A bobcat that attacked an 80-year-old man in a Payson neighborhood Saturday morning was infected with rabies, county health officials determined Monday.
Tom Garner suffered numerous scratches and bites to his arms, back and neck. Hours after the attack, Garner began a regimen of shots to boost his immune system to fight the virus.
The bobcat, estimated to weigh 40 to 50 pounds, was cornered and shot to death soon after the Saturday morning attack by Arizona Game and Fish Department officials, according to Sgt. Tom Tieman of the Payson Police Department. It is suspected to be the same bobcat that chased two men down the Payson Airport runway Friday afternoon before eluding capture in the airport's drainage system.
"My guess is that it was the same bobcat," said Henry Apfel, a wildlife manager for Arizona Game and Fish Department who tried to catch the animal at the airport. "But I can't say for sure."
By Monday afternoon, Apfel also was guessing that the bobcat was rabid.
"That is not normal behavior, to jump on an individual's back like that," Apfel said. "Based on that, I would assume it was rabid."
Bobcats are brownish-golden, have a short, stubby tail and usually weigh between 20 and 30 pounds, although larger specimens can weigh up to 80 pounds. They hunt at night and are rarely seen during the day.
Attack of the cat
Garner, a three-year resident of Sherwood Drive, takes a walk in his neighborhood every morning. Saturday, he was just 75 feet from his home near East Eidelweiss Circle when the bobcat leaped at him "like a bolt of lightning," Garner said.
"All I saw was something furry. All of a sudden, he was on my back. I thought it was some little dog attacking me. He started growling, then he started biting me on the neck, clawing me on the arms, and digging his hind paws into my back."
Garner tried hitting the bobcat with a short walking stick he was carrying, "but it broke on the first try," he said. "I started hollering for somebody to come help me get this thing off my back, but nobody answered. But then I bent over and flipped him right off my back. After he hit the ground, he jumped into a culvert."
With blood running down his arms, neck and back, Garner went home and called 911.
"Then I walked back out on my porch and there was the bobcat, standing at the bottom of my stairs and growling at me," Garner said. "He wanted another round, I guess. If I hadn't got him off me, he would have done me in in a few minutes. He would have cut my jugular vein or chewed my spine in two. He was vicious. I'm 80 years old. Why couldn't he have attacked a younger guy?"
According to the Payson Police Department's report, the cat was not near Garner's home upon their arrival, so officers took Garner directly to Payson Regional Medical Center for treatment. They then received a call from a resident of Eidelweiss Circle who reported that the bobcat was in his dog run "giving two Rottweilers a hard time," Tieman said. The cat was cornered at that residence, and was shot by a Game and Fish officer.
"Of course, they took the head off, and it was sent to the health department down in the Valley for testing," Tieman said, adding that the Rottweilers were not injured by the bobcat.
Friday afternoon, Ken Howard and Larry Bardowicks were cleaning up a hangar at the Payson Airport when they saw what they first thought was a coyote near the facility's drainage system.
"Turned out to be a bobcat," Howard, a part-time Payson resident, said. "We went out there, and he came out and meowed a little, and rubbed against a drainage pipe, just like a kitten. Then it came out and started chasing us down the runway and to the hangar ... When I finally stopped running to turn around, it was about four feet away from me. It was running so fast that, when it got inside the hangar, it slid across the concrete floor. It ended up underneath the airplane."
After Bardowicks tried and failed to retrieve a gun from his car, Howard jumped into a four-wheeler that was parked in the hangar, started the engine and backed out.
"Larry jumped in, and we sped off to the east, down the taxiway," Howard said. "I didn't look back until we were pretty far away, and the bobcat was chasing us again. So I kept on going, and that's when it finally darted back into a drainage pipe and we called 911."
At the time, Howard said, the bobcat did not seem to be acting erratically.
"It just seemed like it was just having fun with us," he said. "I really wasn't scared. But when a wild animal is chasing you, you run."
Although Payson Police Department, Game and Fish Department and Animal Control officers arrived at the scene, the bobcat eluded capture by slipping into the drainage system, which has multiple exits, Apfel said.
The threat of rabies
"They said it's 99 percent sure, because of his behavior, that the bobcat was rabid," Garner said Monday. "So I got eight shots Saturday; I get one tomorrow, then another eight, then next Friday I have to take 16 shots two days in a row. And boy, do they hurt. That needle goes in a long ways."
Left untreated, rabies can cause death in humans after the virus attacks the brain, causing lethargy, paranoid delusions and coma.
Rabies incubates in humans in as quickly as six weeks, so those attacked by rabid animals need to get the first two shots in the regimen as soon as possible.
The first injection, a human rabies immunoglobulin, provides immediate resistance to the virus. The second, a rabies vaccine administered five times during the next four weeks, helps the body build its resistance to the virus.
The shots Garner is receiving will be far less painful than for those exposed to the virus in the past. Thanks to medical advances, the regimen includes about six shots in the arm over 28 days instead of up to 21 shots directly into the wall of the abdomen.
Drought conditions in Arizona are contributing to a rate of animal rabies infections apace with last year's record 129 confirmed cases. As of early August, the Arizona Department of Health Services had confirmed 91 cases of animal rabies, and exposure had led to vaccines for 119 people.
Skunks account for 39 of the above total; bats, 28; foxes, 20; llamas, three ... and bobcats, zero. Nationally, wild animals accounted for 93 percent of reported cases of rabies in 2000, the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The last rabies death in Arizona occurred in 1981.
Tips to protect yourself
All dogs and cats are required by law to be vaccinated against rabies at the age of four months and vaccinations must be kept current for the life of the animal.
Dogs are required by law to be physically restrained to the owner's property by fence or leash. Roaming pets are more likely to be exposed to rabies without the owner's knowledge.
Make sure your dog or cat wears its animal license/rabies tag at all times so that the vaccination status and owner can be easily established.
DO NOT keep wild animals as pets. Even a raccoon or skunk born and raised in captivity can be a rabies carrier. Further, the keeping of wild animals as pets is illegal in the state of Arizona without the proper permits and licenses.
Do not approach or handle any wild animals. Almost any animal will attack if cornered or threatened. Avoid wild animals even if they appear healthy or friendly. If you find an animal that may be sick or injured, contact Animal Control.
Make your house and yard unattractive to wild animals. Feed pets inside when possible, if fed outside remove uneaten food promptly; keep trash cans tightly covered ; cap chimneys; and seal off any openings in attics, under porches, in basements, or outbuildings.
Teach children not to approach strange dogs, cats, or other animals and to report any bite, scratch or contact with any animal.
Report to Animal Control any strays or any animal behaving in an unusual or abnormal way
If your dog, cat, or other animal has been bitten or attacked by a raccoon or other wild animal or stray, REPORT the incident to Animal Control so that appropriate action can be taken.
REPORT ALL ANIMAL BITES TO ANIMAL CONTROL. In the event of an animal bite or scratch immediately clean out the wound with soap and running water.
In addition, you may need to call your doctor, or the Payson office of the Gila County Health Department at 474-1210.