New London man recounts attack by rabid bobcat

There was nothing unusual about the first six holes Mike Popkowski played at Mohegan Sun Golf Club in Sprague on the morning of Thursday, April 18.

He was with his usual group — his friends John, Fred and Skip, whom he met at the club in the 1980s — and as usual they teed off at 7 a.m. Popkowski and Fred Martinelli spoke with The Day, but Popkowski declined to give the last names of his other two friends.

What started as a usual day for Mike, 70, soon became one that landed him in the hospital for treatment of numerous puncture wounds on his left arm and shoulder, a nearly severed right earlobe, and lacerations on his scalp, which necessitated 10 staples.

The four each had hit their first ball on the par 4 seventh hole. Fred and Skip ended up on the left side of the fairway. John found Mike's ball on the right side, which abuts the cart path adjacent to a brushy area.

Mike looked up when John yelled to him to watch out. He saw an animal coming toward him, and turned away.

Mike later learned that a rabid bobcat had jumped on his back, biting his left arm and shoulder while clawing the top of his head.

What happened is still a blur to Mike, but recounting the attack over coffee on Tuesday, he still could hear its low, guttural growl. He still could smell it — faintly like a skunk.

John was trying to hit the bobcat with his iron, though he was unsure if he did, while trying to avoid hitting Mike.

"It was surreal," Fred said. "You see what was taking place, going down, and you're saying, 'That can't possibly be whatever it was on top of Mike.'"

Mike and the cat tumbled down the hill and, though Mike doesn't know why, the bobcat finally let go of him. His friends estimate the bobcat was on him for two or three minutes.

Mike got on his feet and saw the bobcat in the sand trap, huffing and puffing. He looked down to see blood running down him and noticed his jacket was ripped.

In the bunker, John was hitting the bobcat with his golf club before the cat took off. Another friend from the club jokingly asked Mike later if John had counted all his strokes from that hole.

As this was happening, members of the grounds crew working on the seventh hole radioed the superintendent, who responded quickly with other employees.

After a 911 call, John drove Mike in the golf cart up to the club area. State police showed up, and Mike went in an ambulance to The William W. Backus Hospital. It wasn't until this point that he started processing the pain in his right shoulder and hip, where he had landed after tumbling down the hill.

At the hospital, Mike learned the bobcat also had attacked a horse that day. Loree Osowski told The Bulletin that after seeing the bobcat behind her hay shed on Pautipaug Hill Road, she threw a shovel at the cat and screamed. As she called 911, the bobcat moved across the street and into the woods.

At Backus on Thursday, hospital workers cleaned Mike and injected a drug into each wound. He said the team of doctors, nurses, physicians' assistants and technicians were excellent and explained everything that was going on.

He was bleeding most heavily from his head wounds. "They pull your hair apart and they crunch, crunch, crunch," Mike said, mimicking the sound of a stapler. With a sedative, and his adrenaline flowing, "Getting my head stapled together wasn't awful, but I'd rather do other things."

He's getting the staples out this Thursday, the same day he's getting the third of four rabies shots. Rabies shots are given in the arm, not in the stomach as they were decades ago.

Mike was in the hospital from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. before going home to New London. He got a call from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, saying the bobcat had been found and shot. DEEP also confirmed last Thursday that results from the UConn Medical Lab showed the bobcat tested positive for rabies.

After the call came in to the emergency dispatch center, Environmental Conservation Police officers responded and interviewed witnesses at the golf course, DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen said. They tracked paw prints in the sand traps and found the bobcat rather quickly.

At home, Mike tried to clear his head. But the bleeding continued, and his wife was changing his bandages every 45 minutes or so. After dinner, he said "enough is enough" and returned to the hospital.

He went home and tried to relax but ended up at Backus again about 8:30 p.m., staying there until about 1 a.m. One of the puncture wounds continued to bleed, and so he got an injection of epinephrine.

The wounds look better than they did last week, and Mike says he is doing OK. He isn't having nightmares, but he said, "I think about it, and I can still see it; I can still see this miserable animal coming at me."

His golf group has tee times at Mohegan Sun Golf Club on Wednesday and Friday. Mike doesn't think his shoulder is healed enough for him to play, but he might meet the guys for lunch after.

Fred and Skip golfed on Monday, but they told Mike they didn't play the seventh hole. They drove right past it.

e.moser@theday.com

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