Byron Maharrey knows what a Florida panther looks like. The former chairman of the board for the Florida Sportsmen's Conservation Association had seen the elusive cats near Palatka and around his home by Lake Kissimmee before. And he swears he saw one of these rare cougar subspecies while hunting there last month. Maharrey was sitting in a chair surrounded by decoy turkeys when an unseen force knocked the outdoorsman onto his gun and ran away. The tawny color and the long tail were dead giveaways that this was no mere bobcat.
"Florida Wildlife Commission has always said there's no documented case of panther attacks on humans," he tells the Pulp. "I don't think they can say that anymore."
Thankfully, Maharrey was wearing three layers of clothing during the March 17 attack. Long johns, a heavy camo shirt, and a Ghillie suit -- one of those outfits designed to make hunters look like Chewbacca -- protected him against serious injury. According to an incident report filed on April 4th with the FWC, Maharrey suffered only a four-inch wound on his left shoulder and two puncture wounds on his left thigh.
He says that he wasn't scared and that he waited days to go to the doctor. The only thing he's worried about is rabies -- and he's about to start his first series of shots on Friday, although he thinks he would have been toast if the animal were truly rabid.
And he's right that his experience is unique, if it's true. "This is the first report we've ever had on this type of incident," says Gary Morse, spokesman for the FWC's Southwest regional office. "My guess is that he was making turkey sounds and that's what attracted the panther."
Maharrey says he didn't report the incident to FWC for several days because he was afraid they might limit hunting in the area if they knew an endangered species was present. He also thought people would call his story BS. While the FWC isn't calling him a liar, they are being understandably skeptical.
"Immediately after learning of the incident, FWC officers visited the individual and took his statement; however, it was not feasible to confirm the details due to the lapse of time from when the event occurred to when the report was made to the FWC," they said in a statement.
Ultimately, though, Maharrey decided to go public. There's an FWC meeting on April 15 about human-wildlife interaction, and he wants attention brought to his theory that panthers are becoming less afraid of humans and that someone is about to get seriously hurt.
Maharrey has some other interesting theories about panthers -- like that the FWC is exaggerating their numbers so they can sell license plates to bleeding-heart liberals and old women in tennis shoes.
"I do recognize that they're endangered, and I absolutely want to see them protected," he says. "Unless another one attacks me -- then I'm going to eat it for breakfast."