The Law Q&A | The legalities surrounding the missing serval in Decatur

By Chicago 4 Min Read

Perhaps you’ve heard the news of the serval that escaped its owner’s abode in Decatur and has been on the loose the last few weeks.

What is the law in Illinois on possessing wild animals? And what is a serval, anyway? A bird? A vole? A butler?

Why, it’s a feline. Twice as tall and thrice as heavy as a domestic house cat, it has long legs and large ears with a small face. Its coat is buff with black spots and stripes. A native of Africa, it has also been crossbred with domestic cats.

Illinois state law generally prohibits possession of the following unless kept in escape-proof zoos, educational or research institutions, circuses, veterinary hospitals or animal refuges: bears, wolves, coyotes, hyenas, lions, tigers, leopards, ocelots, jaguars, cheetahs, margays, mountain lions, lynxes, bobcats and jaguarundis. Note that the serval is not on this list.

The owner in question reports he had obtained a permit to possess such critter from the state. And indeed, state law allows possession of a serval with proper licensure.

However, when news broke of the serval’s great escape, Decatur authorities remarked that servals are prohibited in Decatur.

Can local law contradict state law, and what happens when there’s a clash?

State law rules. But if state law specifically authorizes local government to regulate a particular topic also regulated by the state, then local government may regulate.

On the serval question, Decatur authorities may be hanging their leash on the Illinois Animal Control Act. It authorizes local governments to regulate restraint of animals, including dogs, cats or other animals, provided that no regulation is specific to a breed. The Decatur city code bars ownership of “any wild animal” unless kept in the facilities mentioned in the wildlife code above.

However, the Decatur ordinance defines “wild animal” with a list of creatures that does not include servals. Decatur’s definition does include any other animal “normally found in the wild state.” But wouldn’t a feral domestic cat meet this definition? The ordinance mentions allowances of cats in several places, and “cat” is defined in Decatur’s code as “all member or the family feline.” Of which a serval is.

Regarding serval possession then, a state-permitted serval owner might thus argue the Decatur ordinance is vague, internally contradictory, and so is not authorized to trump the state wildlife code.

This only illustrates that animal regulation in Illinois is a complicated crossbreeding of state and local laws. But then, wildlife preservation and the safety of animals — and of the humans who could interact with them — is complicated.

The vagaries of human regulation were of no import to the serval in question. It took matters into its own paws and bolted through the open doorway of its “owner’s” residence. The authorities stalked in vain for two weeks before severing the serval search.

Like Elsie the lion in “Born Free,” the serval is now free as the wind on the prairies of central Illinois. And it should be as at home as it would be on the African savanna — a profoundly capable hunter feeding on rodents, birds, frogs, insects, snakes and rabbits.

Perhaps the serval is relaxing somewhere lapping on its pond margarita and thinking, “You know, Illinois rabbit tastes just like chicken. Frog, too.”

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