On the trail of Cheeto

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.

The pet African wildcat that got away from its James Island owner hasn’t been spotted in days, but the man on the trail of the serval is confident it’s still out there alive.

And Eric “Critter” McCool knows what he is talking about. The trapper has 25 years experience bringing in everything from cobras to monkeys. In the Lowcountry, he is conspicuously known for removing from a camper last year a live yellow jacket nest big enough to fill the interior of a Volkswagen Beetle.

A serval on the loose, though, is more difficult to corral. It’s a long-legged, slender nocturnal cat that looks like a miniature cheetah. It has a top speed of 50 mph and can leap 10 feet high. In other words, it’s nothing if not elusive.

But Cheeto is a declawed, house-raised exotic pet less than a year old, described as timid around people he doesn’t know. He ran away Sunday after slipping his harness when he was frightened by a dog. The cat faces a number of natural and manmade perils from attacks to cars.

“It’s going to be a 50-50 chance,” McCool said Friday. The cat was spotted Wednesday near a Folly Road restaurant after being spotted late Sunday on Riverland Drive, a half-mile away. But not since. Fresh scat found near the sighting indicates Cheeto probably has eaten at least once since slipping the harness.

“They’re very adaptable animals, so there’s a good chance he’ll be able to survive,” McCool said. But “this creature has never been in the wild, so he doesn’t have the predator instincts.”

Amanda Pillis, Cheeto’s owner, brought in McCool because she needed his expertise, she said earlier. She continues to hope her pet can be returned.

Exotic cats aren’t your everyday suburban pet, but there are more of them around than you think. The 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.

Owning them privately is controversial and roundly opposed by animal protection societies. The Post and Courier’s original published story about Cheeto getting loose drew considerable social media response that ranged from people disparaging keeping the animal as a pet to people going out on their own to help find him.

McCool has set out bait, cameras and a trap by little more than knowledgeable guesswork. The key to recovering Cheeto would be a new sighting, he said, something to narrow down where the cat might be. Cheeto might have hunkered down for the bad weather, and might be drawn out with it drying and warming up, McCool said Friday.

“Without sightings, who knows?” he said. “We’re up against the wall and with each passing day the chances start slimming down.”

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