Katie had me. With one paw on firmly on my shoulder and the other on my head, her teeth gently explored my hair. I knew if I pushed away, she would tighten her grip, so I sat still and breathed. She stepped back and examined me with her large, green eyes. I stroked the fur on her soft, HUGE body and felt awe. I was spending time with an almost wild feline, an F1 savannah cat.

For months I avoided this visit. Friends of friends bred the cats in their beautiful mission district victorian and I had been invited often, but I was opposed. Why would breed cats when there are hundreds of beautiful cats euthanized each day? And savannahs, the newest designer breed, hybrids of domestic cats and real African servals? As an ethical person and a conservation specialist at The Oakland Zoo, I just could not go.

But eventually, I went and spent 2 magical hours playing with this houseful of savannahs. While Katie was an F1 (a direct offspring of a serval parent and domestic parent) the others were F2s or F3s. Some were striped, some were marbled, some were older and 3 were kittens, yet all of them were ultra curious, athletic, smart and affectionate. They sped around the house, leaping from window sill to fireplace mantel, entertaining each other as well as the rapt house guests. My hosts obviously loved their cats, took incredible care of them and sold them only to exceptional families who promised to keep them indoors. They told me that they made excellent pets, were the feline canine in personality, lived for 17-20 years and were a breed classified as domestic by the USDA, meaning they were legal.

I went home confused and began my own research.

Apparently, our society is obsessed with exotic cats. There are 4000 wild tigers in this world and 8000 pet tigers in the United States. We are breeding cats like crazy, trying to create that wild, exotic look. The savannahs sell for $4000 to $10,000 and are actually illegal in some states and cities. There are savannah cats, bengal cats, ocicats, toygers and pixie-bobs and gosh knows what else. Some do end up as excellent pets, and some end up in shelters or put down after peeing on everything and tearing up sofas.

Still, I have more questions:

  • Is it ethical to create cat breeds just to please ourselves?
  • Is it ethical to breed at all?
  • What does the trend of Savannah Cats do to create awareness about African servals?
  • How does this issue connect to dog breeding, or designer babies?

I ponder these questions and loved my time with Katie, but if I am going to seek a feline companion, you will find me at the local shelter. You?

Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Manager at The Oakland Zoo.

Here kitty kitty… 6 July,2011Amy Gotliffe

    Your article was interesting. But, it is not the breeders of pedigreed cats that are causing feline overpopulation. That is the people who get a cat and think it cute to have a litter. Breeders do not sell to people like that.

    Savannah cats are a way for people to experience the beauty of the African Serval without owning a wild cat. Would you rather there be a Savannah breed or rather people buy wild cats who are ill equipped to deal with them?

  • Here Kitty Kitty

    We all have to take responsibility for the overpopulation of domesticated animals. Period. Not all breeders, who are responsible for the animals’ existences in the first place, are responsible sellers (or even good care takers of the animals they breed). And not all those that purchase animals are responsible buyers.

    The question is what to do with all the animals already bred and now homeless? Shouldn’t we first take care of what exists before producing new fodder (i.e.- litters) that will certainly produce some percentage of homeless animals, if history and the present conditions teach us anything?

    I would gladly cohabit with a Savannah. But I cannot support their being bred when shelters are bursting with unwanted animals and the pile of euthanized animals growing. Nor do I support banning all breeding.

    I do support us each taking more responsibility for other living creatures, especially when breeding, buying or adopting.

  • Savannah Kitty

    Savannahs are an amazing new breed of cats, active, intelligent, wild LOOKING (that’s the whole point of the breed, getting domestic cats with the looks of the wild cat), but they remain DOMESTIC cats. That’s the whole point of the creation of a new breed, just like the Bengal cat before it: the looks of the wild cat without any of the reality of actually owning a real wild cat (even though Servals are the most ‘domesticable’ of the wild cats, they still remain a wild cat and when full grown are probably more than the average pet owner can handle, and are anyway illegal in CA).

    Call them ‘designer cats’ if you may (although I hate the term), but the fact remains that they are special (as you do point out in your article), and the reason they command such a premium price is because of the demand there is for such pets and because of the difficulty of breeding them makes for a very limited supply (just like any other ‘pure breed’ animal, be it a cat, a dog or a horse).

    You may advocate adopting strays from shelters all you want (and I do agree that most animals available for adoption will make fine pets), but the fact remains that the people that are ready to spend a premium on a pure breed animal do so because that’s what they want. I mean who would spend thousands of dollars on a cat (or a dog) when you can adopt one for a few hundreds (yes, adopting a cat from a shelter is NOT free) unless you are looking for something specific.

    Savannahs are a rare breed because they are so difficult to breed, most breeders are extremely selective of whom they sell to (for the well being of the cats, believe it or not most breeders are in it for the love of the breed and of animals), and you will probably NEVER find a Savannah available for adoption in a shelter, period.

    As for the anti-hybrid laws in place in some states and cities, they were ment to prevent wild-to-wild hybrids (Lion-Tigers) or eventually wolf-dog hybrids and are just casting too broad of a net in which new cat breeds are unfortunately caught.

    If you are wondering, just do yourself a favor and go to a cat show and try to see for yourself what a Savannah, Bengal or Pixie-Bob looks like, and you’re going to be disapointed if you’re expecting to see more than a somewhat wild looking spotted domestic kitty with cool personality.

  • Savannah Kitty

    … or just buy the current issue of the Cat Fancy magazine in which Savannah cats are featured:


  • Allison Lipman

    What is concerning about this piece on Savannah and hybrid animal breeding by an Oakland Zoo staff person is whether or not Ms. Gotliffe was the correct person for the job of delving into this highly contested subject.

    This piece is composed primarily of simplistically expressed opinion and anecdote, rather than evidencing an educated and informed query. The lack of useful information or even a clear point to the piece is disturbing.

    We members and readers of the KQED site expect the information presented to be mature, well researched, and well written. Perhaps pieces of this sort belong on a personal blog or a child-oriented web site rather than a site like KQED that necessarily demands a higher degree of expertise and sophistication, certainly on such a complex subject as the hybrid breeding of wild animals. Please give us better quality information than is represented by this piece by Ms. ‘Gosh’liffe.

  • Allison Lipman

    The trouble lies in associating a professional position (Conservation Manager at the Oakland Zoo) with a poorly informed piece of writing, published by a respected news source. People will have the tendency to assume she has some authority to speak on the subject by virtue of being an expert or at least well-educated on hybrid/exotics breeding. It may be better to have Amy write on other subject areas, such as astronomy or engineering, so as to not present an illusion of an educated opinion.

    At least have your bloggers write about things in which they have expertise so as not to take the initial discussion to a lower level than necessary. No point in that when there are those better informed available to blog for you as well, thus beginning the community effort at a more informed starting point.

  • Hi Allison:

    Thank you for your post. We at KQED always appreciate feedback from our members and readers, be it positive or negative. We certainly do not wish to let our supporters down, and regret that your expectations were not met.

    That said, we do use the blog to relate unique personal & anectdotal experiences relating to science, environment and nature topics. While a scholarly essay on the issues surrounding hybrid and wild cats would indeed have been a worthy effort, we also value more informal and experiential insights, as an invitation to a wider discussion.

    The wonderful thing about blogs is that they are a community effort. This post is the start of something, not an end unto itself. I look forward to continued comments and links to resources regarding this posts’ topic. Thanks again!

    Craig Rosa
    Interactive Producer, QUEST

  • Thank you for all the comments about Savannah cats, the predicament of homeless animals, the issues with current wild animal laws, etc. I am glad the blog inspired a variety of responses. As with all conservation, environmental or animal related issues, there are many viewpoints and opinions. There are many ways to revere animals and wildlife.

    While some Savannah Cat professionals felt the blog was a negative look at the subject, others felt that I described the cats in too positive a light.

    As Craig mentioned, my job as a Quest blogger is not to be an expert in this highly vast field, or pretend to be one, but to share ideas, inspire dialog and hope that experts and those passionate about the subject do indeed chime in. I will be listening when they do.

    Thanks! Amy


Amy Gotliffe

Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Manager at the Oakland Zoo. She is a Detroit transplant, enjoying the good Bay Area life for 17 years. She has a degree in communications, holds several teaching credentials and has a Masters Degree in Environmental Education. She has worked at various Bay Area educational and environmental institutions, teaching second grade, working on campaigns, planting pollinator gardens, producing earth day events and generally spreading the word about wildlife and green living. She currently works at The Oakland Zoo where she serves as the Conservation Manager. There, she coordinates support for international, national and local conservation efforts, produces a Conservation Speaker Series, produces the zoo's Earth Day event, leads eco-trips, teaches the various educational programs and heads up an on-site Green Team. On her list of other passions are travel, photography, music and the lindy hop. :-)

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