MIAMI — A young man's irresponsible bravado nearly cost a teenage girl her life Saturday afternoon.
The 16-year-old girl was mauled by a cougar and rushed to a hospital after she and 21-year-old Anthony Zitnick illegally entered a wildlife collector's home about 1:30 p.m. Neighbors believe Zitnick, who had done some work for the cougar's owner, was trying to impress the younger girl.
Alan Rigerman — who legally keeps two cougars and several snakes, tortoises and alligators at his North Miami-Dade home — was out for the weekend at a reptile show in Central Florida.
Wildlife officials said the retired Miami-Dade school science teacher had permits for the animals.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Lt. Eddy Ballester said the girl sustained significant wounds that warranted taking her to a hospital.
Miami-Dade police arrested Zitnick for his unauthorized entry into Rigerman's home. Neighbors said paramedics also treated Zitnick, who was in shock after Chaos, a 150-pound male cougar, attacked the girl he brought inside the home.
Blood covered Rigerman's concrete floor at the spot where the 4-year-old cougar pounced on the girl and clenched his jaws around her head.
'I heard her scream'
Richard Miralles, a neighbor familiar with Rigerman's large cats, heard the girl's piercing scream from next door.
"I heard her scream, 'I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die,' " he said, hours after paramedics had left.
Miralles said he immediately jumped his 6-foot fence and barged into Rigerman's back room — only to find the girl pinned beneath Chaos, her head in his mouth and his large, declawed paw on her face. Zitnick was standing nearby in shock, Miralles said.
At first, Miralles said, he tried to push Chaos off, but he wouldn't budge. He then resorted to punching and kicking the cougar, who quickly balled up in a corner, he said.
Miralles then picked up the girl, who was bleeding from her head and thigh, and ran outside to wait for an ambulance.
Rigerman left the area Friday and put his neighbor, Jason Medina, in charge of feeding the animals while he was away at Repticon, a two-day international reptile show in the Tampa Bay area.
The retired Hialeah-Miami Lakes High teacher said he was shocked to hear that Zitnick, whom he said was his young friend, had entered his home without permission. Rigerman said Zitnick entered with a key he'd given him soon after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, when the teenager did yard work for the older man. "And he helped me with my cats under my supervision," he said. "But never, never, never alone."
Zitnick's family could not be reached for comment.
Rigerman said he's worried for the young girl and is sorry that Zitnick got arrested, adding, "they had no right to be in my home."
''I'm worried about my absolutely spotless reputation with what I do with these animals," he said.
Neighbors said Zitnick most likely entered the home simply to show the girl the cougars.
"He took it upon himself to bring his girlfriend here," Miralles said. "And show off," Medina added.
According to Rigerman, his place was last inspected by wildlife officials on Thursday and he passed with flying colors, he said. He owns a captive-wildlife permit that allows him to keep the animals at his home.
Hours after the incident, Chaos and his mother, Chantelle, lay quietly on the concrete floor of their large indoor cages. Chaos seemed calm, his breathing steady. His eyes were focused and narrow, and his muscles flexed beneath his skin.
"Honestly, he's like a kid," Medina said, sighing. "He likes to play."
Chaos is still at the house in the cage, and that's where he'll stay for now, said Jorge Pino, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.