Popular domesticated serval “zoo ambassador” bites child at birthday party

This is a regrettable incident which concerns a domesticated serval whose name is Copper. Copper was hand-raised and brought to the Potawatomi Zoo when he was six months old as an education animal and is today aged four. He is thoroughly socialised to people and has “done thousands of interactions with people here at the zoo” (National Wildlife Association on Facebook).

Domesticated serval and zoo ambassador bites child at zoo party
Domesticated serval and zoo ambassador bites child at zoo party. Photo: National Wildlife Association on FB.
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A request was made by the organisers of the party to have Copper in attendance. I suppose it was to add a bit of exoticism to the proceedings.

Child and unexpected touch on back

In a video (which I have been unable to find) a mother and her child approach the serval from behind and the child reaches out to pet the animal. It appears that the serval was caught unawares because of the approach from behind and suddenly his wild cat instincts came out and he quickly turned and lunged forward while simultaneously hissing loudly and then biting the child on the head. The photograph above shows the exact moment, which I believe is a screenshot from the video.

Thoughts

My thoughts on this are that Copper is not dangerous per se. No, it’s been well established that he is safe. This reaction might equally have occurred with a domestic cat. It was unexpected touch on the back and children tend to unnerve cats sometimes because of the noises they make and their unpredictable movements. The danger comes from the fact that the serval is much larger and stronger than the domestic cat. When they scratch or bite is will probably hurt.

Although, the child was not badly injured. Copper is quite a small serval. We are told by the National Wildlife Association that the child suffered some minor scratches on his head. Of course, it could have been much worse. In fact, if the mother had complained there would have been a necessity to have killed the serval, cut off his head and conduct an autopsy on the cat’s brain to check for rabies. Thankfully this didn’t happen.

Investigation and possible reinstatement of role of ambassador

Copper is a wonderful ambassador for the zoo but his role in the program going forward is unknown as the events on the video are being investigated. The zoo does not want to retire him from the programme.

They say that he is the most popular animal and requested most often (source: Potawatomi Zoo Executive Director Marcy Dean). Apparently, the protocol at the zoo for these sort of situations includes one person at one time touching the cat on the back and away from the mouth. This protocol appears to have been broken inadvertently. Space around the cat is also important and that also may have been a problem in this instance.

It would seem reasonably likely that sometime in the future, after the investigation, Cooper will be reinstated as an ambassador for the zoo. It would seem that the problem did not lie with the cat but with the management of the people at the party.

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P.S. All the videos of domestic cats being terrified of cucumbers are due to the same reason. Cats caught by surprise can react instinctively and aggressively in defence. It is normal. Being thoroughly socialised and domesticated cannot be a guarantee to prevent this sort of reaction.

4 thoughts on “Popular domesticated serval “zoo ambassador” bites child at birthday party”

  1. ’tis a shame that good old Anglo Saxon language is not permitted here…

    I believe that using wild breeds of mammal in these situations is just begging for a fear aggressive response from the poor Serval (insert any mammalian, as you see fit)

    Calling Copper an ambassador is a bit fallacious in my view. Exposing him to idiots with no inter-species manners is putting Copper at risk. In my view it is unfair exploitation.

    I agree, it is a huge failure of Copper’s ‘handlers’. However, no matter how much care you take, the are no warranties that excitable children and idiot mothers (any members of the public actually) will follow instructions.

    The picture looks like the mother was presenting the child to Copper “come hither wild beastie, snack upon my spawn”

    Props to the zoo for standing by Copper

    Reply
    • I agree that exposing the cat to idiots in parties is a bad idea. I am not even sure wild species vs domestic matters that much in this situation – many a perfectly domestic cat would attack when startled. Serval is larger and has larger teeth, but he clearly was controlling his bite – if he’d really been trying to hurt the child, there’d be a lot more than a few scratches. In fact, a perfectly domestic cat can do far more serious damage with his teeth, my ex manager’s DSH was infamous for “sending people into an ER.”

      I am glad neither the child parents nor the stuff of the zoo made it into a big issue.

      Approaching a cat you don’t know from behind and touching it especially in a noisy party environment is never a good idea.

      Reply

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