Debbie Milette's love for exotic cats began 13 years ago when a friend gave her an African serval as a birthday present.
The serval — a long-legged wildcat with large ears and a spotted coat — was mistaken for a cheetah and confiscated by police during a traffic stop, Milette said, and in her quest to get him back, "I got into rescuing them, and it became my passion."
At one time, Milette, a 57-year-old U.S. Army veteran, shared her home with four servals and four caracals, another breed of exotic cat that is illegal to keep as a pet in most states.
Milette's passion is now focused on Motzie and Peanut, her two Savannah cats. The breed, recognized as an "advanced new breed" by The International Cat Association (TICA), is a mix between a serval and a domestic cat and is legal in most places, including Wichita.
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Milette and Motzie, her 5-year-old, 22-pound Savannah, will be special guests at next weekend's KansasKatz Cat Club cat show, sponsored by TICA, at the Best Western Wichita North hotel.
Besides being Milette's companion and a "goodwill ambassador for his breed," Motzie is certified through the Veterans Administration as a service animal, Milette said.
Milette, who served as a surgical nurse in Vietnam in the early 1970s, suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and says Motzie helps her deal with flashbacks that may be accompanied by anger and fear.
"Motzie is like my own personal EKG monitoring machine, only on an emotional level," she said.
The cat realizes when she's feeling stress and will "put his claws into my leg," she said. "He demands my attention."
Milette, who lives in Norman, Okla., said she also shares Motzie with other people who can benefit from his calming nature. He visits children and the elderly in hospitals and participates in a children's reading program.
To say that Motzie is a striking cat is an understatement. His jungle cat ancestry is apparent in his bold markings, his lean, muscular body, and in the graceful yet powerful way he moves — even when on a leash.
"His size alone says 'I'm impressive,' " Milette said.
Savannahs "can be kind of intimidating for some people," said Richard Hummel, president of the Wichita-based KansasKatz Cat Club.
But like their ancestor the serval, Savannahs are often misunderstood, Milette said.
"A serval is a quiet, gentle, nonconfrontational cat" that is eager to please its owner, and those traits are passed on to the Savannah, she said.
In its markings, a Savannah must look like a serval in miniature, Milette said.
That means black stripes down the back of the neck that turn into spots on the back, matching stripes on the front legs, rings on the tail and light spots on the backs of the ears that look like eyes in the back of their head.
In Motzie's case, his grandfather was a serval. He's what's called an F2, which means he is two generations away from his wild ancestor.
Savannahs are all the rage in the cat world right now, Milette said. "Everybody wants one but can't afford it."
Savannahs cost between $3,000 and $10,000, Hummel said. Milette paid $6,000 for Motzie, money she said she got from a settlement after a car accident.
She bought him from A1 Savannahs in Ponca City, Okla., where the breed originated, she said.
Savannahs and other hybrid cats are expensive because they are difficult to breed, Hummel said.
Whereas "a normal cat litter is four or six, hybrid cats might only have one," he said. "And with hybrids, the males are sterile for four generations."
Savannahs are just one unusual breed you can see at the KansasKatz cat show. Breeds that have signed up include Abyssinians, Birmans, Pixiebobs, ocicats, Scottish Folds, LaPerms, Havanas and Bengals — a hybrid of a domestic cat and an Asian leopard cat.
Hummel has two Bengals that he will show in this weekend's event.
The show will also feature vendors, and the Kansas Humane Society will have cats for adoption (though probably not the exotic kind).
The show is an excellent opportunity to learn about different breeds of cats, especially rare ones, Hummel said.
"That's kind of what we are there for and what the shows are promoting," he said. "You will see a lot of cat breeds that people have never seen before or don't even know existed."