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Pet-store Santa won't need rabies shots
By ELAINE ROSE Staff Writer, 609-272-7215

Published: Thursday, December 11, 2008

  HAMILTON TOWNSHIP - The owner of the cat that bit Santa Claus came forward Wednesday morning as the case attracted national attention, and the volunteer Santa will not have to get rabies shots.

Christina Haughey, of Egg Harbor Township, said Wednesday her cat Benny is a pixiebob, and that she showed his vaccination records to the Atlantic County Health Department. Benny will have to be confined for two weeks, and health inspectors will return to make sure he shows no signs of rabies.

"We found a healthy-looking cat," Atlantic County Public Health Officer Patricia Diamond said Wednesday. The most important thing is that the cat was found."

Health officials took pictures of the cat, reviewed his vaccination records and sent them to the state Department of Health, Diamond said. They were instructed to confine the cat for 14 days.

State guidelines recommend that if the animal is healthy and vaccinated, the bite victim does not need to undergo a series of rabies shots to prevent the fatal disease, Diamond said.

Jonathan Bebbington, of Vineland, was playing Santa Claus on Sunday at PetsMart, posing for pictures with pets as a benefit for the Penny Angel's Beagle Rescue, when Haughey brought Benny in for a photo. The feline bit him several times after the picture was taken. By time the photo was developed, the cat and owner were gone.

People in the store were saying that Benny was a bobcat, a wild animal that cannot be owned legally in New Jersey, and he weighed close to 30 pounds, Bebbington said. The bites drew blood, and he went to his doctor for a tetanus shot and was ready to undergo a series of rabies shots if the owner didn't come forward.

Pixiebobs are legal domestic cats and don't require permits, Diamond said. The owner was cooperative in providing documentation and following instructions to confine the cat.

Pixiebobs are a relatively new breed of cat accepted by The International Cat Association, the organization's business manager, Leslie Bowers, said Wednesday. They look like bobcats and are larger than most cat breeds.

Urban legends have it that pixiebobs are the result of wild bobcats breeding with domestic cats, Bowers said. But DNA tests have proved those rumors untrue, as wild bobcat markers were not found in the breed.

The Cat Fanciers Association does not recognize pixiebobs as a breed.

Breeders advertising on the Internet sell pixiebob kittens for $500 to $1,500, depending on whether they are show quality or will be kept as pets.

Bebbington said Wednesday evening he heard that Benny might indeed be a bobcat. Experts from the state Division of Fish and Wildlife are looking at the animal to determine exactly what species and breed he is.

But Bebbington said he is relieved that he doesn't have to go through the series of at least six rabies shots, which he was told are quite painful.

"If the animal does develop any kind of symptoms, I'll have to get it," he said.

Bebbington appeared Wednesday morning on MSNBC, after the network drove him to a studio in Philadelphia, and he later did interviews for several television stations. The process wore him out, after his phone rang nonstop Tuesday.

He expects to get some ribbing from co-workers when he returns today to his job as a locksmith at South Woods State Prison, Bebbington said.

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