Pima County sees increase in ’08 of wildlife infected with the disease
The two University of Arizona scientists first spotted the eyes.
It was a bobcat, staring at Katrina Mangin and Rich Thompson as they hiked Saturday through one of their favorite spots in the Santa Rita Mountains, south of Gardner Canyon.
Thompson, 46, immediately knew he and his wife were in trouble.
“Rabid bobcat!” Thompson, a geologist, shouted to Mangin, a 54-year-old marine biologist. “Watch out!”
The next 10 minutes, the couple fought off the bobcat before Thompson pinned it to the ground with a stick and killed it with a hammer from his backpack.
Tests later determined the animal was rabid.
“It wasn’t hard to figure out that there was no choice but to fight it to the death because it was so persistent,” he said. “It’s very sad. This poor kitty cat was deranged by its disease-riddled brain. I love the native cats. It was terrible to have to kill it.”
Pima County Health officials last week warned of an increase in rabies cases this year. Thirty-eight rabid animals had been found near the Pima-Pinal county line as of April 18, officials said, double the number from the period in 2007.
The ordeal began Saturday afternoon for Mangin and Thompson. The latter is known in the scientific community for discovering a dinosaur near Sonoita in 1994 that was later named after him – Sonorasaurus thompsoni.
He and Mangin planned to camp in the mountains. When they arrived, they left the car packed and headed off on a hike with their dogs: Lily, an Australian shepherd mix, and Violet, a German shepherd mix.
On the way back, about a mile from the car, Mangin spotted the bobcat staring at them.
“I knew immediately it was a rabid bobcat and we were in trouble,” Thompson said.
How did he know?
“I have no idea,” he said. “But it was totally obvious to me.”
While there was no frothing at the mouth, the cat’s behavior was odd, Thompson said. It was not afraid of the hikers.
They tried to get away from the bobcat, but it pursued them. It lunged at Mangin, climbing up her legs and wrapping its body around her, clawing and biting.
“It just jumped on me and sunk its teeth in my calf,” she said. “It seemed unreal. I grabbed it off of my leg and threw it. It jumped back on me. I was screaming and gasping. I was so terrified.”
Thompson used his backpack to knock the cat off his wife. He hollered for her to take the dogs, which stood by during the attack.
Mangin and the pets ran up a hill, with the cat in pursuit. Thompson got between the cat and his wife, and it jumped on his back.
“I hit it with the backpack over my shoulder,” he said. The cat fell to the dirt and lunged again.
“It attacked me again, and I threw it down.” Thompson finally was forced to kill the animal.
The frantic attack covered an area of about 100 yards, he said. Both were wearing long pants and sleeves, reducing the extent of the injuries.
Thompson knew he should remove the bobcat, to prevent infecting other animals who might feed on it. But it continued to twitch, and they knew they needed immediate medical help.
They drove to University Medical Center, where they were given anti-rabies shots and strong antibiotics were prescribed.
Rabies immune globulin was injected into each puncture area. Thompson received six injections in his hand, back, lower buttock, thigh and calf. Mangin received injections in her leg.
They each received another injection Tuesday and will get three more doses. While painful, the shots were not as bad as Mangin expected.
“We’re both very grateful for modern medicine,” she said.
Thompson said the emergency room staff at UMC was “wonderful.”
The couple returned to the mountain the next day with Mark Friedberg, wildlife manager with the Arizona Game & Fish Department. Friedberg bagged the cat’s undisturbed remains.
An attack by a rabid animal “is definitely kind of rare,” Friedberg said, adding Tucsonans shouldn’t be deterred from spending time outdoors.
Though he has not seen an increase in cases of rabies this spring, Friedberg advised people to be aware of odd behavior in wildlife. “The best thing you can do is protect yourself any way you can if you come across a rabid animal,” he said.
Thompson and Mangin were wise to seek medical care as quickly as possible, Friedberg said. “It definitely can be fatal if you don’t get it treated immediately.”
The pair said they will return to the area, but it won’t be without some fear – and a couple of big sticks.
“I don’t want people to be afraid to go hiking,” said Mangin, a marine biologist in the UA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who coordinates science outreach to K-12 schools for the College of Science.
“It is so rare to be bitten by a rabid animal. It’s one of those struck-by-lightning kinds of things,” she said.
As man continues to encroach on the habitats of wild animals, there will be similar incidents, Mangin said.
“If you really want to have wild areas, every once in a while there will be an encounter with wild animals,” she said. “There’s a trade-off involved. It’s a privilege to live here, and it’s completely worth the risk to have such wonderful natural resources available to us.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Signs that an animal might be rabid:
• It has lost its fear of humans.
• It shows signs of aggression and will not leave you alone.
• Possible frothing at the mouth.
Source: Mark Friedberg, wildlife manager, Arizona Game & Fish Department
For more information about rabies, call the Arizona Department of Health Services at 602-364-4562 or the Pima County Health Department at 243-7770.
WHAT TO DO
What to do if you encounter an animal that could be rabid:
• Protect yourself any way you can. Get in your home, car or other shelter. Find objects that will act as a shield and a weapon.
• Get away quickly.
• Report the incident to Arizona Game & Fish at 628-5376 or Pima Animal Control at 243-5900.
• If you are injured, call 911 or get to the nearest hospital quickly.
ON THE WEB
Arizona Department of Health Services rabies information