SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Authorities euthanized a 3-week-old bobcat kitten that had been rescued from the wild, saying wild animals cannot be quarantined like dogs and cats if worries about rabies crop up.
Georgia Lafita, the certified wildlife rehabilitator who was caring for the kitten, said she saw no indication — aggressiveness or other changes in behavior — that the animal had rabies. She began taking care of the kitten when a man bulldozing his property found the kitten and took the animal to her.
"I feel really empty. My heart just hurts," Lafita said. "I feel like somehow I failed her."
Lab results to determine whether will be available within a day or so.
The plan was to care for the animal until she was weaned at about 12 weeks old then send the female cat to another animal rescue facility to be paired with an older bobcat who would teach it to hunt.
Eventually, the kitten, whom Lafita had named Lamia, was supposed to be released into the wild. Lamia means shining or radiant in Arabic.
At 15 to 30 pounds, adult bobcats, which are members of the lynx family, are two to three times larger than a typical house cat but smaller than mountain lions and have short, bobbed tails. They hunt rabbits, rodents, birds and when they're really hungry even adult deer, according to Defenders of Wildlife.
But before those plans could happen, the man who found Lamia stuck his hand inside her cage, and the kitten bit him, puncturing his skin, Lafita said.
"We understand that this is an emotional issue for many people, but it is our responsibility to follow the law to protect the public’s health," said Kathryn Wall, spokeswoman for the Greene County Health Department.
A domesticated animal is generally confined and held for observation for 10 days. If a veterinarian who previously examined the animal determines it is healthy at the end of that period, no rabies exposure occurred.
But when a person begins exhibiting rabies symptoms, the disease is always fatal, Wall said.
So the mandate was to euthanize Lamia, cut off her head and send it to state officials in Jefferson City, Mo., so her brain could be tested. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers this the quickest and most reliable rabies test. It's the procedure used on domestic animals if they show sign of rabies during their quarantine.
"I feel the health department considers wildlife disposable, that their lives don't matter," Lafita said.
A conservation agent took the cat without incident Wednesday morning, Lafita said, adding that she gave Lamia a final bottle before she had to give her up.
Lafita runs an animal rescue out of her house where she now is rehabilitating two beavers, eight skunks, a baby chipmunk, a squirrel, a flying squirrel and — until Wednesday morning — Lamia, the bobcat kitten.
Shortly after the kitten was taken, Lafita said the executive director of the National Bobcat Rescue and Research Center in Terrell, Texas, called to ask about any ways to help.
“I told them she was already gone,” an emotional Lafita said. “It’s over, and I just hope that this kitten has not died in vain. I hope this is opening the eyes of the powers that be.”
A different big cat conservation organization had offered to pay for rabies shots for the man whose hand was bitten, Lafita said. But the man couldn't have the shots because he recently had had heart surgery.
So in one moment, a human action and an animal's reaction sealed the fate of the wild kitten.
Predatory wildlife, including bobcats, are finding their way into suburbia and even more urban areas as populations bounce back from being hunted themselves, according to the National Bobcat Rescue and Research Center. When hungry, they will eat dog food, and they have been known to hang around backyard bird feeders and fruit trees to feed on the animals that feast on seeds knocked to the ground.
Lafita had a simple message for anyone else who comes in contact with a bobcat kitten: "Don't handle wildlife."