with other exotic cat supporters in the state, involved The International Cat Association, which lists several exotic cat breeds as domestic, and co-authored a petition to the Board of Game to get the ban reversed. But it looks as though her efforts may be scratched, all because of a recommendation that the board turn down the petition to allow exotic cats in Alaska, prepared by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, that Odd says is based on incorrect information.
“Those people rely on what Fish and Game tells them about the issues,” Odd said. “But what they’ve told them about the issue are not valid arguments. It’s outright lies. But that’s all they’re going to see, except my five minutes of testimony I’m allowed to give.”
According to state regulation, the board can add an animal to the clean list if it meets five criteria — if it is not capable of surviving in the wild in Alaska, of breeding with and causing a genetic alteration of an indigenous species, of causing a significant population reduction of an indigenous species, of transmitting a disease to an indigenous species and does not otherwise pose a threat to the health and population of an indigenous species.
Fish and Game’s written recommendation to the board says hybrid cats run afoul of at least two of those criteria, and may violate more.
The recommendation says the cats can survive in the wild in Alaska:
“We anticipate that hybrid cats would be able to survive similar to or better than feral domestic cats. Feral domestic cats currently survive year-round in warmer coastal areas of the state and one feral Savannah cat is known to have survived the winter in the Anchorage area.”
That’s just not true, Odd said. First of all, exotic cat owners aren’t likely to allow their prized pets to roam free, since they cost thousands of dollars to purchase, she said. Even if they do get loose, they’re not suited to Alaska’s climate, said Jay Bangle, chair of The International Cat Association’s legislative committee.
The Anchorage Savannah mentioned is Simon the cat, which got away from his owner on Mother’s Day 2008 and was recaptured Nov. 7 — before winter set in, Odd said. Odd said she spoke to the cat’s vet, who said Simon was in bad shape when found and wouldn’t have lasted much longer. There has been no other evidence of an exotic cat surviving in the wild in Alaska.
Under the risk of interbreeding with native species, Fish and Game says it’s possible:
“There are unconfirmed reports of domestic cats hybridizing with bobcats, a close relative of the lynx and a species with which lynx can hybridize. If the species involved in the proposed hybrids can breed with domestic cats, hybrids may be able to breed with indigenous lynx.”
Bangle said it would be impossible for an exotic cat to breed with a lynx. All breeds of domestic pet cats are the descendants of Old World cats — meaning those originating from Europe, Asia and Africa, and originally the Middle East 10,000 years ago, she said. Exotics come from interbreeding Old World domestic cats and wildcats from Asia and Africa. Old World cats, whether they are regular, domestic house cats or exotics that are only a few generations removed from a wild parent, are not able to breed with New World cats — those found in North or South America, Canada and Alaska. Old World cats have 38 chromosomes while New World cats have 36, Bangle said. It’s similar to the difference between horses and donkeys that make them unable to produce fertile offspring, she said.
“There has never been an instance of any breeding between those two species of cats. Never, ever, ever. It has been attempted and it is actually genetically impossible,” Bangle said.
And the chances that an escaped exotic cat would breed with other domestic cats are extremely slim, Bangle said. The males of exotic hybrid breedings usually aren’t fertile until the fourth generation, and even at that, breeding exotics is challenging.
“It’s a very difficult thing and there are people who specialize in early generation cats because they are problematic,” Bangle said.
Fish and Game writes that it’s unknown, but possible that hybrids could cause a significant reduction in the population of native species:
“Because of their large size and wild ancestry, hybrids likely have greater interest and ability to hunt compared with domestic cats.”
Odd said she doesn’t think that’s true, since hybrids are not suited to being outdoor cats in Alaska. And if Fish and Game wants to argue that exotic cats shouldn’t be allowed in the state because they might kill a native creature, then all domestic cats should banned by that logic, she said — and dogs, while they’re at it.
For disease transmission and exotics posing a threat to the health of indigenous species, Fish and Game writes that it’s possible. Exotic cats could carry and transmit diseases and parasites, with rabies being of particular concern, since no rabies vaccines are licensed for use in wild animals or hybrids, the recommendation states.
“In other words, the effectiveness of domestic cat rabies vaccine in hybrids is unknown, and vaccinating hybrids likely provides a false sense of security regarding this fatal disease. This is one of the major reasons why proposals to add wildcat hybrids to the Clean List should be rejected.”
Bangle said it is technically true there is no rabies vaccine licensed for use in exotic cats, but there’s also no evidence that the domestic cat rabies vaccine doesn’t work in exotics.
“There’s not been one instance, not one, where one of these cats was vaccinated and then got rabies,” she said. “The vaccine essentially is an identical vaccine used in dogs, cats, ferrets, raccoons. Zoos usually vaccinate all of their animals — lions, tigers and everything else — with it. Empirical studies are that these cats are equally protected as all the rest.”
Bangle said that conducting a challenge study to specifically prove the vaccine’s effectiveness on exotics would be cruel to cats and financially prohibitive.
A challenge study can cost $25,000 to fund, Bangle said. Researchers would need 40 to 50 exotic kittens, would vaccinate half of them and give them all rabies. Then the kittens would be killed and their brains dissected to see which ones developed rabies.
“People don’t want to donate kittens that are going to be killed,” Bangle said. “It just goes against everything we believe in as cat lovers. To be honest, it’s pointless.”
Odd said she tried calling several offices of Fish and Game in Anchorage, to ask who wrote the recommendation, what information the author based it on and why it is allowed to pass what she says is faulty research on to the Board of Game as fact.
“Someone should have looked at it and said, ‘Wait a minute. Do you have any substantiation for these things being said?’ And apparently nobody did,” Odd said.
She said she also finds it interesting that of the 30 proposals going before the board this week that were submitted by the public, Fish and Game didn’t recommended any for board adoption, yet the 22 changes proposed by Fish and Game were all recommended for adoption.
“I don’t think the public is being heard here. All their proposals are going before the board, and I can see that they might have a wish that their ideas are accepted. But surely out of 30 proposals submitted by the public, I would think at least one of those would be recommended for approval,” Odd said.
Kristy Tibbles, executive director of the Alaska Board of Game, said proposals submitted by the public are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“The department-submitted proposals, obviously they’re going to support those proposals. And then they go through all the other proposals, make comments either for, opposed, amend or no recommendation if it’s an allocation issue. … It just all depends on the issue,” Tibbles said.
Odd spoke with Dale Rabe, deputy director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, who said any incorrect information in the recommendation was unintentional.
“(Board recommendations) are vetted and reviewed internally, but as you might imagine, an issue like this is not necessarily the forte of any of the folks that we have on staff,” Rabe said.
Rabe contacted the president of the American chapter of TICA to request information, and said he intends to present what he has found regarding exotics to the board.
“Joann should be proud of herself for her dedication to this cause. She has brought it to my attention as a bigger issue that warranted more investigation and we have done some of that, and so we’re doing our best to try and be fair to her and others that she represents in trying to put something before the board,” Rabe said.
“I’m basically responsible for the process and to make sure everybody has a fair hearing and it’s up to the board to make hard decisions. But I believe that only good decisions can be made when all the information is brought forward, so we have been working on trying to meet that goal.”
Rabe said there are larger issues to consider than just the five criteria. It’s the issue of hybrids in general.
“The term ‘hybrids,’ that’s a very charged word in management circles,” he said. “We have been fighting issues for a number of years about crossbreeding dogs to wolves. That has precipitated a lot of discussion about hybrid wild animals. … We have some folks who are very concerned about opening the door to the notion of hybrid animals being allowed into Alaska and that potentially having implications to issues that have not been resolved in regards to hybrid wolves.
“So, to the extent that the cat people have declared these things hybrid cats and they advertise them in the paper, that sort of sends up a red flag to the department that we are getting into an area that is very sensitive to managers.”
Rabe said the board will need to discuss whether exotic cats should be considered domestic cats or wild animals, and where the line between wild and domestic lies.
“People advertise ‘hybrid,’ because it brings a higher value, there’s something exotic and kind of really unique about that. And, in fact, there may be some behavioral traits of the animal that make them undesirable as pets because they do have some of those instincts as part of their genetics,” Rabe said.
Odd said she’s willing to have the petition modified to ask for an allowance for just exotic cats recognized as domestic by TICA, which are bengals, Savannahs and chausies. Bangle said TICA follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for deciding what breeds to consider domestic.
That may be a workable solution, if the board considers those breeds to be domestic, but Rabe said he has no control over the board’s decision.
“I understand people are cat lovers and they’re very adamant and we’re trying to find a solution that can accommodate the fact that legitimate, recognized breeds can be covered under existing regulation. If they have papers to back it up and they stop using the term ‘hybrid’ and can stay away from those issues, then a lot of this stuff really might be much less of an issue,” he said.
“Frankly I think the board is going to have a very interesting time trying to figure out what they think is the right answer to this problem.”