Rabid wolf attacks hunter in Southwest Alaska

BATTLE: Man wrestled lupine foe until brother shot, killed animal.

September 18, 2009 

Like a ghost, a white figure crept through the moonlit night, lurking near a campsite.

Roderick Phillip and three hunting partners were at a bonfire. After about a week out along the Kuskokwim River near Kalskag, they'd already bagged a bull moose. It was after 2 a.m. on the night before their last day on the hunt. The 35-year-old Phillip went down by the river to look for moose. He didn't have his gun.

When he saw the white figure trotting toward camp out of the corner of his eye, Phillip called out to his companions.

"As soon as I hollered, 'Wolf! Wolf!,' the wolf turned towards me and started running," Phillip said. "I kept my eye on it while I was running towards them and not even 20 feet from where I was sitting it caught up to me."

The animal lunged at his face, then bit him on the leg, and the two ended up on the ground wrestling before his brother killed it. Phillip didn't know it then, but the animal was rabid.

It's the second time in recent years a rabid wolf has attacked people or animals in Southwest Alaska. In October 2007, a pack of wolves -- at least one of which was infected with rabies -- ransacked dog kennels in the Yukon River village of Marshall, killing a half-dozen dogs.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen said Friday there have been 19 confirmed cases of rabies in Alaska wolves since testing began in 1971. The disease is much more prevalent in foxes, she said. But now and again, it spills into the wolf population.

"That area -- down on the Yukon-Kuskokwim area -- has red fox rabies every year," Beckmen said. "When they're actually clinical with rabies, they are biting at anything that moves. In fact, it doesn't even have to be an animate object. They just bite indiscriminately. And it's because their brain is inflamed."

The wolf that attacked Phillip on Sept. 10 was a 16-month-old male probably weighing more than 100 pounds, though it appeared to be starving, Beckmen said. It had a mouth full of porcupine quills.

Phillip, of Kongiganak, said that the wolf got him in the upper right thigh, its teeth cutting through a pair of Carhartt pants, sweatpants and his boxers.

"When it bit me, it felt like somebody grabbed me on the skin. It didn't feel like a bite," Phillip said by phone Friday. "As soon as it bit me, I took my right arm and put it on the wolf's neck and turned down on the ground. I was on top of him and choking him at the same time I had my shoulder pushing down towards him. I didn't want to let it go."

The animal was powerful and he battled it on the ground to keep its flailing claws and snapping teeth at bay. He knew he'd been bitten but didn't feel the pain, he said. A Leatherman was strapped to his side, but he couldn't reach it.

Phillip, whose tale was first reported by a KYUK reporter in Bethel, called out again to alert the others of the life-or-death struggle unfolding about 30 feet from the camp, one of the other hunters, Glenn Ivon, 46, said by phone Friday.

He and Phillip's brother, Eric Phillip, 43, had been sitting at the fire when they heard Rod yelling. Eric got his .30-06 rifle and they both ran out to him.

"He's the wolf wrestler and I'm the killer," Eric Phillip said with a laugh Friday.

Rod Phillip said his brother got there with the rifle but couldn't see exactly what was going on.

"Halfway to me he said, 'Where? Where?' I told him, 'Right here! Right here!' " Rod Phillip said.

"When we came up to them, they were on the ground," Ivon said. "When Eric got close to him he just jumped up and ran back around to his back and kind of threw the wolf away from them. Eric shot it twice."

They cleaned Rod Phillip's wound using a first-aid kit at the camp, but waited until first light to get back to Bethel. They brought the wolf carcass with them and told hospital officials where it was when Phillip went to the emergency room. Officials sent its head to Anchorage for testing.

It came back positive for rabies and Phillip got a shipment of the vaccine the same day, he said. He'll need five shots over a 28-day period to ward off the disease but should be fine. He said he'll probably have a scar from the wound.

Beckmen called wolf attacks "few and far between" and said the known cases almost always involve wolves that are rabid or otherwise sick. The presence of dogs can also contribute to aggressive behavior, she said.

As rabies progresses, the infected animal loses fear of people and eventually dies of seizures, Beckmen said. Despite the stereotype, foaming at the mouth is very uncommon in wolves and foxes and its absence doesn't mean an animal isn't rabid, she said. The intact head of any suspected rabid animal that bites needs to be sent to game officials for testing, she said.

Phillip said he wanted to keep the animal's fur but there was concern it would spread rabies. It will be destroyed. The wound to his leg was not serious and he is expected to be fine. But he wondered about how things could have turned out differently.

"If I was sitting at the campfire with my brother and Glenn, it would have got us by surprise and probably bit a fatal wound right on the neck, most likely," Phillip said.

Is he going to do anything different next time?

"Yeah, I'm going to have my gun with me around the campfire."


Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.

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