HERCULES (KPIX 5) - Exotic hybrid cats are becoming a fad among pet owners, but they pose unique challenges and can costs anywhere from $600 up to $30,000.
An exotic hybrid is the result of crossbreeding a domestic cat with an exotic "wild" cat, like a wild African serval or an Asian leopard cat. You can't privately own wild cats like a serval in California, but you can take home the next best thing: a hybrid.
"It is very surprising how many people want this." said Phyllis Reichelt, owner of PJ's Exotic Cattery in Hercules. "They're amazing."
At her cattery, the exotic hybrids are known by names like savannahs, jungle bobs, and Bengals.
Jason Webber, from Napa, was at PJ's to buy a Bengal kitten.
"It's a whole lot of cat," said Webber.
The earlier the generation, the closer the hybrid is to the bloodline of the exotic wild cat, and the wilder the hybrid's behavior.
During our visit to PJ's, an early-generation jungle bob was outside her cage and ended up defending her territory by jumping on our camera, just as the photographer was trying to get footage of two other hybrids.
"They may be a smaller version of the lion and the tiger and the leopard, but they still are wild," explained Reichelt. She warned that these cats are not for everyone.
"It's a whole different world to have a cat like this," said Reichelt. "You have to know what you're getting into and be prepared for it."
Some folks who want hybrids reveal they simply love the look of the cat, but they have no idea that these cats are not low-maintenance.
For example, "King Tut" is a beautiful savannah hybrid that was found injured and wandering outside. The cat cost a lot of money but was abandoned.
"He was starving to death," said Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue.
Baskin and her team have rescued a number of abandoned hybrids and placed some in new homes. But Tut could not be placed.
Some experts say the main reason why owners abandon these special cats is that many end up acting like wild cats and marking their territory with urine.
"When they get to be 2 or 3-years-old, they start spraying urine all over the house to mark their territory, and that's when people get rid of them," said Baskin.
Dr. Leslie Lyons is a world-renowned expert in cat genetics. She said the earlier-generation hybrids are definitely wilder and can be more challenging.
"These are cats I would not keep around children," Dr. Lyons wrote to KPIX 5. "These cats do not attack, but they do defend and may be less social."
"Tut" is now too wild to be handled, according to Baskin and her team. The early-generation savannah cat sprays, bites and scratches.
He'll live the rest of his life in a wildlife sanctuary, but not all abandoned hybrids are so fortunate.
"A lot of them end up being euthanized, which is very sad," said Marilyn Krieger.
Krieger believes hybrids make wonderful pets. She owns several, and is an expert on cat behavior. She countered that exotic hybrids can be trained, and that they're smart, lively, loyal and affectionate. But she said, they do need lots of attention. But, she said, you have to construct the right environment to give them enough mental stimulation. You may have to also baby-proof your home because some of these cats can open and close doors, and get into things that may be dangerous for the cat.
Krieger said, as with any cat, if there are behavioral problems, you can solve them, even with exotic hybrid cats: including urination issues. But these hybrids do need a hands-on owner.
"A lot of people, unfortunately, get them for the wrong reasons, in that they're beautiful cats but they're so active," said Krieger.
If you're not home, Reichelt recommends an outdoor enclosure or one of her tamer exotic hybrids.
She won't sell early-generation hybrids to just anyone, especially to families with kids.
"If somebody wants the wild and they want that big cat - or that exotic cat - go for it. But if you have little children, do not attempt it," Reichelt remarked.
Dr. Lyons said the choosing a breeder is just as important as choosing the cat; you want to find a breeder who socializes the kittens early on. That will help to dictate their personality.
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