Savages in suburbia: They're lean and mean but will the half-wild cats that are the latest trendy pets turn our gardens into a jungle?


My first thought is that I must have come to the wrong place. It's true that the Lincolnshire air is filled with the sound of catsong - a feline round of gentle yowling and miaowing.

And as I walk down the drive of the White House Cattery, I can detect, among the scent of crisping autumn leaves and earth, the feral smell of tom cat.

But considering they are savannah cats - a cross between a serval (an African wildcat that resembles a cheetah) and a domestic moggie - the gorgeous creatures with beautiful, spotted brown and black pelts that are slinking round the large cages in front of me just aren't as big as I had anticipated. 

And they don't look nearly frightening enough.

A snarling Serval

Wild thing: A snarling serval (Felis serval)

'Oh, they're such loves,' says the aptly named Jacky Bliss, who, as well as running a boarding cattery, breeds the more exotic savannahs and Bengals (a cross between a domestic and an Asian leopard cat).

'I'd trust any of my boys with anyone. None of these cats have any aggression at all. I have a newborn grandson and he could go into the cages with any of these. They'd recognise him for what he was and they'd protect him.'

Jacky, 55, is a youthful and well-turned-out grandmother, with a calm voice, kind eyes and a soothingly symmetrical face.

She does not strike you as an obvious cat person. Not, that is, until you take a closer look at her lapel and see that she is wearing a tasteful cat badge, or notice the bit of cling film sticking out at the bottom of her sleeve, which turns out to be there to protect the tender skin on a brand new set of inky cat footprints that march up her forearm.

'It's a tattoo. I'm old enough to do what I want now without being a bad influence on my children. And it hurt like hell - don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise.'

Bengal cat

Bengal cats like this kitten are the most common type of supercat in the UK

I've come to see Jacky because cats like hers have been causing something of a rumpus of late.

Breeders are reporting a clamour of demand from ordinary people wanting to own so-called supercats - defined as domestic breeds crossed with larger African or South American wildcats.

In this country, the most common kind of supercat is the Bengal, but it looks set to be overtaken by the more controversial savannah, and there is talk of introducing the safari (domestic crossed with South American Geoffroy's cat) and the caracat (domestic crossed with a caracal, a territorial wildcat found across Africa and the Middle East).

But not everyone is keen on seeing the nation's cat-flaps opening and slamming at the behest of a pride of super-athletic and, according to some, feral supercats.

In Australia, the RSPCA has sought to ban imports of savannah cats on the grounds that 'it would be a terrible mistake that could prove disastrous for native wildlife'.

Over here, the RSPCA is equally circumspect, warning that savannahs 'could prove dangerous' and adding: 'We're also concerned as to whether the needs of such an animal can be met by giving it the same care as an ordinary cat.

'Servals live in the African savannah and travel several kilometres at night in search of game birds, rodents and even small antelopes. Providing an environment that will meet the needs of this large hybrid is likely to prove extremely difficult, particularly in an average family home.'

Cats Protection also has concerns about the savannah's temperament. 'Any new wildcat hybrid is likely to retain traits related to its wildcat ancestry.

The more wildcat genes present, the more likely the cat will behave like a wildcat, particularly when it finds itself in a stressful situation.'

Not to mention its size, 'They're much bigger than domestic cats - typically weighing 22-33lb, as opposed to 8-11lb.'

There's no doubt that first-generation savannahs, which have half-serval and halfmoggie genes, aren't the sort of creature your granny might have sleeping on the hearth or leave roaming the neighbourhood at night.

Under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976, it isn't even legal to keep one of these without a licence.



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It's certainly the case that the combination of wild and domestic blood produces magnificently beautiful creatures, with long legs and bodies.

'Look at her nose,' says Jacky, showing me a litter of seven cute little spotted kittens snuggling round their disdainful mother.

'Her nose is very good. Savannahs should have almost a pointy face, and where their nose leather rounds into their nose, there should be a puffiness.

'You don't get that in domestics. It comes from the wildcat and that's one of the features we're trying to keep as we develop the breed.

'The tall ears are important, too. They should be rounded with a wide base. And of course we're looking for good definition in the spotting - black spots on a pale background.'

I can't help noticing that these cats are doing something I would never expect of a normal cat. As we approach, they come to look at us.

Nor do they just saunter over and stare placidly out. With an athleticism and muscular power that far outweighs that of an ordinary moggie, they fling themselves several feet into the air on to the grill of their cage and hang on, bodies extended, front and back paws gripping the metal bars, observing us curiously with gleaming pale cyan or sea-green eyes.

'They're interested in what's going on,' says Jacky. 'And yes, they can just spring up. They don't have to go on to their hind legs and push like an ordinary cat, they can just spring - and they can jump on to an 8ft or 9ft high roof, no problem. A moggie couldn't get up there.'

It's when they are at full stretch that they begin to look rather large. One of the Bengals, in particular, is enormous - a St Bernard of a cat with especially luminous eyes (hence its name, Glacier).


The caracal, a fiercely territorial medium-sized cat ranging over the Middle East and Africa, is being crossed with domestic cats by breeders to produce hybrids

The savannahs aren't quite so big and have a less impressive pelt (they are merely spotty, whereas the Bengals are rosettaed, like a leopard). But in their leaner bodies and slinking gait you can far more easily imagine the ancestor who strode hungrily around the African plains.

Jacky - who describes herself as 'catless all my life until I got married' - has been keeping Bengals since 2000.

It was two years ago, in 2007, that she first saw photographs of a savannah and was so besotted that she flew out to Oklahoma to meet some.

Soon she had bought some from an American cat farm and brought them back to the village of Foston near Grantham.

'Don't ask me how many I've got. Everyone wants to know. I've got no idea. Maybe about 35 savannahs and Bengals.'

She points out that it is important to distinguish between early and later generations of savannahs, because the percentage of wild genes is gradually diluted.

She takes me to meet two-year-old Ecstasy, her largest savannah who, when he stretches up on his hind legs, easily reaches halfway up my thigh with his front paws.

Unfortunately, while he is happy to have me in his cage, his disposition changes when I pick him up.

'He's a bit skittish today,' says Jacky, with some understatement as I struggle to contain two squirming armfuls of very heavy cat.

'What you need to do is grab him by the scruff of his neck. That's it. Take a nice, big handful of skin and massage it. Really hard.

'Don't tickle or stroke, like you would with a normal moggie. Savannah cats like more pressure than ordinary moggies, so really get in there and knead firmly. That'll calm him down.'

Unfortunately, I am determinedly kneading when there is a minor incident. Ecstasy judges that another feline has come too close. He cranes his jaw wide open and gives a loud, menacing, hissy snarl.

There's a whirl of claws, a pistoning of long, urgent limbs, more flashing of teeth than I am comfortable with (I'm sure I feel them close for a moment round my finger, though he doesn't bite) and before I know it, Ecstasy is on the ground, leaving me with a hole in my sleeve and a slightly scratched hand.

It's certainly no more damage than a bad-tempered moggie might have inflicted. All the same, it does make me feel slightly nervous - the stretch on that jaw was quite alarming.

Perhaps, Jacky suggests, we should go and meet a kitten, Tribal, who at four months is already the size of a normal cat and mercifully sweet-tempered.

'Savannahs are quite manic,' says Jacky. 'That's what they should be like. A pain in the neck. If you don't want something that's an impact on your life, don't get a savannah.'

In the hands of the right owners they will, I suspect, make beautifully behaved pets. I'm just not sure that I'd want to live next door to one that wasn't being well cared for.

A neighbour that can leap 8ft in the air with outstretched claws? Even in the wilder parts of West London, it's a scary prospect.

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