A Lake Wales hunter says he was attacked by a Florida panther while he was calling turkeys near Lake Kissimmee in Central Florida. If true, it would be the first recorded panther attack on a human since the 1800s.
Unfortunately, say state biologists, the hunter waited three weeks to report it. That means they cannot verify that it occurred. His wounds are nearly healed, and rain that has fallen since the attack has obscured any paw prints the animal may have left behind.
Still, Byron Maharrey is sure about what pounced on him from behind and left him scratched and bleeding. A veteran outdoorsman, he has seen panthers in the wild before.
This one, he said, slammed into him so hard "it felt just like a rocket hit me."
March 17 was a cool morning, so Maharrey, 77, was wearing several layers under his camouflage suit. He said that's what probably spared him from serious injury.
Maharrey is past president of the Everglades Coordinating Council and a current director of the Florida Airboat Association. He figures what happened was just a case of mistaken identity: A big predator mistook him for a turkey.
"I was sitting back in some broom sedge, and he heard me calling turkeys," Maharrey said. "Then he saw me move and decided he saw something good to eat."
When the animal hit him, Maharrey said, he toppled out of his camp stool and fell on his gun. Just that fast, whatever had jumped on him decided this was no turkey and took off through the underbrush.
"He changed his mind before he bit me," Maharrey said. The hunter said he caught sight of tawny fur and a long tail before it disappeared, leaving him with a couple of puncture marks on his thigh and a cut on his arm, apparently from the critter's claws.
Another hunter hidden nearby didn't see or hear any of it, he said. Maharrey said he waited so long to report the attack to state officials "because I figured nobody would believe me."
Normally panthers — the official state animal — avoid humans, a habit they developed back when Florida's settlers would shoot them on sight.
While there are reports of bobcats attacking turkey hunters, there are no prior reports of a panther tackling any, state panther biologist Darrell Land said. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's website says, "No panther has ever even attacked a person."
Florida newspapers from the late 1800s contain accounts of attacks on the settlers by what were then known variously as lions, catamounts and tigers. Those stories are usually based on what a single eyewitness said. The spot where Maharrey was attacked is called Tiger Creek.
Most of the 100 to 160 panthers left in the wild live far south of where Maharrey was hunting. None of the panthers that have radio-collars attached to their necks are anywhere near there, Land said.
Still, male panthers do occasionally wander north into Central Florida, looking to stake out their own turf. In fact, he said, they had one male with a radio-collar that showed up about 3 miles from where Maharrey says he was hunting. That was about 10 years ago, he said.
Maharrey went to see a doctor for his wounds, none of which were serious. After he finally decided to report the attack, a health department official convinced him he needs rabies shots, so those start this week, he said.
But he won't let this deter him from going back out to hunt again in the same spot. What happened to him, he said, is "a one in a gazillion chance."
In case you were wondering: No, he didn't get any turkeys that day.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.