Normally when I point my Sony at an African jungle cat, my good friend Rod Hackney is standing around in a North Carolina Zoo golf shirt and making small talk with inqusitive visitors. But the 'Zoo Filez' host wasn't around today when I leaned down on one knee and squinted at what I thought was an ocelot. As I did, the spotted feline glared and hissed - exposing a set of razor-sharp teeth custom-made for ripping into the flesh of bearded cameramen of any continent. Behind me, a narrow-framed animal control officer tightened the grip on his catchpole, despite the fact the captured animal was lounging comfortably in a padlocked cage.
"Don't get him all squirelly, now..."
Not wanting to end up on 'When Animals Attack', I took his advice and kept my distance. Still, I framed up shot after shot of the incarcerated mammal, working quickly to record as many different images of the vexed predator as I could, before cageside got too crowded. Glancing around, I met the gaze of one Nelson Kepley. The softspoken News and Record photographer has a habit of appearing in my peripheal vision. We fell into our usual bus-stop chatter as we aimed our collective glass at the apprehended cat.
"He's my baby boy, he sleeps with me."
The tone of voice was urgent and after my head turned toward the sound, shoulders and lens naturally followed. A distraught young woman, wearing flip-flops, sweatsuit and a grimace paced around the edges of my one-inch screen. As her rather tall male companion shot me the dirtiest of looks, I smiled weakly and looked around. The nice lady from the Animal Shelter who'd let me in minutes earlier was now frowning into her cellphone. Behind her, my partner for the day Tera Williams appeared, questions in mind and microphone in hand. As we moved in on the drama at hand, I scanned the perimeter for enemy lenses. Seeing none, I centered up and smiled behind the viewfinder.
"I've had him for six years. I've had him since he was three weeks old, he came out of Nashville...he goes everywhere with me."
Megan Morris wasn't the only person to have claimed dominion over the exotic animal, but the look on her face told me she was in fact the true owner. Contained yet strained, her voice all but quivered as she told us how she'd purchased the Serval from a breeder in Tennessee. According to her, the animal was legal in North Carolina, but the County Attorney on the shelter cell phone begged to disagree. This opinion inflamed Miss Morris, but to her credit, she kept her measured tone.
"He's not an aggressive animal, he's had five surgeries, he hates being in a kennel."
Use that one for the tease", the producer said before exiting the edit bay. With a few not so random few keystrokes, I isolated the soundbite, dropped it to a timeline and trimmed the audio. Hitting the save button, I collapsed the window and fed the segment to the server down the hall. 'Ten more to go', I thought as I dragged and dropped icons across the screen. By the time I finished, a half dozen electronic incarnations of the runaway cat sat in my Save Bin. I still had no idea if a Serval was was legal to own in North Carolina, but for me it didn't matter. What did hold dire consequence was whether or not I made my deadline, though it was really never in question. While the alleged pet marked hard-time across town, I hacked its image and hiss into bite-size morsels, to be sprinkled liberally across the evening newscasts. It was about that time that Outer Space called.
"Network wants your ocelot piece", a familar voice said behind me, "Can we get it on the bird in five minutes?"
"It's not an ocelot," I said, but the voice's owner had already vanished. Knowing my place in the jungle, I didn't bother to look around, instead I leaned into the screen and whittled away. 'Hope that lady gets her cat back.' I thought as my fingers danced over the keyboard. Either way, it's a safe bet someone of my logo will do a follow-up tomorrow, for a locked-down non-ocelot is just a few series pieces shy of a waterskiing squirrel. And we all know what good TV THAT makes.
FOLO-UP! After meeting with Megan Morris, the Guilford County Attorney agreed to return Sabre to her, along with a stiff order: Get it out of Guilford County. Morris says she'll probably relocate to neighboring Rockingham County, where exotic animal ordinances are less stringent. Somewhere outside Reidsville, a young apartment dweller will soon start hearing myssterious thumps and low growls emanating from the new neighbor's unit. We'll keep you updated!