Sled dog that attacked toddler spared for now

khopkins@adn.comJune 24, 2013 

PALMER -- The sled dog that nearly killed a 2-year-old girl near will live. For now.

The Mat-Su Animal Care and Regulation Board voted Monday on the fate of 1-year-old Wizard, rejecting a recommendation by the animal control chief that the husky be killed. The dog belongs to Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz and twice mauled the child in May.

The board was deadlocked last week after a tearful hearing that served as a kind of death penalty trial for the 60-pound husky. Board members remained split in a 2-2 vote on Monday but ordered that the shelter chief must reclassify the animal -- a step that would spare its life pending any appeal.

Wizard broke free from his chain and attacked 2-year-old Elin Shuck on May 10 near Big Lake. The girl was walking through the Berkowitz dog yard of 52 huskies with her mother and two young siblings.

Board chairman John Wood, a musher and lawyer, voted to put the dog down but he questioned why the kids were at the kennel in the first place. The girl's mother, Jennifer Sundquist, took a "totally unnecessary assumption of risk" by bringing three children under the age of 5 to the center of a busy dog yard, he said.

"I do not understand the judgement used by the mother in this case," Wood said.

Still, the family was not trespassing under the law, Wood said. And Wizard appears to be the rare "rogue animal" that is prone to attacking people, especially kids, he said.

"When you see it, you know it," he said. "The dogs just become totally focused, almost like a lion or something that is getting ready to pounce on prey."

 

Board member Rhonda Weinrick disagreed. She said the attack falls under an exception that says dogs that injure people may be spared if the victim was trespassing. Berkowitz's wife had agreed to let Shuck's mother visit the kennel, where she pays to board dogs, but that doesn't mean she had permission to bring the young girl and other children, Weinrick said.

The mauling was a sad accident and it's unfair to lay the blame with Sundquist, she said. "It was just a sad, freak occurrence and she's going to be reliving this every day for the rest of her life."

"It just happened. If the dog were to be euthanized, the child would not be unbitten," Weinrick said.

The battle for Wizard's life may be far from over. A potential civil lawsuit is looming.

The job of arguing that the dog should be killed fell to Mat-Su borough lawyers, with the Shucks' private attorney sitting out the animal control board hearing. The family lawyer, Mike Patterson, said the parents did not want to be beholden to any decision made by the board.

The borough, meanwhile, has the option of calling for the board to reconsider its decision, or appealing the case to state Superior Court, said Assistant Borough Attorney Lisa Richard.

In a state obsessed with dogs and dog mushing, the case also tested public opinion on where to lay the blame when a husky bites. Borough lawyers argued that excusing the attack by Wizard, a dog that snapped the new "S-hook" on a chain in order to reach the girl, would make it difficult to hold owners accountable for all manner of dog maulings. Mushers argued that common sense should keep people from taking kids into an inherently dangerous dog yard.

The decision fell to a five-member animal control board appointed by the borough mayor and approved by the Assembly. One of the members and an alternate were not available to participate in the hearings, members said, leaving four to decide whether to accept animal control chief Matt Hardwig's recommendation that Wizard be humanely killed.

Borough law calls for an animal that seriously injures or kills a person to be put down, except under certain conditions. Berkowitz, who placed 8th in this year's Iditarod, fought to keep the dog. His lawyer argued that the husky was provoked by the presence of Shuck's young family walking a family dog through the dog yard.

A veterinarian for the shelter testified that Wizard appears to have a "heightened" predator instinct and showed an unusual interest in children who visited the shelter.

Board member Sabrieta Holland voted that Wizard's attack, which permanently damaged Elin Shuck's vocal chords and left her in a drug-induced sleep for six days at the hospital, should result in the dog being killed.

When the girl's mother pried the dog away, it attacked again.

"This individual dog stands a high chance of repeat attacks in the future," said Holland, a veterinarian.

Board member Terry Morache said she believed the attack fell under the trespassing exception and that Wizard had been "antagonized."

Berkowitz laywer Myron Angstman said the musher pushed for the animal control board hearing partly to testify on the record about what happened the day of the attack.

"What we're pleased about is this ... The facts about what happened at the scene are fairly well available now," Angstman said Monday.

"That is important in a situation like this where, you have a quasi-public figure such as Berkowitz facing sort of a challenge to his business practices," he said.

Berkowitz did not attend the Monday hearing. His wife, Robin, declined to comment on board decision.

For now, Wizard will remain at the Mat-Su animal shelter, which is charging the musher $12 a day to pay for food and boarding, a shelter spokeswoman said.

Angstman said the musher will probably ask that the dog be allowed to exercise now that the first animal control hearing is complete.

Wizard hasn't completed any sled dog races and will likely be placed under restrictions by the borough that would prevent him from racing in future Iditarods, Angstman said. The animal control chief may require the dog be held in a pen or muzzled, for example.

Elin Shuck is attending physical therapy four days a week and will never speak the same, her parents said in interviews. The girl arrived at the hospital by helicopter, lifeless and crusted in mud, medics wrote in her medical records.

She spent several days in critical condition immediately following the attack, Sundquist wrote in an affidavit.

"She was shaking, throwing up, and hallucinating very fearful things and was so sensitive to the touch that reaching for her hand would send her into a panic," Sundquist wrote. Her 4-year-old son, who helped rescue the girl, began hiding in a toy box, she wrote.

 

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

 

 

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