Just a pet to owner, a threat to others
Officials think a cat that attacked two people is part wild and want to test it for rabies. Problem is, they’d have to put it to sleep first.
By SHADI RAHIMI
Published June 1, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG — Melissa Russell was taking her usual Saturday morning walk when a striped cat named Czar yowled and lunged at her.
Then he then bit her in the calf.
“I was shocked,” said Russell, 78, of Snell Isle.
An hour later, 6-year-old Cole Fisher stopped to pet Czar. The cat bit him in the thigh, said his mother, Lana.
Now the county wants to seize Czar to test it for rabies. Officials think Czar is part wild, an exotic Bengal. No rabies vaccines are approved for hybrids or wild animals, so a rabies test requires killing the cat first.
But Czar’s owner, Jo Ellen Janas, 53, won’t give him up. She insists Czar is a domestic cat, not a Bengal.
This week, the county filed a petition for an injunction to force Janas to hand over Czar.
“It’s a tough deal,” said Dr. Welch Agnew, the county’s assistant director for animal services. “We never want to take somebody’s pet, but we’ve got victims out there.”
Both families said Janas was apologetic after learning of the attacks, which occurred May 20. Janas assured them Czar had been vaccinated for rabies and mailed copies of his veterinary record.
That’s where Russell saw that Czar was classified as a Bengal, an exotic hybrid created by breeding a domestic cat with an Asian leopard.
She alerted animal services.
On May 24 , a county animal services officer went to Janas’ home on Brightwaters Boulevard to take Czar and get him tested for rabies.
The test requires putting the cat to sleep and removing his brain to check the stem for antibodies.
If Czar does not have rabies, Russell and Fisher can discontinue their rounds of rabies shots, Agnew said.
The total series is one dose of immune globulin and five doses of rabies vaccine over 28 days.
But Janas won’t turn over her beloved pet.
Her attorney, Russell Cheatham, said Thursday that the cat was misidentified as a Bengal on its medical records. It is a domestic cat, he said.
“If there was a less drastic means than killing her pet, it would be a different situation,” he said. “But it’s a problem because it may not be necessary.”
Cheatham said his client is searching for a lab that will run a DNA test on Czar to prove he is not part wild. Janas is keeping the animal confined to her home, he said.
Meanwhile, Russell received her second round of rabies shots Thursday, and Fisher received his first round.
“I’ve been extremely worried,” Lana Fisher said. “It’s just devastating that we have to put him through this.”
Both families said that though the incident has been difficult, they don’t want to pursue legal action against their neighbor.
“We are Christians,” Russell said. “I have no bitterness.”
The county is not so forgiving.
“We have a suspected rabid animal that is allegedly running loose and attacking people,” said Michelle Wallace, an assistant county attorney.
“It could be out running loose again, and who knows? We could have a rabies outbreak.”
A court hearing is scheduled June 7.
More than half the 2,700 reports of bites or scratches in the county every year involve dogs.
Usually, domestic dogs, cats and ferrets suspected of rabies are issued a 10-day home quarantine, Agnew said. If they have rabies, they typically die within that period.
“But that’s not true for wild animals,” he said. “The only test that’s 100 percent accurate is a postmortem test.”
Raccoons are the primary source of rabies in Florida.
A rabies outbreak spread by raccoons a decade ago prompted animal services to begin taking preventive action. In March, it dropped fish-meal-coated rabies vaccine from helicopters.
[Last modified June 1, 2006, 22:38:44]
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