According to Robert Fowler, last Saturday was “just another day” for his five children, aged nine to 17.
“I’ve had bubonic plague from handling animals, horse accidents, a lot of different things,” Fowler said. “My kids are used to it. This wasn’t a big deal to them. In fact, they sort of giggled and said, ‘Oh, what is it now?’”
Fowler’s answer: He had been attacked by a rabid and particularly tenacious fox, which bit him four times before he was able to pry its teeth out of his leg and strangle the animal to death with his bare hands.
Last weekend, Fowler a 46-year-old ranch manager who lives south of Rye was hunting for deer a few miles from his home in the median wilderness which lies between the north- and southbound lanes of Highway 87.
When he first noticed the young female, 12-pound fox, Fowler said, it had just attached itself to the back of his leg.
“I’ve been around wildlife for a long time, so right away I thought it was rabid,” he said. “The fox just kept jumping on me. I’d knock it away and it would jump on me, I’d knock it away and it would jump on me again.”
What the situation boiled down to, Fowler said, was “a matter of trying to get the fox far enough away from me to either shoot it or grab hold of it where it was safe. I kept hitting it with my fists, but I kept hitting its teeth because it’s mouth was always snapping. I ended up with five places on my hands where the skin was broken.”
Although Fowler was carrying a rifle, “I couldn’t get the fox far enough away from me to use it. Finally, it grabbed hold of my ankle. Since its teeth were in my leather boots instead of my skin, I pinned it to the ground with the rifle and then choked it.”
What was he feeling throughout all this?
“Like I had to kill the fox,” Fowler replied, laughing.
But seriously, he added, “It was terrifying, because of the ferocity of the fox. She was screaming; they have a horrible scream, almost like a wildcat’s. In those situations, our minds have a tendency to think way faster than they do when we’re relaxed. So I came to realize, ‘This fox is rabid, it’s not going to let up, I need to do something’ and all of that takes place in the wink of an eye.”
When the battle was over, Fowler’s thinking remained fast and clear. He carried the animal’s carcass to his car, knowing it would have to be tested for rabies, then drove himself to Payson Regional Medical Center for treatment.
Monday afternoon, test results on the fox were announced by Gila County Animal Control officials: the fox was indeed rabid.
But Fowler already knew that.
“Right away, I thought, ‘I’m going to have to get a bunch of shots in my belly,’ because that’s what I’d always heard about rabies shots when I was a kid,” he said. “But now what they do is just inject you in each (wound) location ... I had three or four main bites, and a lot of others where the skin was just broken. So I had to have shots around and underneath all of those.”
The shots are a series of “postexposure prophylaxis” injections to prevent any possible rabies virus Fowler received from the fox from entering his brain, where it would cause fatal damage.
“The shots weren’t bad,” Fowler said. “They were better than the alternative. They’re just shots. They haven’t affected my work or anything. It’s just an inconvenience having to get them.”
Looking back on his experience, Fowler considers himself to be a lucky man.
“I’m glad it wasn’t a bobcat or a mountain lion,” he said. “I feel for the elderly gentleman who was attacked by a rabid bobcat a few weeks ago in Payson. That had to be ten times the magnitude of what I went through.”
As for what he might have learned from his experience, Fowler said, “I don’t know that it changed my perception of anything other than while rabies is so prevalent in this area, I don’t want my kids out in the brush.
“One thing I would say is that, if you’re going to be out in the woods, it would be a good idea to carry a handgun. That way, if you see a suspicious-looking animal that won’t back off, you can defend yourself. That would be my recommendation.”
But not a hard-line suggestion.
“The next time I go hunting, I’ll be fine. This was just a once-in-a-lifetime incident. I sincerely doubt that I will run into another rabid animal again. But if I do, I’ve already got some shots ahead of time,” Fowler said, only half-joking. “I’m safer now than I was before.”
Rabies in Payson
Two days after Fowler’s encounter, another fox that had also been behaving erratically was captured and killed by animal control officers on Doll Baby Road just west of the Northern Gila County Sanitary District in Payson.
Wednesday, it was announced that the second fox had been infected with rabies, too.
Residents of the area called both Payson and Gila County animal control officers Monday morning to report that the fox was fighting with a dog.
The dog, a Queensland heeler, was not bitten, according to Payson Animal Control Officer Don Tanner. But because it had no recent record of a rabies vaccination, the dog has been put in quarantine at the Payson Humane Society.
“Dogs don’t have to be bitten to be exposed to rabies,” Tanner said. “If they just come nose-to-nose, that’s an exposure.”
The dog’s owners must now choose between two difficult options.
“The first option calls for 180 days in quarantine, and the only place we could do that would be at the county pound in Globe at a cost of $1,285,” Tanner said. “The second option would be to euthanize the dog. The owners haven’t decided yet.”
As the dog’s owners ponder their choices, Tanner offered a message to all Rim country pet owners.
“This is what can happen when you don’t keep your dogs’ and cats’ vaccinations up to date. People have to get their animals vaccinated for rabies, and to keep the vaccinations current.”