After a beaver bit his dog Wednesday morning at Anchorage's University Lake dog park, Ira Levinton ran to the lake's edge, ready to jump in and save the 8-year-old shepherd-husky mix, he said.
But Levinton tripped. He was in the beaver's territory. He knew it, and the beaver knew it. Armed with its trademark teeth, the rodent had already chomped his dog, Mason, five times on the rump.
"I heard a blood-curdling yelp, and then I heard floundering," Levinton said. "I landed pretty much on my face, caught up in the trees."
Levinton saw the beaver cruising toward him -- "He was just checking me out" -- and got up to find his dog back near the trail. Levinton escaped unscathed, and veterinarians stitched up Mason.
The 35-pound he-beaver Levinton described most likely a she-beaver, said Jessy Coltrane, state wildlife biologist for the Anchorage area, though both male and female beavers are known to protect their young, called kits. From mid-July to mid-August, attacks on dogs at University Lake pick up, Coltrane said. The problem is not the beavers, she said. It's dog owners and their canines caught unawares, perhaps due to a lack of signage, she said.
Even with serious beaver-on-dog attacks in recent years, there was only one sign at University Lake prior to the attack Wednesday, both Coltrane and Levinton said. Parks and Recreation workers were making more permanent signs Thursday with Coltrane's recommended wording, according Holly Spoth-Torres, the city parks superintendent.
"We're managing outdoor public recreation, but we're also managing the land, and the wildlife is part of that land. We do our best to educate the public about the wildlife they'll encounter in our parks," Spoth-Torres said. "I think we want the public to know there's bears and there's moose, and they're bigger and dangerous, but there are smaller animals to know about too."
Bears are exactly why Levinton, who lives near Service High School, started walking Mason and his 4-year-old Yorkie, Bailey, at University Lake. A "head-to-head" bear encounter on the trails behind Service prompted Levinton to walk his dogs elsewhere.
"So I figured, 'Ah, the lake will be much safer.' I mean, wow," Levinton said.
It was about 9 a.m. Wednesday when Levinton and the dogs, right on schedule, went for their walk at the lake. Mason does not swim as much as some dogs, but he usually takes a quick dip in the lake on a warm day, Levinton said.
About 75 yards from a soccer field on the lake's north side, Mason disappeared near the water, and that's when Levinton heard the yelp, he said. Levinton thought Mason might be drowning.
"This time, I couldn't see him. And that's what made me really nervous. Maybe that's why it happened," Levinton said. "(The beaver) just chomped and kept chomping and chomping."
Out of the water, Mason looked like he was bleeding, but Levinton did not realize how badly the dog was hurt until they got home. The beaver had sunk its teeth deep into the dog's hindquarters, Levinton said.
Based on Levinton's description of the wounds, the beaver probably jumped the dog from behind, Coltrane said. Beavers also swim underneath dogs in deeper water and bite their abdomens, causing much worse injuries, she said.
"It's an avoidable situation," Coltrane said. "It's like Tudor Road is a very dangerous place to play in traffic. But I know there are a lot of cars there, so I'm going to stay on the sidewalk."
Levinton said he doesn't blame the beaver and wants people to know that such encounters can take place quickly and unexpectedly. Veterinarians stitched Mason's wounds, and the dog is recovering, though Mason has to wear a cone around his neck to stop him from chewing the stitches, Levinton said.
"I know he feels really bad about it. He tried to get it off when we went for a short walk today," Levinton said. "It's the cone of shame, man, I feel for him, I feel awful."
City parks officials have warned users of the off-leash dog park about beavers in the past, and similar attacks in recent years have left dogs severely injured. Coltrane said she has recommended more signs in the past, but there were no attacks in 2012 and it was not until after the attack on Mason that the signs were said to be going up.
Spoth-Torres said Thursday temporary signs were posted earlier and permanent ones were coming.
"Activity has increased in the last couple years, the beaver-dog interactions," Spoth-Torres said.
The encounters sometimes cause people to ask whether relocating problem beavers is appropriate, Coltrane said. That is generally only an option Coltrane uses for beavers that build dams that cause flooding or that fell trees onto people's vehicles, homes or outbuildings, she said.
Still, people ask the question when wildlife and dogs or their humans have negative encounters, Spoth-Torres said.
"The answer is we manage our parks as the natural area that they are," she said. "Our goal is to not relocate animals from their natural environment."
Levinton said he was rethinking future visits to the lake, at least for now.
"It's more unfortunate than anything that it happened like that," he said. "The wrong place at the wrong time, that's all it was."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.