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Skinning a cat the hard way

Juneau hunters survive leopard attack in the Zimbabwe bushlands

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2007

Surgeon David Miller and Bullwinkle's Pizza Parlor owner Bill Adair are back in Southeast Alaska, happy to be healthy after surviving the attack of a 200-pound leopard during a late May safari in Zimbabwe.

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Miller bagged the giant cat, but not before his shot passed through the leopard's chest and hit Adair in the lower leg.

Adair, armed with only a camera to photograph the hunt, is recovering.

"He assured me he's never going hunting on a safari again without a weapon," Miller said.

Adair and Miller began planning their Zimbabwe expedition two years ago.

It was Adair's seventh safari. He's killed one cat before, on his sixth trip.

It was Miller's second hunting trip into the African bush. The two had gone on a previous safari to Namibia. Adair hunted leopard that time but was unsuccessful.

Miller killed a handful of plains game - gemsbok, kudu and wildebeest.

Most of Zimbabwe is either national park or vast private lands. Adair; Miller; a 6-foot-4 South African hunter named Warwick; a Zimbabwean hunter named Andre; and six African guides were hunting at a 2,000-acre farm where big cats typically kill 40 livestock calves a year.

"They were eager for us to take a leopard in that area, where they're fairly numerous," Miller said.

In late May, Zimbabwe is entering its winter months. The leaves are falling, and the ground is covered with brush. The dense growth pricks, scratches and bites. Sometimes it can even choke.

"Some of this stuff, you couldn't walk through it," Miller said. "You could barely breathe. It's irritating to the upper airway. Eventually we got through that."

The party discovered a spot where a leopard had recently fed. Its footprints were so large that Miller and Adair thought at first they were tracking a female lion. They were assured it was a large, male leopard.

The party stalked the cat for three hours over six kilometers, about four miles, of the dense and rugged terrain. Visibility through the brush was 10 to 15 yards.

Warwick was in front, while Andre was about 15 yards behind. Miller was 30 yards behind the leaders, and Adair was photographing another 15 yards back. Then the hunters became prey.

Suddenly, the leopard appeared and attacked Warwick. He was able to bring his weapon to bear before the cat grabbed his left arm. It mauled him.

Andre fired a shot to knock the cat away.

The leopard regrouped and charged Andre, who fired again. The glancing blow pushed the cat back again, but it kept coming.

Miller fired, spinning the cat around toward the back of the group, where Adair was ready to shoot - with only his camera.

"Had Bill had a weapon he would have been able to get a shot before the cat was on top of him," Miller said.

But there was no time. Adair ran toward Miller, but the leopard quickly pounced on Adair from behind.

"He said, 'David, you're going to have to shoot this cat off for me,'" Miller said.

Miller rechambered and fired. The bullet passed thought the cat's chest and killed it immediately before grazing Adair in the lower leg. The weight of the giant animal pulled Adair onto his side.

Miller was armed with a 375 H&H, a large-caliber rifle commonly used in Alaska for bear. He chambered another round and approached, then poked with the rifle's muzzle to make sure the big cat was dead.

"And then Bill said, 'Get this cat off me,'" Miller said.

Miller pulled the cat's giant claws out of Adair's back. The leopard had mauled the pizza man's backpack, which likely prevented further injury.

"David, I've been shot!" Adair exclaimed.

Miller cut Adair's pant leg away and examined the wound.

"The bullet hadn't struck any bone or muscle or major blood vessel," Miller said. "I reassured him it was superficial."

Miller fashioned a bandage from one of his own pant legs. About that time, Andre arrived with Warwick, whose left arm was injured. Miller cut his other pant leg and used it to bandage Warwick.

Total elapsed time: 10 seconds.

"It was an amazing sequence of events," Miller said.

"It's quite possible that had (Bill) not been between me and the cat, the cat could have gotten me before I rechambered," he said. "He would have had his way with me, and his way with Bill while the professional hunter was up with the lead tracker."

The cat had five bullets in him by the time it died. Six African trackers rushed to the scene from the bush and offered their reconstruction of events.

"Andre said that in his 20 years of professional hunting big-game cats it was the largest leopard he'd taken," Miller said.

With a tracker supporting each of Adair's arms, the group was able to walk a quarter-mile out of the savannah to rendezvous with a Land Rover. From there, they drove to Bulawayo, pop. 676,000, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe.

"It was extraordinary," Miller said. "Within 24 hours of it occurring, people knew about this on the other side of the world. That's the wonder of modern technology."

Adair's wound was left open to prevent infection. He was transported to Johannesburg, South Africa, for further care, before flying to the United States.

Andre has made a full recovery since the attack, Miller said.

Miller has a small trophy room at his house that's "quickly filling up with African game."

It will take about a year for his leopard to clear U.S. Customs and almost another year to show up at his house, he said.

In the meantime, the skin will be salted down and dipped to kill any parasites. Once it arrives in the U.S., the skin will be sent to a taxidermist, where it will receive a life-size mount.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at 523-2268 or korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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