Sighting of spotted cat has residents puzzled

Miriam Waterman thought she was seeing things Saturday night when she saw a small, leopard-like animal run in front of her car.

"All four of us saw it, and said, 'Oh, my gosh, what is that?' " Waterman said in an interview Tuesday. It was definitely not something they expected to see on the side of Amble Road.

Waterman, who visits her South Whidbey residence on the weekends, said she and her son, Roger Waterman, husband Jerry Waterman, and sister Janice Johnson were on their way to their house when her son Roger stopped to avoid hitting the animal.

Waterman said they thought it was a deer from a distance, but once they got closer they realized the animal was definitely a member of the cat family.

"He had the cutest face," she said.

She described the body as having leopard-like spots, and the almost footlong tail as having racoon-like stripes. After spotting the car, she said, the cat sat up on its haunches and stared at them -- and they, of course, stared right back at it. She said that even as they passed it to continue home, the animal turned to watch them as they drove away.

Once she got home, Waterman said she quickly drew a picture of the animal while it was still fresh in her mind. After some searching on the Internet, the Waterman's came across a picture of an ocelot, which looked like the animal they had seen.

Greenbank resident John Lussmyer, who is involved with the Alliance for the Conservation of Exotic Cats, said in an interview Tuesday that he highly doubted the cat was an ocelot, but rather a serval. Servals, he said, were the more likely house pet because of their smaller size.

"It really does sound like a serval," he said.

Lussmyer, who has two bobcats of his own, said the serval probably got loose somehow, and was probably confused and scared out in the wild.

"It probably doesn't know how to hunt," said Lussmyer.

A serval would be approximately 30 pounds, he said, where an ocelot can be upwards of 40 pounds. How it was raised, he said, would determine what the cat is eating now.

From dead animal carcasses to sneaking dog and cat food off people's porches, Lussmyer said he didn't think the animal would survive longer than a year.

Bayview resident Tiffany Cartier, who had owned a domesticated African serval wildcat before it escaped in July of 2000, was also interested to hear of the cat's sighting this weekend.

"I'd still love to catch him," said Cartier of her missing pet.

From the cat's description, Cartier said it was unlikely that it was her cat Cujo.

"I don't think he would've survived this long," she said.

According to Cartier, Cujo didn't have a tail. It has been chewed off by it's mother when it was still a kitten, she said. Just like an animal who's tail has been docked the tail wouldn't grow back, she said, making it unlikely the animal Waterman saw was Cartier's pet.

Cujo had also been declawed "just in case anything like this ever happened" Cartier said, which would shorten his life span out in the wild. With decreased hunting skills and little chance against predators, she doubted he could have survived out in the wild for the past three years.

"He was a house cat to us," said Cartier.

Lussmyer said he advised people against trying to catch the animal on their own. While he has had heard of exotic cat owners simply calling the cats name and having it come running into their arms, that might not always be the case, he said.

"I don't like the cats to get hurt," he said.

Because Island County currently prohibits exotic cats, Lussmyer said someone might have lost the cat and never reported it to the authorities for fear of losing the animal permanently. Lussmyer said he has obtained an exhibitor's license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, therefor allowing him to keep the cats in Island County.

Lussmyer said a cat owner might not have reported the cat missing in fear of being fined and having the animal taken away

"You don't dare call animal control because they would come and take it," Lussmyer said.

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