Ho-ho-whew: Bite came from domesticated kitty

Jonathan Bebbington is shown with bobcat that attacked him. He has posed as Santa to take pictures with plenty of pets before, but never an attacking bobcat. (Photo courtesy NBC10)

Professional Santa Jonathan Bebbington can relax: the feline that bit him last weekend at an Atlantic County pet store is neither rabid nor a wild bobcat.

Bebbington, 47, of Vineland, was working at a charity photo event in Mays Landing when the cat bit him, sparking a flurry of concern over whether Santa would need rabies shots.

According to Atlantic County Health officials and the cat's owner, the animal was a Pixie-Bob, a domesticated cat distantly related to the wild bobcat.

Bebbington was posing with animals at a fundraiser for Penny Angel's Beagle Rescue when Christine Haughey, of Egg Harbor, brought her large cat into the store on a leash and harness.

"There were dogs around, and the poor thing was terrified," said Bebbington, who picked up the cat to calm it down. The state Department of Corrections locksmith has five years' experience playing Santa to dogs and cats.

"It was a beautiful animal," he added.

Just after a photographer snapped the picture, the cat sunk its teeth into Bebbington's hand and wrist several times, drawing blood. It happened so fast, Haughey left before anyone thought to ask her whether the animal had a current rabies shot.

Initially, Bebbington worried that he would have to undergo a series of five rabies vaccinations and postpone his holiday vacation. But after Bebbington appeared Tuesday on NBC10, Haughey came forward.

Though bobcats are illegal to own as pets, the state veterinarian said that pixie-bobs are domesticated "hybrid" cats. They are larger than regular house cats and have shorter, stubbier tails, giving them a slight resemblance to bobcats.

Atlantic County Health officials said Haughey told them she bought "Benny" as a baby from a breeder. He had received all the necessary vaccines, she said, including a rabies shot.

As a precaution, state health officials said they asked Haughey to keep the cat inside for two weeks to make sure he does not show signs of disease.

Meanwhile, Bebbington's bites are healing nicely.

"I'm just glad it's all turning out for the better," he said.

Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 856-779-3838 or asteele@phillynews.com.