When 84-year-old Larry Lantagne went outside to rake his yard Monday, it would be the second time in four months a stray cat attacked him without warning.
"The funny thing was, this cat was rubbing against my leg," said Lantagne, who lives in Payson North. "It went behind me and I thought he was going into my back yard. All of a sudden he charged me from behind and wrapped himself around my leg. I was so startled."
Biting and scratching, the jet-black cat clung to Lantagne's left leg.
"I'm in pretty good health for my age, but I don't move as good as I used to," Lantagne said. "I hit him with my rake and he finally let go."
Lantagne, a widower, limped into his home to discover the cat had torn a vein in his leg. "I tried everything to stop the bleeding, but it wouldn't stop -- you should have seen my kitchen floor," Lantagne said. "I'm all alone now, so I had to go to the emergency room."
Concerned the cat may have broken a tooth inside one of the deep wounds, doctors ordered X-rays and began the first in a series of five rabies shots.
The cat was described as pure black, weighing 8 to 10 pounds. Neighbors believe it may have belonged to a resident who moved away years ago, leaving the cat to live in the wild, but no one knows for sure.
Lantagne reported both cat attacks to Payson animal control officer Don Tanner.
"At first I thought it was a dog bite because (Lantagne) had three large lacerations on his leg that looked more like a dog attack," Tanner said.
Tanner placed a trap in the neighborhood hoping to capture the cat and have it tested so Lantagne might avoid additional rabies treatments.
On Thursday morning, a cat matching Lantagne's description was caught in the trap.
"It will be euthanized and sent to the Arizona State lab to be tested for rabies," Tanner said. "That's the primary thing we need to test them for." But Tanner said there are a number of other cat diseases that can mimic rabies and cause a cat to act irrationally.
"This is odd behavior for a cat, especially feral, because feral cats usually don't want to have anything to do with humans."
Tim Bradley is a board member for Payson Friends of Ferals, a nonprofit organization that believes in practicing nonlethal methods to control the population of feral cats.
He agrees that this behavior was not typical.
"Feral cats are wild and will normally run away," Bradley said. "They don't want interaction with humans. This was most likely a stray cat that has had some contact with humans."
But for neighbors in the Payson North area, feral or stray makes little difference when a cat is attacking.
"I'm afraid for my wife," said Frank Lancy, 88. "Because this last attack on my neighbor was unprovoked. I'm going to have a knee operation, and I can't run very fast to escape from a vicious cat. I'm especially concerned about a small child that might try to pet a cat like that. If the cat attacked his face -- God help that child."
Lancy is one of a growing number of residents in the area who disagree with the Trap, Neuter and Return (TNR) program endorsed by Payson Friends of Ferals.
"I'm concerned about the policy to put the cats back in the neighborhood," Lancy said. "In my mind, this is a public safety issue. I think the cats, once they are wild, should be put to sleep because they're too dangerous."
"Now I realize that people who love animals won't like this thinking, but it's for the public good," Lancy said. "A man shouldn't have to be afraid to walk out in his front yard. I think action needs to be taken here."
"I think it's wrong to bring them back," he said. "Four months ago another cat attacked me. It was trapped and put in quarantine. It didn't have rabies, but it had a cat disease. I've been going around the neighborhood warning the ladies about this latest cat."
Lisa Boyle, one of the founders of Payson Friends of Ferals, said killing the cats is not the answer.
"If you come into an area, and you trap and kill the feral cats, they will be replaced by more feral cats," Boyle said. "The problem here is horrendous. For several years, we've been killing all the feral cats that people bring to the humane society. Last year we killed almost 600 and we've noticed no reduction in the population. Killing them doesn't work."
Boyle explained that one female feral cat, if left unspayed along with all of her offspring for a period of seven years, could lead to 400,000 cats.
"Trap, neuter and return is the only statistically proven effort that begins to reduce the number of feral cats through natural attrition," Boyle said. "The cats that come through our program will also have a rabies shot."
But Boyle agrees that this was an unusual circumstance.
"Any animal that proves to be dangerous needs to be trapped and killed," she said. "But you don't hear about this very often. There are thousands of feral cats in this community. If all of them were vicious, we'd be seeing attacks every day. That cat needs to be destroyed and tested for rabies. I feel very sad for this man, but we shouldn't stereotype all feral cats."
Boyle emphasized that TNR isn't the complete answer to the feral cat problem in Payson. "The real answer is for people to practice responsible pet ownership," she said. "They need to have their cats spayed and neutered, and take them with them when they move. That's how we ended up with all these feral cats -- through abandonment."
Anyone who sees a dangerous animal within town limits should call Tanner by contacting Payson Police dispatch at (928) 474-5177.
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