They are beautiful, exotic and people are willing to pay thousands of dollars to own one. They are hybrid cats: a cross between a domestic cat and one you would find in the wild. Several states ban some kinds of hybrid cats, but in California, they are legal.
Nicholas Oberzire operates a cattery in Benicia called Styled in the Wild, and he breeds a relatively new kind of hybrid cat called the Toyger, which is a cross between a house cat and an Asian Leopard Cat.
“To get a mane, you have to find a mutation,” Oberzier said. “To get these round ears, you have to find a mutation. We do it the same way you mix a drink. They’re cocktails,” Oberzire said.
In fact, Oberzire has named all his cats after cocktails including Big Kahuna, a 20-pound cat he likes to take on walks in downtown Benicia. Some of his other cats include Mojito, Rob Roy, Lemon Drop and Tiki Wild.
Oberzire said his Toygers act more like dogs than cats, develop strong bonds to humans, are highly intelligent and can be trained to walk on a leash. Most of his cats are fourth or fifth generation hybrids, meaning only a small percentage of DNA from the Asian Leopard cat remains.
Kittens from these so-called designer breeds can cost up to $10,000 each.
In San Francisco, Brigitte Cowell breeds Savannahs, a cross between a house cat and an African Serval. She and her husband live with two first generation Savannahs (known as F1s), which are genetically half wild.
“The Savannah will eat cat food, use a litter box, and sleep in your bed without thinking of you as dinner, so pretty much the best of both worlds,” Cowell said.
What some claim to be the tallest domestic cat in the world is a Savannah named Magic. A YouTube video of Magic with millions of hits shows a five-year-old boy rolling around on the ground with the large feline. Some Savannahs can be two-to-three-times the size of an average house cat. But Cowell says most Savannahs aren’t nearly that large. Their wild nature has been exaggerated, and the vast majority are just another breed of domestic cat.
Not everyone is happy about the growing popularity of hybrid cats. Doctor Jennifer Scarlett, the co-president of the San Francisco SPCA says especially the first and second generation hybrids still exhibit wild traits such as being nocturnal, and can be destructive to the home.
“The first generations are stuck in this middle land, where they’re not an animal that should be turned back into the wild but yet they’re not compatible in a household,” Scarlett said. She also points to the estimated 240,000 stray cats in California shelters that are euthanized each year.
Cowell says breeders are not to blame for overpopulation. “The problem are the lack of options for spay and neuter clinics, reducing the mix breed domestics just breeding indiscriminately,” she said.
Cowell insists her cats are wonderful pets and perfectly safe with children and even other pets. He has a beagle that she says gets along fine with her two F1 Savannahs. NBC Bay Area checked with a number of county agencies and none could cite any dangerous incidents involving hybrid cats.
Marilyn Krieger is a certified cat behaviorist based in Redwood City, who owns two hybrid cats. She says they are very intelligent and make good pets. But she also warned, “I don’t recommend them for everyone because they’re very active and perhaps people don’t want a very active cat.”