Exotic African cat seen on trail cameras in backwoods of North Carolina. What is it?

Is this Rocky, the lost serval? The photo was taken Sept. 17 in the Fuquay Varina area near Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s believed he’s traveling east.
Is this Rocky, the lost serval? The photo was taken Sept. 17 in the Fuquay Varina area near Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s believed he’s traveling east. Photo courtesy Brian Hankins

Bigfoot and the Lizard Man are often cited when it comes to strange creatures supposedly roaming the Carolinas, but rumors of late have centered around a large, spotted cat seen on security footage and trail cams.

Brian Hankins of Kitty Hawk has been posting reports on his Facebook page for months, hoping the shadowy creature is in fact the exotic African serval that escaped from his home exactly a year ago.

Servals are felines that appear to be a mix of house cat and leopard, and they are as foreign to North Carolina’s backwoods as lions and tigers.

Rocky the serval loves dogs and kids. Brian Hankins photo

Hankins’ beloved serval, named Rocky, has developed a cult following on social media, as stories have spread of its astounding trek from the coast to central North Carolina.

That’s more than 250 miles traveled while avoiding major roads or highways.

“He keeps showing up on camera and video. He is a long way away, but he’s trying to find his way back (home) to the coast,” Hankins told McClatchy news group on Monday.

“He was up in Virginia Beach at one point, then headed west and was caught on film 50 miles west of Dismal Swamp. He then showed up in Clayton 19 days ago. He may be within a 50 miles radius (of Clayton) by now.”

Even more surprising, he says, is that Rocky “appears healthy as can be to have traveled hundreds of miles.” He guesses the serval is eating birds to survive.

“They are very successful hunters, highest of all the cats, but winter is coming,” Hankins says. “He somehow survived out last winter.”

Rocky has attracted the attention of law enforcement more than once, prompting police alerts in April after people in Virginia Beach claimed they saw a giant cat. Rocky managed to slip past the police, adding to his reputation as a rascal.

On Oct. 13, deputies in Fairfield County, Ohio, shot and killed a free-roaming serval after it attacked a dog, and rumors quickly spread that it was Rocky. Hankins eventually took to Facebook to assure followers the serval killed in Ohio was not his lost pet.

However, the incident heightened his fear that Rocky will be shot. Hankins is offering a $2,000 reward to anyone who catches Rocky alive and calls their local animal control department.

Rocky stands just over 2 feet at the shoulders, weighs about 35 pounds and may still be wearing a black GPS locator box that has run out of battery power.

“Do not shoot. He’s like family,” Hankins said. “He slept in my lap nightly since he was seven weeks old and he grew up with dogs. Rocky will be fine as long as no one shoots him or hits him with a car.”

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Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.