STAFFORD TOWNSHIP, N.J. — A bobcat hybrid who ran away from home last week has to prove he's not purebred before he can go back home to his owners, a judge said Friday.
Rocky, a 38-pound cat who's supposed to be a cross between a bobcat and a Maine coon, went missing from owner Ginny Fine's home here March 25. He was running around the area for almost two weeks until Fine was able to lure him out of the woods this past weekend with the meows from her domestic cat, LC.
Fine called police to tell them Rocky was home, but the township's animal control officers showed up at her home Monday with a court order to take him away to Popcorn Park Zoo in Lacey, N.J.
"If you've got 100% bobcat, that should not be in your backyard," said Municipal Court Judge Damian Murray, who contended the cat could pose a danger to the community.
"He has never hurt anyone," Fine said.
"I sure wouldn't want my grandkids walking up and petting your cat," Murray said.
Rocky will stay at the zoo until the results of a blood test come in, which is expected to take about a week.
If Rocky is not pure bobcat, he would be considered a big kitty under New Jersey state law, not an exotic animal, said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Then he could go home if his owners can erect a special pen to contain him.
Rocky previously went on the lam in September. When he returned home in October, Fine signed a court order vowing not to let him get loose again, township police said. The cat was confiscated Monday because Fine violated the order.
The state requires permits for what it deems exotic animals: mammals like ferrets, kinkajous (a rainforest cousin to the raccoon), hedgehogs and chinchillas; an array of parrots and other birds; reptiles like pythons, boas and gecko; and certain frogs, including the colorful poison dart frogs — which are not poisonous. Pet stores will issue 20-day temporary permits with owners required to file for annual "hobby" permits; more than 5,000 people in New Jersey are registered owners of exotic pets.
The New Jersey bans residents from owning as pets "potentially dangerous species," a category that includes primates, bears, nondomestic cats including lions and tigers, venomous snakes and alligators — generally anything that can maim or kill you.
In 2011, the nation was horrified as sheriff's deputies in Zanesville, Ohio, shot and killed four dozen lions, tigers, bears and primates on the loose after their owner set them free before killing himself.
Fine has started a petition drive to show support to bring Rocky home to stay with his family, which includes two domestic cats, a dog and a bird. And an anonymous donor offered to pay for a pen for Rocky that would comply with the township's specifications.
Both Fine and Popcorn Park both agree that Rocky has a domestic temperament.
Rocky's name came relatively easily for Fine. She was trying to think of macho monikers for her 5-week-old male kitten while she waited for him to be flown into Philadelphia.
But Fine had months of internal debate and research before she decided to bring the feline into her home: Is this the type of cat she wants? Does she understand and is she capable of giving the proper care he needs? And could she find a breeder with whom she was comfortable?
"I spent over a year researching it just to make sure I knew what I was getting in for," she said. "It wasn't some sort of whim kind of thing."
Fine said she was first drawn to the idea of owning a bobcat hybrid kitten after coming across a website while shopping for pet supplies. Fine thought she would be required to get a permit for him; instead she registered the 38-pound cat with township officials and kept him up to date on his shots
Murray said if Rocky is purebred bobcat, Fine cannot get back the animal without obtaining the appropriate permits from the state — and hobby permits don't cover bobcats.
"Fish and Game feels that this in fact may not be a hybrid cat," Murray said.
New Jersey fish and wildlife officials had investigated the business in Montana from which Fine obtained Rocky, and based on that they formed suspicions that the animal is not a hybrid, the judge said. The website of the company, Bitter Root Bobcat & Lynx, and its annual reports to the state of Montana represent that it sells purebred bobcats, not hybrids.
The state investigation also turned up an incident in New York in which the company sold an animal as a hybrid when a blood test determined it was a purebred bobcat, Murray said. He acknowledged that Fine may not have known she was obtaining a purebred bobcat if Rocky is determined to be one.
Back in the 1980s, her brother owned an ocelot, and Fine had been struck with that cat's beauty.
She said hybrids seem to bond more closely to their owners. She experienced it first hand after Hurricane Sandy, when Rocky remained glued to her side and wouldn't venture down to the first floor, which needed to be remodeled after flood damage.
"He senses something is wrong and not normal," Fine said, recalling what her breeder told her when she called to inquire about the new behavior. "His instinct is to cling to you because you are his support system."