By Jenny Neyman
They’re fluffy like a house cat. Purr like a house cat. Have the same whiskers and tail. Are just as likely to chase birds and mice, if given the opportunity. Are suckers for a good sunbeam and game of string, and love nothing more than a warm lap to curl up on and a good chin scratching.
As far as owners are concerned, they are house cats. But to state law and, by extension, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, they’re illegal to own in the state.
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 a standard, 10-pound housecat, to 20 or 30 pounds or more, and their body structure, facial features and coats have shapes and markings reminiscent of leopards and other wildcats.
Though they may look somewhat like miniature versions of the feral, feline predators stalking across the Serengeti or slinking through the jungle, exotic cats have the same mannerisms, personality, behaviors and temperaments as any house cat, owners say. But due to a quirk in state law regarding exotic animals, they’re illegal to own in Alaska.
“I can have a 400-pound alligator, but I can’t have a 12-pound Savannah cat. It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Joann Odd, of Ninilchik. “They’re just like a big, fuzzy house cat, and they’re not dangerous. I think these people are thinking we’re talking lions and tigers. I don’t think they understand we’re talking about 12-pound house cats.”
Odd is planning to petition the Board of Game to change the restriction on owning exotic cats during its next meeting cycle. She said she doesn’t own exotics herself, although if she could afford to buy one, she would. But she knows people in Alaska who do and decided to spearhead the petition effort, in part because she doesn’t own any exotics, so she doesn’t have to put herself or her pets at risk by being vocal about the issue, and in part because she thinks the restriction is, well, stupid.
“I just don’t think it’s a fair issue. I really resent Fish and Game having to be involved in that. When I call them about my bear problem and they tell me, ‘Well, too bad,’ I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute, now. Bears are a problem. They can hurt people. These cats are not going to hurt anybody.’” Odd said. “We’re talking about people’s pets here, and you know how people are like with their pets, they’re like their kids.”
State law restricts possession of exotic animals in Alaska. There’s a “clean list” of exempted animals that are allowable to possess without a permit, including standard 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 (yes, you can have an alligator), 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. Alaska has some of the tightest guidelines in the country regarding the import of domestic animals, in order to protect native species, said Rick Sinnott, Anchorage area wildlife biologist. Wording regarding the possession of exotic animals is specific and restrictive, so a species needs to be purposefully mentioned on the clean list for it to be allowed.
The ban on hybrid game animals was primarily meant to address wolf hybrids, Sinnott said, but when it was written, exotic house-cat breeds weren’t as widespread as pets, so they it wasn’t considered to exempted from the ban.
“The Board of Game made that law that just said ‘hybrid game animals,’ so any wild animal is a game animal, even if it’s not from Alaska. If it’s from someplace else, Canada or Africa, it is still a wild animal. That’s where we got crosswise with cats,” Sinnott said.
The issue has come up a few times in the last 10 years, Sinnott said, most notably in 2008 when an exotic cat escaped from its home in Anchorage and was picked up by Fish and Game. Biologists called Fish and Game headquarters, checked with permitters, the attorney general’s office and Alaska State Troopers, and all interpreted the law the same way.
“They all said, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t say cats are exempted, it just says hybrid game animals.’ That’s why we enforce it pretty strictly,” Sinnott said. “There’s no exception in the law, so we’re kind of stuck with that. Until the board comes up with an exception, or more than one, then we can’t allow them as enforcement people.”
So what does that mean for owners? Odd said she’s seen these cats entered in cat shows in Anchorage. She knows of people who have them. In her estimation, there may be as many as 600 exotic cats in the state. But it’s hard to know for sure. Either owners don’t realize they’re illegal or don’t want others to know they have exotic cats, for fear of having to give them up.
“I understand the unwillingness of people to be identified right now. They don’t know if storm troopers are going come to their door and say, ‘Give me your pets,’” Odd said.
Sinnott said it isn’t as dramatic as that. Yes, exotic cats are illegal to own in Alaska, but they wouldn’t be handled as severely as wolf hybrids. Illegal wolf hybrids are seized by the state and sent to shelters or kennels in Canada or the Lower 48, or euthanized if they’ve shown aggressive characteristics. With cats, Sinnott said he gave the one in Anchorage back to its owner and told her she needed to find a home for it out of state. But he didn’t go back to make sure she had sent it away. And he wouldn’t expect Fish and Game personnel to raid a home looking for illegal kitties.
“If I had nothing else to do I might go knock on a door. But I never have nothing else to do,” Sinnott said. “In the past what’s happened is they’ve basically gotten loose so they’re running around and someone catches them and then it’s like, ‘Well, what the heck is this?’ And then we find out and we kind of have our hands on it at that point. We give it back, but it’s like, ‘You’ve got to do something with this. You can’t have this cat.’”
Odd argues that exotic cats shouldn’t be considered game animals. The International Cat Association considers them to be domestic cats, same as any house cat, Odd said, and they’re allowed in cat shows around the world.
“Why classify these as a game animal? Certainly no one would go out and have a season on these. There are not that many that get loose. I certainly wouldn’t imagine anyone would ever go out and shoot a five-pound cat because it’s a hybrid game animal,” she said.
In order to change the classification, the Board of Game will need to be petitioned to add exotic cats to the clean list of allowed, domestic animals. It’s happened several times before, Sinnott said, including with ferrets and hedgehogs.
According to the regulation, the board can list an animal as allowed 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.
On the first criteria, exotic cats were bred for warmer climates, so they’re not designed to survive in the wild in Alaska, Odd said. Like other house cats, they may be able to get along in the wild, but they aren’t likely to run free, since owners pay anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 or more for an exotic cat.
“People who pay that kind of money for a pet are not going to willingly let it go or let it loose,” Odd said.
Breeders of exotic cats, especially the more expensive ones, require that kittens be spayed or neutered to control breeding. Even if an exotic cat hasn’t been fixed, the only common, indigenous wild feline in Alaska is a lynx.
“I hardly think a lynx would breed with a 12-pound house cat,” Odd said. “It would be dinner, it would not be a mate.”
As for the other criteria — reducing indigenous populations or transmitting diseases, exotic cats don’t pose any more threat than regular domestic cats, Odd said.
“Is it a danger to the natural species? If they get out they’d eat birds and mice. I say all cats will eat birds and mice if they get out,” Odd said.
Odd has started a Web site, http://www.savealaskascats.com, to network with other people in the state who are willing to help support a petition to Fish and Game.
“They’re adorable. I just don’t understand why Fish and Game has an issue with them. I don’t think any of those arguments will hold water,” she said.
Sinnott said Fish and Game is already considering asking the Board of Game to allow exotic cats.
“We’re looking toward change, too. We’re going to talk to the board and submit a proposal, I hope. I’m not trying to talk other people out of (submitting their own proposal), because it doesn’t hurt to have more than one. But we think it’s extremely difficult to enforce and may not be necessary at the level that it’s in law right now.”