Domesticated wild cat on loose in James Island area

This 10-month-old African serval named Cheeto has been missing since Sunday. The animal is about 35 pounds, with yellowish orange fur with black spots similar to that of a cheetah. People who spot it are asked to call the Charleston County Sheriffs Office dispatch or HomeAgain Pet Finders.

A serval is an African native cat that looks like a miniature cheetah and is considered the best hunter in the cat world.

And, well, there’s one loose on James Island.

Now, catch your breath. Cheeto is a declawed, relatively domesticated exotic pet described as timid around people he doesn’t know. The 35-pound cat slipped his harness on a walk Sunday when he was frightened by a dog in the Meridian Place neighborhood near Riverland Drive, according to a Facebook post by his owner.

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and HomeAgain Pet Finders have asked people who spot the serval to contact them. The Sheriff’s Office indicated in a news release the cat is not aggressive and carries a microchip.

“He will hiss, where as this being his only defense mechanism being less than one yr of age but he DOES NOT bite,” the owner posted. Cheeto is the offspring of a serval home-raised in Wisconsin, Amanda Pillis said. This is a cat who sleeps with her and curls up in her lap.

“He’s just a pet. He’s really pretty much a normal, lovable cat, as sweet as he can be. He plays with our friends’ dogs,” said Pillis, 34.

It’s the second time in a few weeks she put out an alert for Cheeto. But the last time, the cat shot out the front door during a nighttime pizza delivery, snuck into the backyard and stayed until she found him at daybreak. He is, after all, still a cub.

Exotic cats aren’t your everyday suburban pet, but there are more of them around than you think. Pillis’ veterinarian told her there are at least four servals in the Charleston area.

Exotic cats — from Bengal tigers to smaller hybrids — are the fourth most popular exotic pet in the country, according to about.com, more popular than pot-bellied pigs. South Carolina requires a special permit to own native animals, but not exotics, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Exotic wild cats are readily available for sale on the Internet, said Debbie Leahy, Humane Society of the United States captive wildlife protection manager. But because there are few regulations, state or federal, regarding captive-raised pets, it isn’t known how many wild cats are privately owned.

South Carolina is among the states with the weakest laws, she said. The society opposes private ownership of exotic wild cats.

“These are still wild animals, and they retain wild instincts. They aren’t just big domesticated cats,” Leahy said. “If they are to be kept in captivity, it should be in an accredited zoo or sanctuary. A home isn’t an appropriate environment.”

Pillis is aware of the risks and demands, she said, and is planning precautions as her serval ages. So far, “the only high maintenance thing about Cheeto is his diet,” she said.

The cat needs more exercise than another pet, so the walks are important. The harness had to be rigged for him because there isn’t any such thing as a serval harness. She knows she has to improve it. She bought Cheeto hoping to breed him with a friend’s savannah, a cross between a serval and a domestic cat.

But for now, he’s just a really cool cat, she said.

A few hours after the dog spooked Cheeto on Sunday, Jennifer Harris caught a glimpse of the cat on Riverland Drive. The rings on the tail made her think it was a raccoon at first, she said. Then Cheeto turned and looked right at the headlights.

“Real sleek, with solid spots and the ringed tail, huge ears,” she said. “Beautiful. It did not seem to be scared, but rather curious. I had no idea, really, what I was looking at. I know bobcats live in the area, but this looked nothing like it.”

The cat paused long enough for her to snap a few hurried shots, from which she identified the missing serval.

“I am glad to know that from where I saw him, he is not far from home. But this freezing weather has me concerned for its safety,” she said. She has helped Pillis raise social media awareness.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.