Animal Attack Files Special Report
Special Report filed by AAF Correspondent: Kirk HendersonAnimal Attack Files Special Report
from Sarasota Herald Tribune

HOME   Bobcat that attacked 7 had rabies

August 30 1999

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A bobcat that attacked seven people near Sarasota Square Mall last week -- including a woman nearly eight months pregnant -- was infected with rabies, state health officials determined Monday.

The 20-pound bobcat was clubbed to death by a landscaper Friday in the back yard of a home on Baywood Drive, just east of Sarasota Bay, after authorities had spent 25 hours looking for the animal. Its head was sent for testing at a state Department of Health lab in Tampa.

"We consider rabies to be endemic in Florida," said Lisa Conti, a health department veterinarian. "We expect to see a number of animals with rabies" throughout the state every year.

Conti said 104 animals tested positive for rabies from January through July, with findings common in raccoons, bats, foxes and otters. One other rabid bobcat was found this year in the state -- in Manatee County in January.

Because the bobcat in Sarasota tested positive for the disease, those attacked by it Thursday and Friday must undergo a 28-day regimen of shots to boost their immune systems to fight the virus. Left untreated, rabies can cause death in humans after the virus attacks the brain, causing lethargy, paranoid delusions and coma.

The bobcat first attacked a woman walking her poodle Thursday night near Sunrise Country Club, and then a man walking Friday morning near Prestancia Boulevard.

The third victim, expectant mother Vanessa Hartlove, was cutting palm fronds for a party at an assisted-living facility when the bobcat attacked, biting her in the forearm and scratching her.

"He started growling at me," she said. "I fell to the ground. I was screaming."

The attack knocked over Hartlove, who grabbed the saw she was using to cut the palm fronds and swung it at the bobcat. The animal ran off.

"She will need the rabies vaccination, which is safe to take and will not cause any harm to her or her baby," said Washington C. Hill, a perinatalogist with Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Hill is not Hartlove's doctor, but he treats high-risk pregnancies for the hospital.

"The vaccine is perfectly safe to use," he said.

After biting Hartlove, the bobcat attacked four more people before being killed by landscaper Dennis Marlin. Though the victims endured bites and scratches, none suffered severe injuries.

Homer Rice, a director at the Sarasota County health department, said rabies incubates in humans in as quickly as six weeks -- so those attacked by the bobcat 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 scheduled for the bobcat's victims 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.

Even though the attacks last week were spread over a large area south of Clark Road in Sarasota County, authorities believe only one bobcat was responsible.

Conti said it was possible that the bobcat fought with a rabid raccoon in the wild and contracted the disease. It was not known whether the bobcat infected any other animals.

While searching for the animal last week, traps were set and pet owners were warned not to leave their animals outdoors. Deputies manned bus stops and warned schoolchildren and parents about the animal.

Officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Sarasota County Sheriff's Office tracked the animal based on calls from residents who spotted it in their neighborhoods.

Pet owners can help avoid exposure to rabies by vaccinating their pets, not feeding or handling wildlife or stray animals and feeding cats and dogs indoors.

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