As a dutiful adherent of ‘Adopt, don’t shop’, I always assumed that when I eventually did get a cat, it would be a scraggly rescue with one eye or perhaps a handful of kittens found in a dumpster. Then I started following members of the Russian serval-owner community on Instagram.
For the uninitiated, servals are majestic, leggy African wildcats about the size of border collies. They have become popular in the exotic-pet world; particularly, it seems, in Russia. And, like any North American inhaling a slow drip of Russian propaganda on a daily basis, my outlook (on pet ownership) began to change. Maybe … maybe there is more in this life for me. Maybe I could become an Instagram Serval girl.
I currently follow four Russian serval accounts: Serval Chester, Serval Lexus, Serval Leya and Serval Shanti. They each have about the same number of followers as a moderately successful New York media person, which is shocking, given the elite and high-quality content they produce. All the accounts seem to follow one another, and I like to think of them as a little chosen family, bonding over their shared love of exotic cats in the cold Russian winters. It warms my heart to imagine them trading tips on the best leashes or getting together for serval-owner meetups at the local borscht spot.
While I love all my giant serval children, Serval Shanti is my favorite. I have still not figured out whether Serval Shanti is a serval named Shanti or a woman named Shanti who owns a serval, because I don’t speak Russian, and everything about this Instagram account is very, very Russian. But I do know that I люблю (love) this bitch’s life.
Shanti (the woman, maybe, let’s say?) has three pets: a serval, a regular cat, and a snake, and she often lets them play together. They even made it on to on a Russian TV show for a segment on (I assume) their unlikely friendship. Sometimes she holds the two cats up to compare how long they are — a fun exercise, because according to Google, the serval has the longest legs of any cat relative to its body size. At other times, more worryingly, she lets the snake slither over the cats, like an expensive scarf, or simply lets the serval gaze into the snake’s terrarium with a bloodthirsty expression on its face. This concerns me: It seems like the snake could easily go rogue and kill the regular cat, or the serval could go rogue and kill the snake, or the regular cat could surprise us and kill them both in a fit of rage. But still, isn’t it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?
I have read the Russian tragedies, at least skimmed some of them, and that’s my takeaway.
Meanwhile, Shanti (the serval) gets to do a lot of things a regular cat would not be able to do. It goes for walks on a leash and receives bouquets of roses. It wears a chic winter jacket. It takes baths. It loves to chow down on a hunk of bloody raw meat straight from its owner’s palm and appears to enjoy feasting on the hearts of smaller animals; yet sometimes, inexplicably, it snacks on a bowl of cherries. Serval Lexus, another serval that I follow, sometimes wears an elegant diamond-studded collar and appears to be rented out for photo shoots with different women or perhaps belongs to some sort of timeshare arrangement.
As a bonus, all of the accounts feature women whispering to their cats in gentle ASMR voices, as well as music videos set to an incredible selection of Russian pop songs.
When they aren’t making videos at home, Shanti the cat and Shanti the woman take lots of photos together in various landscapes around the Moscow region, such as a sandy beach, a forest, and a river. I appreciate that I am learning about Russian geography while also getting to look at photos of this very nice and rare cat. Woman-Shanti often dresses up for their photo shoots in chunky heels or an elegant fur hood, and together they make an extremely photogenic duo. Sometimes I imagine myself and my own serval walking around the Lower East Side — me in my Sandy Liang puffer, it in its regular fur — earning the respect and adulation of all the Dimes girls as I go out for my morning matcha. It’s a nice thing to think about.
There are plenty of good exotic-animal accounts on Instagram, yet there’s something about these serval-owning Russian women that I find particularly evocative. I don’t know much about what life in Russia is like, but elegant women with lip fillers walking their bejeweled exotic cats through crumbling Soviet apartment blocks certainly fits with my imagined understanding of the place — a blend of decadence and grime, shot through with an undercurrent of dangerous stupidity.
I will probably not end up adopting a serval, because I looked it up and they are illegal in most states, and I don’t think people should keep wild animals in their homes. However, in New York State (though not New York City), you are allowed to own Savannah cats, which are servals crossed with domestic cats, as long as they are at least six generations from their wildcat ancestor. It’s comforting to know that, in the event of a midlife crisis or a massive personality overhaul, I could always move upstate and get a Savannah cat. Of course, I would also adopt a regular cat as a sort of feline carbon-offset tax, and they would happily coexist along with whatever reptiles I should eventually choose to throw into the mix. It’s what Serval Shanti, both the cat and the woman, would want.