Not two weeks after Simon the Savannah cat was scooped up in a dipnet and reunited with his owner, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which organized the reunion, is demanding that Sharon Gratrix get rid of her exotic pet.
The spotted cat is only a quarter serval mixed with a domestic house cat, but it turns out servals -- small African wildcats -- are not allowed in Alaska in any ratio. In a letter Gratrix received Monday, Anchorage wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott explains that the animal is in fact illegal -- contrary to what biologists first told her -- and that she has one month to send Simon elsewhere on a one-way ticket.
"I realize this may be a shock to you, having only recently been reunited with your cat," Sinnott says in the letter. "However, we cannot allow animals prohibited by law to remain in the state."
Simon bolted out the door of his home near Kincaid Park and was on the run for six months before being snared along the Glenn Highway Nov. 7. With a broken tail, Simon was malnourished, in shock and probably wouldn't have survived much longer, Gratrix said. Now, as Simon readjusts to domestic life and begins recovering, the thrill of the unlikely reunion has been snuffed.
"I am heartbroken. ... It never occurred to me that there could be anything illegal about having this cat," Gratrix said. "I don't think it's unreasonable that I would not have known; (Fish and Game) didn't know when they returned him to me."
Though servals are banned in Alaska, Sinnott initially said Savannah cats appeared to be legal. But state wildlife experts reviewed the case and concluded otherwise.
State law prohibits Fish and Game from issuing permits for hybrids of a game animal to be kept as a pet. Under the law, game animals are defined in part as nondomestic mammals "found or introduced" in Alaska.
"My initial confusion was well, if this Savannah cat is a hybrid of a serval -- an African wild animal -- and a domestic cat, then servals aren't found in Alaska, so therefore it's not an animal that's found or introduced in Alaska," Sinnott said.
But bringing a Savannah cat into Alaska, even as a pet, constitutes introducing it here, said Kevin Saxby, an assistant attorney general specializing in wildlife law. Fish and Game has no discretion to allow exceptions because the department cannot, by law, issue a permit for such an animal to be kept as a pet, he said.
One can request the state Board of Game put an animal, like a Savannah cat, on the "clean list" of allowable animals, and Gratrix says she plans to do it. But the board heard and rejected a request a few years back to allow servals because of concern they could threaten indigenous wildlife, either through predation or disease, Saxby said.
"The board has a general policy on all exotic species that they can only be allowed here if they can't survive in the wild and if they don't otherwise represent a threat to Alaskan species," Saxby said. "As we found out, servals can escape and survive in the wild in Alaska, and they're a threat to Alaskan wildlife."
Gratrix has 30 days to provide Fish and Game with proof Simon is gone or she could be hit with a $250 fine. She said she plans to ship Simon down to live in exile with her daughter in Arizona until, hopefully, she can change the law, which also makes one of her previous pets illegal: the Bengal cat, a hybrid of an Asian leopard cat and domestic cat.
Since that cat stopped coming home in June 2007 and never was found, despite a high-profile search involving bus-side posters, there are no plans to cite her for that pet, Sinnott said. However, there may still be others to deal with.
"(Gratrix) said there's probably 100 or more Bengal cats in town," Sinnott said. "They've even been shown in shows. She says even that there's a judge in town that has one. I wouldn't know about that, but this could go bigger than we ever envisioned."
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.