A passion unexpected: The beginning of the serval whisperer

“In the end, we will only conserve what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” —Baba Dioum, Senegalese Conservationist

The above quote takes on a special meaning for those of us who work and volunteer at the Conservators Center. The words are displayed on a plaque at the conservancy, in a prominent location where visitors, staff, volunteers, and adopters are sure to frequently see it.

I first set foot on the property in June of 2007. To say I was immediately taken by the place is an understatement; I bonded quickly with Willow Lioness, and I was overjoyed to find myself surrounded by people with similar philosophies on the well-being of animals.

I volunteered in Animal Care long enough for the staff to determine that I was reliable and very safety-conscious, so they allowed me to start training to work inside the enclosures of our smaller species.

Obi Serval as a youngster, playing hide and seek in a pile of grass. We see you, Obi! Photo by Kim Barker.

Obi Serval as a youngster, playing hide and seek in a pile of grass. We see you, Obi!
Photo by Kim Barker.

One day, after we completed our morning feeding and enclosure cleaning, a staff member took me for a social visit inside the habitat of our two most docile servals, Lena and Masufa. On that first visit, Lena licked my cheek and drooled profusely into my armpit.

Thus began my love of servals!

I’ve spent hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours researching them, and now have years of experience handling servals in a multitude of scenarios. They are fascinating creatures with speed that makes them incredible hunters. These animal athletes are capable of acrobatic grace—both on the ground and high in the air. They have beautiful coats that camouflage them as they hunt and simultaneously protect them from being hunted.

While they are very much wild animals, many servals have temperaments that allow them to bond with humans. Familiarity often breeds affection, and as I spend more and more time learning about them, my love for the species only grows. But the bonds I have with individual servals definitely transcend the love I have of the species as a whole; I am bound to them, and they to me.

My unexpected passion for this wild species soon grabbed the attention of some of my friends at the Conservators Center. One friend dubbed me “The Serval Whisperer,” and the nickname stuck. I wear it like a badge of honor!

Little did I know that less than a year after my first interaction with Lena and Masufa, I would encounter this species in a way that would change my life forever.

Misha—the mother of our "Serval Brothers"—with one of her beloved children.

Misha—the mother of our “Serval Brothers”—with one of her beloved children.

In 2008, the Conservators Center agreed to provide a forever home for three servals, Oz, Misha, and Harriet, a breeding trio whose owner felt she could no longer care for them properly. Misha came to us pregnant, and I was excited about the possibility of watching baby servals grow up at the Center. A tiny glimmer of hope emerged that I might get to interact with them a little bit, but I kept my expectations low.

As Misha’s delivery date drew near, Douglas Evans and Mindy Stinner—the co-founders of the Conservators Center—explained that they would train a small, dedicated group of handlers to help socialize the serval babies so they would become good educational ambassadors for their species. I was so excited to be asked to join this team!

Soon after, five male babies were born. To have that many in a litter is unusual for a serval… not to mention having all boys.

Despite my excitement at being allowed to interact with the babies, I was nervous; baby servals are so fragile, and something as simple as dropping them from a couple of feet could prove fatal to them. I knew being an animal handler was a serious commitment and a huge responsibility, so I gave it some intense thought and decided I would make this a priority in my life.

During my first experience with the babies, Mindy instructed me to sit down, then covered my clothes with a clean towel and gently lowered a young serval onto my chest.

A young baby William strikes a pose on his first Christmas at the Conservators Center. Photo by Rob Seelye.

A young baby William strikes a pose on his first Christmas at the Conservators Center.
Photo by Rob Seelye.

Six years later, I still get emotional thinking about that moment. It was precious and powerful, and one I’m not likely to ever forget. The serval in my arms was the smallest of the litter. He was called “Tail” because he had a spot of red finger nail polish near the tip of his tail to distinguish him from his brothers, who each also sported nail polish on different parts of their bodies.

Three of the boys were adopted immediately and given the names Sammy, William, and Murphy. Unfortunately, Murphy soon died as a result of a bone disease, which was devastating to those of us who adored him.

I adopted “Tail” and named him Obi because of its African origins, since wild servals are only found in Africa. It comes from the Igbo tribe in Nigeria and means “heart.” Obi was—and still is—fiercely independent, but he loves his brothers intensely, especially Sammy.

As the boys were growing up, my heart melted every time I passed their habitat and heard a familiar “meh!” from Obi or Sammy as they stood at the fence, calling to me to come play.

The Serval Whisperer herself, with Obi Serval!

The Serval Whisperer herself, with Obi Serval!

The serval handling team spent so much time with the babies that they felt comfortable treating us as furniture, heating pads, pillows, and—every now and then—as springboards! We were often greeted with a purr, head butt, drool, and even a nibble on a nose or ear. We were thrilled to watch the little fluffballs grow into healthy, active, happy youngsters… a journey that offered its own challenges and rewards!

Kim Barker
The Serval Whisperer

Editor’s note: If you enjoyed this story, you can look forward to more “serval stories” from Kim.


3 thoughts on “A passion unexpected: The beginning of the serval whisperer

  1. Love this blog post and love the dedication of your staff & volunteers. I just discovered the Conservators Center a few weeks ago at the “Tiger Toss.” Now thinking that I need to relocate to Mebane and become actively involved!

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