Owning a serval—a wild cat native to the African savanna that resembles a smaller, long-legged, long-eared cheetah—is a way of life for Samantha Martin of Irving Park. Martin’s an animal trainer, and her business, Amazing Animals, offers animal rental, training and handling. She runs a licensed, private, educational zoo and can tell you the pros and cons of the coatimundi or its northern relative, the raccoon (“nightmares as pets,” she says). She settled on the serval as her domestic companion—she has a two-year-old named Caesar—because she heard good things about the cat’s temperament.
Martin maintains a USDA-inspected serval cage, but Caesar lives in her apartment—even sleeps in her bed. “He plays fetch like a dog, but he used a litter box like a cat when young,” she says. The commitment isn’t for everyone. “I pretty much laid on the couch for the first three or four months of his life and bonded with the animal,” Martin says. But no matter how much time you put in, a serval is still a wild beast. Instinctively, adult servals display their feces to mark territory (e.g., poop on the dinner table). If the crapping in the house isn’t charming enough, consider this: Servals have teeth meant for tearing up small animals, so owners must hide knickknacks, tape down electrical cords and latch the refrigerator lest there be a serval-chewing party. And though the cats often express themselves through friendly headbutts and purring, they can engage in surprise aggressive behavior. “I’ve bled a little,” says Martin of her Caesar bites. A serval can also bleed your bank account dry: It costs several thousand dollars to purchase one, and Caesar, a picky eater, insists on steak several times a day.
Caesar isn’t the biggest privately owned cat in the area, however. Royboy Cooper of Gary, Indiana, might be known worldwide for his body-ink artistry, but he’s also Chicagoland’s most famous tiger owner. Cooper (who has carried an FDA zoo license as long as he’s had jungle cats—about four decades) grew up among circus folk and loved big cats from a young age. He owns (and plays with) four tigers—Pearl (formerly Siegfried and Roy’s), Storm (who used to be Mike Tyson’s—“I do his tattoos,” Royboy says), Kelly and a year-and-a-half–old Bengal named Kya—all visible from his tattoo studio, Royboy’s Place (3849 Broadway, Gary, Ind., 219-884-4965). His tip for keeping the gorgeous beasts slightly mellow: Feed ’em chicken. “If you put them on red meat, it changes their whole morale,” and they may become aggressive, he says. The biggest misconception of newbie tiger owners that results in maulings? “They think they can love-train ’em—it just doesn’t work like that,” Royboy explains. “They’ve got their eye on you, just waiting for you to slip up.”
Of course, most area pet lovers would prefer not to make unscheduled donations to the exotic blood bank. The docile kinkajou (hailing from Belize and closely related to the raccoon, but resembling a 5-pound monkey or ferret) is the bizarre pet of choice for Debbie Dillon of Jefferson Park; her pride and joy is an eight-year-old kink named Meeka. Though expensive to buy (around $3,000), a properly cared-for kinkajou should live 25 years—and their diet of dry monkey biscuits and leftover meat and veggies isn’t hard to procure. In Dillon’s experience, the animals are both social and smart. A kink will sit on your shoulders and sniff your ears to get to know you. “If she gets POed, she whistles at you,” Dillon says. She has also kept Southern flying squirrels and fennec foxes over the years, but lately she admits she’s gone conventional: “I broke down and bought a puppy last year.”