Serval

Leptailurus serval

Order: Carnivora

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Servals are ground-dwelling cats but do enjoy resting in high places, such as hammocks or platforms. They have poor balance, so make sure branches or ramps leading to such places are fairly wide. Servals can also easily jump up to and down from areas six or more feet above the ground. They need floor space as well for walking around. They do not have a very thick coat and, like most cats, enjoy a heat source in cool weather.

Diet Requirements

  • Obligate carnivores; feed appropriate carnivore diet, of which mice can be a part. High-value reinforcement can include hard-boiled egg whites, canned chicken or canned chicken juice, bone marrow, fish, blood or bloodsicles, and sometimes even grapes, melon, or papaya. Check with your nutritionist.
  • Can be fed whole prey items such as mice, chicks, quail and rabbit – all high reinforcers.

Veterinary Concerns

Notes on Enrichment & Training

  • Trimming servals’ nails can increase safety of handlers and guests, should the serval try to scratch or swat. Here is one way to trim nails on free-contact servals. Remove the marrow from the center of a 3″ section of beef femur or other shank bone so that it is a hollow tube. Fill with a favored food item, such as ground meat mixed with bone marrow. Slowly push the food through the bone, so that the serval bites at the food coming out of the end (use a leather glove to hold the bone, this gives grip and protects against claws). A bone is used because other types of tubes (like large plastic syringes) can break if the serval bites them. Meanwhile, a second person picks up the front paws and quickly trims the nails. Prior desensitization to touch on the feet can help with this part.
  • Training a station is a very helpful tool. Use this station to attach a collar, move around enclosure, trim nails and for presentations. We can ask the serval to mark, have a second person attach collar and crate all with direction of external first person. We use the same technique to trim nails, first person feeds for calm behavior on the mark while the second person trims the nails.

Programmatic Information

Tips on Presentation

  • Posing the serval with a sit-stay allows for photos. Servals can take photos next to guests if properly desensitized and trained. Having the serval on a table or box facing forward with the guest to the side and slightly behind the serval will keep guests out of paws’ way.
  • Training the serval to jump to a lure, or a ball on a pulley, can demonstrate their jumping ability and amaze the guests.
  • Having tall stumps or platforms for the serval to jump up onto will also show jumping.
  • A vertical pole wrapped with coarse rope can be used to demonstrate a scratching behavior.
  • An empty refrigerator drawer (clear) filled partway with water can be used to demonstrate a fishing behavior. Drop pieces of egg white, fish, or other solid food in.
  • A 3″, clear, acrylic tube about 14″-18″ long with a stopper in one end can be used to demonstrate a burrow-hunting behavior. Drop egg white into the bottom and have the serval reach in to get it out. Either have a handle on the end or grasp the end but watch your hands – until the serval gets the hang of it, he could scratch at the outside and get your hand. See nail-trim behavior above.
  • A tub that is deep enough for several inches of water can be used to demonstrate fishing behavior. Our serval does well with alternating between going to a box to demonstrate jumping and being asked to fish in the tub. This works well for auditorium style presentations at schools as well as training demonstrations on grounds.

Tips on Handling

  • As with any cat, patience is required to work servals. A calm demeanor can be helpful – servals don’t really like to be hustled about too much.
  • Some servals can be affectionate with some people, usually those who raised them. This will often be demonstrated by rubbing against the person’s legs, fluffing up tail and back fur, and meowing. This behavior will not be offered to everyone.

Potential Messaging

  • Cell Phones – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: The Congo region and the island of Madagascar are extensively mined for coltan and other minerals that go into cell phones, tablets, and computers. Natural habitat, frequently in areas that are legally protected, is lost for wildlife, trees and topsoil scraped away. In addition, toxins from discarded electronics leach out of local landfills and contaminate waterways here at home. Please ask guests to think twice before replacing their electronic devices and to recycle their old ones when they do.
    http://www.houstonzoo.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Why-should-I-recycle-my-cell-phone.pdf
  • Don’t buy real fur: up to 30 servals can be used to make one fur coat, which is often passed off as a cheetah-fur coat.
  • Servals do not make good pets. In general, animals seen at the zoo do not make good pets. Most have specialized dietary, veterinary, housing, and social needs that are difficult or impossible for even dedicated pet owners to meet. Always ensure that your future pet has not been taken from the wild. Capture of wild animals for the pet trade has significantly damaged the survival prospects of species such as sloths, tamanduas, and many parrots. Captured animals are typically mistreated by profit-motivated traffickers and dealers, resulting in many animal deaths; well-meaning animal lovers may feel like they are rescuing animals by purchasing them but are really perpetuating the cruelty. Animals that should never be kept as pets include all bats, primates, and exotic carnivores. Domestic dogs and cats are almost always the best option! Many deserving animals are available for adoption at animal shelters. http://www.philadelphiazoo.org/Save-Wildlife/Images/PetWalletBro2012.aspx
    http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/aboutp/pets/index.html

Acquisition Information

Contact the Serval SSP coordinator Daniel Dembiec , or vice Program Leader Lori Hieber 

NOTE: Servals are legal and available as pets in many states. They are not endangered and are readily available from many zoos and private breeders. The temperament of the parents and age at which the babies started to be handled are both important. If the parents have a good temperament and the babies are handled extensively from a very young age, chances of having a reliable program animal are increased. Obtain servals only from reliable, legal, credentialed sources of the AZA SSP.

Comments from the Rating System

  • Downtown Aquarium, Denver: Starting with a young animal is better, if the staff is well-trained. Servals are very easy to train and pass off to new trainers once good groundwork has been laid.
  • Maryland Zoo in Baltimore: Requires outdoor/ample exercise space and a small set of advanced-skill handlers. Challenging to handle, should be limited to small number of handlers for training and consistency. Big wow factor, but can be unreliable.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

Grasslands in Africa, south of the Sahara, near rivers and streams.

Physical Description

Small cat, usually 20-35 pounds, with a long and lean build. Females usually 20-25 pounds, males 25-30 pounds but can rarely reach as much as 40 pounds. Extremely long legs and very large ears set them apart from other cats. Ears are black on the back with a noticeable white spot (false eye-spot). The coat is yellow-beige, short, and coarse, with longer and lighter fur on the belly. It is marked with black spots on the body and legs and stripes along the spine and face. Eyes are grey-yellow to gold. The tail is short, only coming down the hind legs about halfway (longer than a lynx, shorter than an ocelot). The head is small, appearing even smaller than it really is due to the large ears. Nose pad is black and often has a pink strip down the center.

Life Cycle

Behavior

Mostly crepuscular, servals are ambush predators and hunt mammals, reptiles, and insects in the grass and in burrows, frogs and minnows in streams, and birds in flight. They are solitary cats, with the mother raising her kittens alone.

Threats and Conservation Status

Did you know…

  • Servals can jump 9 feet straight into the air from a standstill.

Documents

Photographs

Featured image: By Vassil (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 


Contributors and Citations

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  • Activity Schedule: diurnal, nocturnal, crepuscular
  • Continent of Origin
  • Diet Requirements: carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, etc.
  • General Habitat/Biome: deserts, forests, mountains, etc.