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Detroit's "Mystery Cat"

by Alison Hudson

August 29, 2013

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Donate Suburban Detroit had a bit of a cryptid scare recently.The story started making the rounds last week about a mystery cat roaming the suburbs north of the city, thoughsightings of the cat had started before that. News headlines declared it a "mysterious cat," a "big cat," and even a "super cat."

Michigan is used to rumors of big cats in the state; just last yearthe return of the Michigan Cougar made headlines after years of reported sightings. But those cats are in the Upper Peninsula and the descriptions of this feline didn't match the Cougar's profile.As one witness described the cat to theDetroit Free Press:
“His tail is longer than my arm,” [Antwuan] Asberry, a 6-foot-5 Detroiter with a lanky build, said of the cat. “I was like, what the (expletive) ... I don’t know what it is. I just want it gone.” [...] The cat was about 4 feet tall, Asberry said. Others said it was shorter than that. It’s on the skinny side and arched its back when approached by his mother, Asberry said.
Other notable features included its unusually spotted coat, pointy ears, and seeming indifference to the people around it. It wasn't killing pets or attacking humans. It was justroaming. Soon photos emerged of the cat, confirming that it wasn't a cougar ... or anything else immediately recognizable to the average suburbanite.

Local news buzzed all weekend about the mystery cat. Meanwhile, the origin of the feline slowly made its way into the news cycle. As it turned out, the culprit in this case was a cat called a Savannah.

Like me, you've probably never heard of a Savannah before.A Savannah is a hybrid animal, the result of a pairing of domestic house cats with African servals. The first documented Savannah was born in 1986 from the accidental pairing of a domesticated serval and a Siamese cat; servals are a niche domesticated "big cat" breed and apparently the owner was attempting to breed the father serval to her own serval.

As it turns out, the witness cited in the Free Presswas exaggerating a bit in terms of the size of the cat he'd seen. While some Savannahs do get relatively large, they actually vary in size considerably depending upon their genetics. A particular Savannah could be closer is size to a regular house cat, maybe 18 in. long and 7-10 lbs.; or it could grow to nearly the size of a serval, about 24-36 in. and 20-30 lbs.

Savannah breeders have devised a complicated system of classifying their hybrid cats based on how close to the serval ancestor a particular the cat is. They range from filial 1, or F1, cats, which are Savannahs produced from a direct serval parent and a domesticated cat; to F4 cats, which have a serval as a great-great grandparent. The goal is to produce what are called "studbook tradition" (SBT) cats, those produced from pairings of Savannahs to Savannahs. SBT cats are difficult to produce, however, as male Savannahs are often born sterile (as happens with many hybrid breeds).

It has since come out that the Detroit cat, a male named Chum, was an F2 Savannah, meaning he had a Savannah parent (probably the mother) and a domestic cat parent. He stood about 2 feet tall and weighed 25 lbs. The cat had escaped from its home nearly a month ago.

Tragically, things did not end well for Chum.

Residents, in their fear of the unknown animal, took an opportunity to shoot and kill Chum. They then disposed of the body in a trash bin, not bothering to notify the police or the press about what they'd done. The story was uncovered by the feline rescue group Paws for the Cause.

It is an unfortunate end for the cat, who was guilty only of the crime of looking exotic and, therefore, dangerous. But at least Chum's story brought to wider attention the existence of these unusual feline hybrids. While Savannahs have not yet been fully recognized as an authentic breed, enthusiasts are hoping that someday Savannahs will not be exotic, but instead welcome members of many suburban families.

by Alison Hudson

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