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Coyote that attacked Fort Mill man had rabies, DHEC says

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Coyotes began migrating to SC 30 years ago. Now you may find them in your backyard.
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Coyotes began migrating to SC 30 years ago. Now you may find them in your backyard.

The coyote that attacked a Fort Mill man in the woods off Altura Road was rabid, testing shows.

John Somjak, the real estate agent checking a game camera on a friend’s property when he was attacked by a coyote Dec. 26, got a call from the state health department days later confirming the test result.

“The coyote did test positive for rabies,” Somjak said. “It was infected.”

On Monday morning, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control confirmed the positive test result.

Somjak said early Monday morning he was waiting to hear back from health officials. He wasn’t bitten, but he stabbed the animal three times with a knife, he said. He doesn’t suspect he was infected by the animal, but will comply with any tests to make sure.

“About the only thing I touched was some fur, so I don’t know,” he said. “I wasn’t even close to being bitten.”

However, by mid-morning a doctor called Somjak, easing his worries.

“He said there’s no chance,” Somjak said. “There’s zero chance. Thank the good lord Jesus Christ it wasn’t worse, or I didn’t get bit.”

Initially Somjak wasn’t sure whether the animal was rabid. It had a clean coat and appeared healthy, he said. It wasn’t foaming at the mouth. Yet it was unusually aggressive.

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Somjak didn’t hesitate when the animal came at him, kicking and knocking it out before going to get a knife and camera. He thought he’d left the animal dead, but returned to find it wasn’t. Somjak kicked and stomped the animal a second time when it approached him, this time killing it.

Somjak hung the animal in a tree to keep other animals from getting to it, and to allow for rabies testing.

Tommy Crosby, health department spokesperson, advises anyone in Somjak’s situation to do exactly what he did.

“If you have reason to believe that you, your family members, or your pets comes in contact with an animal that potentially has rabies, please call your local DHEC’s Environmental Affairs Office,” Crosby said.

Crosby doesn’t recommend close contact with wild or stray animals.

“To reduce the risk of getting rabies, always give wild and stray animals their space,” he said. “If you see an animal in need, avoid touching it and contact someone trained in handling animals, such as your local animal control officer or wildlife rehabilitator.”

State health department data shows York County gets at least its fair share of rabies cases, but not from coyotes.

Through Nov. 30, there were seven confirmed rabies cases in York County for 2018. They involved four raccoons, two skunks and a cat. Lancaster County had three, all raccoons, and Chester County didn’t record any. Only Beaufort County had more cases than York County in that span, at eight.

In 2017, there were 63 confirmed rabies cases in South Carolina. Almost half came from raccoons. Only two rabies cases involved coyotes. York (two skunks and a raccoon) and Lancaster (a dog and two raccoons) counties each had three cases of rabies compared to none in Chester County.

Counting the after Christmas coyote attack in Fort Mill, there have been 119 confirmed rabies cases in the tri-county area since 2010. The Fort Mill incident was the first involving a coyote, health department data shows.

There have been other incidents of coyotes suspected of being rabid. Earlier this year a Fort Mill man told police he shot at a coyote that was foaming at the mouth. There have been encounters and even pets bitten in Tega Cay. The city trapped several coyotes amid resident concern. In most incidents where a coyote was suspected of having rabies, the animal wasn’t killed or captured for testing.

While the experienced outdoorsman hadn’t had an animal attack him the way the coyote did, Somjak said he knows why he was able to get away without being bitten.

“The Lord protected me,” Somjak said. “He did. My kicks were right on.”

Somjak had an x-ray reveal a hairline fracture in his knee from stomping the animal. He has a wrap on the knee and is using crutches. On Thursday he will get an x-ray on his ankle. Somjak said it is at least sprained and could be worse.

He said he is glad it doesn’t appear he will have to endure treatments for rabies. Part of why he fought the animal as hard as he did, Somjak said, was a lifetime of hearing about those treatments.

“All my life, I heard how painful that was,” he said.

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