PITTSBURGH — The biggest fear parents typically have about taking children to a big event like the auto show is that they might get lost. Yet people at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Feb. 13, 1982, witnessed a surreal scene, which ended with a cougar’s jaw clenched on a young boy’s head, a gunshot and several arrests.
James Seals, 9, was with the rest of his Upper St. Clair family near the Lincoln-Mercury booth at the auto show. His mother brought him to the show, along with two other children and their grandparents.
The 6-year-old cougar, named Tom-Tom, was with trainer Bob Steele, who had been hired to promote the Mercury brand by the local Lincoln-Mercury Dealers Association. Mercury’s nationwide television commercials featured a roaring cougar to promote the brand and its Cougar car model.
Steele said that as he led Tom-Tom into the show on a leash, some boys ran past them and the cougar reacted. Seals was later identified as one of the boys, who Steele said appeared to “run right under him (Tom-Tom).”
The 130-pound cougar snapped out, clamped his jaws around Seals’ neck and pinned him to the floor. Steele attempted to control the cougar but was overcome as bystanders began kicking at the cougar. The cougar became more excited as the commotion reached a crescendo, at which point an off-duty police officer, Sgt. Arthur Banze and his wife, came upon the scene.
Banze told The Pittsburgh Press, “I thought there was a fight. When I got there it looked like the side of the boy’s head, his neck and shoulder were in the cat’s mouth. There was blood all over the place.”
Another officer, deputy sheriff Bill McDaniel, was straddling the attacking cougar, trying to pull it off the boy and starting to draw his gun when Banze yelled for everyone to clear out of the way and pulled out his own gun. The cougar lept in Banze’s direction as he fired and the cougar fell back, shot dead.
Steele dragged the cougar’s body out onto a loading dock as the crowd converged on Seals. Medics arrived and administered first aid as Seals began screaming. He suffered severe neck wounds but was stabilized in the hospital after emergency surgery at Allegheny General Hospital.
Banze followed Steele to the loading dock, preparing to shoot the cougar again if it was not dead, when he was confronted by Tom-Tom’s assistant trainer, Dawn Stader, 25. Stader berated him and became animated and profane, at which point Banze placed her under arrest. Stader allegedly resisted the handcuffs, slapped Banze in the face and kicked him in the groin.
Steele’s son, Mike Steele, 25, tried to assist Stader in her struggle and was also arrested for obstruction. Stader was charged with aggravated assault, terroristic threats, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
Eyewitnesses disputed Stader’s shouted claims that the shooting was unnecessary.
James Brush told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that, “The boy didn’t do anything to provoke the cat. I saw the cat leap toward the boy’s neck. It was holding the boy like a cat would hold a little bird. I don’t believe the trainer could have gotten the cat off the boy. I weigh 225 pounds and I couldn’t pry the cat’s mouth open. The trainer immediately threw his body in front of the cat and started pushing and kicking it. I called to the cop, ‘Shoot this (cat).’ Finally the trainer got out of the way, and Banze shot the cat near the shoulder and it released its grip on the boy’s neck. The officer definitely saved the boy’s life,” Brush said. “If Pittsburgh needs a hero, he’s it.”
Banze was pulled to the ground in the melee with Strader and the younger Steele and was treated later for a finger injury.
Bob Steele lamented the death of Tom-Tom, saying that he had declawed the cougar and had appeared at numerous similar events without incident. Steele had eleven other big cats and operated his business out of Florida.
James Seals spent several weeks recovering in the hospital and his father, lawyer Raymond Seals, pursued legal action against Steele’s Leesburg, Florida-based business after the attack.
Steele’s business survived litigation and continued to book cougar appearances across the country for Mercury dealerships for years after the attack.
Cox Media Group