from St. Petersburg Times

HOME   Owners say cougar's attack was play


October 27, 1999

A 6-year-old girl's father says he just wants to see a friend's big cat confined after it bit and clawed his daughter. The girl needed 12 stitches after the attack Monday.

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Zeus the cougar was only playing, his owners said.

If he had really meant business when he attacked a 6-year-old friend of the family Monday, they said, the girl would have had more than 12 stitches, a few scratches, bruises and puncture marks on her face.

"She's real lucky," said Cheryl Epley, whose daughter, Rachel Epley, was attacked by the 14-month-old, 100-pound cat while she was playing outside at a friend's house east of Spring Hill. "He had had his mouth on her face and his paws around her. If he wasn't playing he would have crushed her skull."

Rachel, who was taken to the emergency room of Oak Hill Hospital after the attack about 4 p.m., was recovering at home Tuesday and feeling fine, her parents said. Zeus, meanwhile, has been quarantined inside his owner's home while authorities from the Health Department and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigate.

Linda and David Dye, who moved to 14260 Irving St. in August and have raised Zeus since he was a kitten, do not have the proper permit for the cat. Although the state requires all cougar owners to have special cages built for their exotic animals, the Dyes keep Zeus on an 8-foot chain leash bolted to the floor inside their house.

They are in the process of applying for a permit and also are building Zeus a large "playpen" in the yard that far exceeds state requirements, Mrs. Dye said. The cat has all the proper shots and his front paws have been declawed, she added.

"He's like our son," said Mrs. Dye, who said no special permit was required in Arkansas, where she lived before moving to Hernando. "He sits on my lap and sucks on my thumb."

Zeus' usually pleasant demeanor was of little comfort to Rachel on Monday when she was playing in the Dyes' back yard after school. Zeus saw Rachel through an open window and lunged at her, according to a Hernando County sheriff's report. His leash was long enough that he was able to get outside and take hold of her until one of the Dyes' daughters pulled the cat away.

"He sees little kids as walking toys," said Mrs. Dye, who explained that she does not let children go into Zeus' room alone. "We've shortened the chain now. We didn't realize he could (get outside)."

Lt. Dennis Parker, an inspector with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said that is why the state requires exotic animal owners to have a permit.

"If the owner had a permit, he would have been required to have a cage. And if they had had a cage, this would have never happened," Parker said, adding that the Dyes should have applied for the permit before moving to Florida. "That's what I would do if I had an animal that was valuable to me."

Parker is investigating whether any sanctions with be levied against the Dyes. At the very least, they will have to give up Zeus -- who could reach 250 pounds as an adult -- until they qualify for a permit, he said. Most likely, that means sending the cat to a zoo. There are about 40 private owners of cougars in the Tampa Bay area, he said.

County officials said there are no local permits required for animals such as Zeus.

Dye said Tuesday that she couldn't stand to lose Zeus. The family has already started to dig the trench for his playpen, which she says is eight times bigger than the minimum requirements. And she stressed that as soon as they learned of the permit requirement, she and her husband started gathering the paperwork to qualify.

"We've got plans to make sure this never happens again," she said. "Of course I'm worried (about Zeus). We've raised him as part of the family."

The Epleys, who say they hold no grudge against the Dyes, say they also see no need to take Zeus away -- as long as the family finishes building the cage in their yard.

"At first, I wanted to kill the cat," admitted Tim Epley, Rachel's father. "But I asked my daughter and she said, "Don't kill it.' It just needs to be confined where it can't get to kids."

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