First a gator, then an African big cat have kept New Mexico Game and Fish officers busy this summer with two cases of exotic animals being illegally kept in the city.

The cat—identified as a male African serval—was spotted wandering the Hyde Park hills just outside of Santa Fe last month. He has finally found his forever home at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, officials say.

The exotic animal was transferred to the big cat sanctuary late last week, where refuge representatives say he will be released into an artificial habitat after undergoing quarantine and medical treatment for possible diseases.

The serval was initially reported to New Mexico Game and Fish in early September by Santa Fe residents who passed the cat wandering along Hyde Park Road. A few days later, officers lured the cat into captivity using an Albertsons rotisserie chicken and transferred it to the ABQ BioPark Zoo in Albuquerque as they sought a permanent home.

Handlers at the ABQ BioPark Zoo cracked the mystery of the cat's origins and escape soon after he arrived, when they discovered that he was tagged with a microchip containing his identity. The cat has been identified as Hunter, one of two servals who first appeared on Game and Fish's radar in 2016 after they escaped from a previous owner.

Lisa Brinker, spokeswoman for the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, says the cats had been purchased from a notorious breeder in Arkansas, then illegally brought to New Mexico. Only Hunter survived the month of roaming free in 2016; the female with whom he escaped was never found and likely died in the wilderness.

It is illegal to own servals in New Mexico, but not in other states. After the first escape, Game and Fish officials told Hunter's owner that he either had to give up the cat or move to a state where he could legally keep him as a pet. At the time the owner chose to move, but Hunter's reappearance outside of Santa Fe raises questions as to whether his owner actually complied with Game and Fish's order.

The mystery cat was spotted by Labor Day picnickers.
The mystery cat was spotted by Labor Day picnickers. | Barrett Markland

Brinker says Hunter's previous owner told officials that the cat escaped from a car within New Mexico's borders as he was trying leave the state. But Brinker says it is "highly unlikely" that the cat could have survived in the wild for three years, especially in below-freezing temperatures.

"Servals are African animals and they have to have heat to survive, they're just not adapted to the cold," Brinker says, mentioning that a serval rescued from Colorado who spent part of the winter outdoors has clear and permanent marks of frostbite on its body. As for Hunter, she says, "We're not seeing any frostbite on him, he's skinny but he wasn't starving, and he's been declawed, which would make it more difficult for him to hunt in the wild."

Brinker says Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge reached out to the Albuquerque BioPark and offered Hunter a permanent place to live after being contacted by New Mexico residents who had read about the cat's predicament in the news.

Hunter was transferred to the refuge in a crate on Thursday evening. Brinker says he is being held in quarantine but will soon be introduced to the other servals at the refuge with the hope that they will get along well enough for him to be released into the group habitat. The refuge is home to five other servals.

Hunter shows off his hiss after the famous rotisserie chicken capture.
Hunter shows off his hiss after the famous rotisserie chicken capture. | Courtesy NM Game and Fish

"He hisses a lot, but doesn't seem too afraid of us. He ate great Friday morning and is very food motivated, which will help with the potential for him to be part of our behavioral training program," Assistant Animal Curator Laurie Vanderwal says in a press release.

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is certified by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) Standard of Excellence and is a no-contact, no-breed refuge for big cats.

At 459 acres, the refuge is home to 90 big cats including lions, tigers and leopards, each of which reside in at least a quarter-acre of specialized habitat.

Hunter's case is the second time this summer that Game and Fish officers captured an illegal exotic animal within Santa Fe County.

In August, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that a man called the Santa Fe Animal Services Division to report that an alligator was being held in a kiddy pool in the backyard of a Santa Fe business. The gator was also transferred to the ABQ BioPark, and the owner could face up to a year in prison and $1,000 in fines.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that the refuge is in Arizona. It is in Arkansas.