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An exotic cat was caught after breaking into a Florida home. The mystery has only just begun.

This Savannah cat was captured after breaking into a home on 84th Way N, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Now, a shelter caring for the cat is asking the owner to come forward. [Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office]
This Savannah cat was captured after breaking into a home on 84th Way N, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Now, a shelter caring for the cat is asking the owner to come forward. [Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office]
Published Aug. 2, 2019

SEMINOLE ⁠— The way Vernon Yates sees it, there's only one other person who knows the cat as well as he does.

So when you call up his Seminole animal shelter, Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, and ask for the cat's age or whether it has a microchip, his lips are sealed. That's information only the rightful owner would know — and he wants to keep it that way.

See, this isn't any old cat. This is a Savannah cat, a cross between a wild serval from Africa and a house cat. These felines aren't really into snuggling with the kids or snoozing all day in a patch of sunlight. They've got wild in them.

This one landed at Yates' shelter under some remarkable circumstances.

The cat busted through a screen Monday at a house in the 11000 block of 84th Way N and stepped inside through the doggie door, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The homeowner shut the cat in a bathroom, Yates said, then Yates trapped it and brought it back to his shelter.

RELATED STORY: That community cat that roams around your neighborhood? There's a law for that.

The Sheriff's Office deemed it the "Cat Burglar" on its Facebook page — suspect in custody, case closed. But at the shelter, the work was just beginning. They launched a hunt for the owner.

"We know pretty much every inch of this cat now," said Yates, 67. "I'm asking people ... to put it in writing everything that would distinguish that this is your cat."

And so far?

"Nobody has got the winning lottery numbers," he said.

Savannah cats are bred largely for aesthetic reasons, said Susan Bass, director of public relations for the Tampa wildcat sanctuary Big Cat Rescue. Breeders want to supply the public with cats of a domestic temperament and the appearance of a wild cat.

Look at the cat burglar (it's nameless for now, Yates said ⁠— "He'll have to be around here a lot longer before we stick him with a name") and it makes sense. It's bigger than a typical house cat and has spots like a leopard's.

But Savannah cats don't actually make good pets, Bass said.

First of all, they're expensive, especially compared to all the domestic cats now in shelters waiting for homes. Big Cat Rescue once took in a Savannah cat from a woman who bought it for $15,000 and spent $10,000 on a special room addition before realizing it was too much to handle. The sanctuary has four others that came from similar circumstances.

Cats from the first generation of the cross-breed can be dangerous, too, Bass said. They can bite and scratch. They'll howl all night. They'll mark their territory ⁠— your house ⁠— with urine. And they're great at escaping and eluding capture.

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That presents all kinds of problems, Bass said. There's no rabies vaccine for hybrid cats, so if one bites or scratches a person, it has to be put down. The cats are also skilled hunters, which can wreak havoc on a local environment.

"We're very much against people who think it's cool to make a Franken-kitty," Bass said, "and create something that's not found in nature just because they want to make money and lie to people and say, 'Yeah, it's cool to have an exotic cat.'"

The cat burglar has been out and about for awhile, Yates said. He's been getting calls from people in the neighborhood around the scene of the crime for more than a year now, saying they spotted a strange animal wandering around and climbing fences. But nobody wanted to let Yates on their property to capture it, worried it would end up in an animal control cage, or worse.

He compared it to Cornelius the Mystery Monkey, the rhesus macaque that popped up from time to time across Tampa Bay for nearly four years. Yates was on the monkey's trail, too. Cornelius eventually was captured in St. Petersburg after he bit a woman outside her home.

RELATED STORY: Mystery Monkey taken to new home, a zoo in Dade City

Yates has received calls about the Savannah cat from as far away as Oklahoma. People are yelling from outside his fence to let them see it. And the Facebook comments on the Sheriff's Office post amount to a sort of community sleuthing, with people tagging their friends and posting links to missing pet pages.

Yates isn't sure the rightful owner will ever come forward considering how long the cat has been on the loose already. And there's liability to consider now ⁠— the damage to the home, the shelter costs, the vet bills.

But he hopes he's wrong. The one detail he will release is that the cat is scared.

If no one steps up, Yates will find the cat a home with a person or group who has experience with Savannah cats. Until then, the cat will live with Yates, in a cage among the shelter's other residents — parrots, deer, even a tiger.

"He's in an environment that he should realize, from the other animals around him, he's got nothing to fear but fear itself."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.hem