Animal control chief recommends sled dog be killed after attack

Kyle Hopkins

The animal control chief for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough has recommended a top Iditarod musher's sled dog be killed after the husky attacked and seriously injured a 2-year-old girl last week in Big Lake.

Musher Jake Berkowitz plans to fight to the keep the dog, his attorney said Wednesday.

"There was no reason for that child to be in the kennel to begin with. Secondly, if the child was going to be in the kennel, there was certainly a need to watch the child carefully," said attorney Myron Angstman, who is representing Berkowitz. Angstman said the musher plans to make his case at an upcoming borough hearing to decide the fate of Wizard, a 1-year-old husky now under quarantine at the animal shelter.

An attorney for the family of Elin Shuck said the girl had been at the dog yard before and that the musher and his wife knew -- or should have known -- she was going to be there on Friday, the day of the attack.

The dog attacked the girl twice, Alaska State Troopers reported. She was unresponsive when medics arrived and flown by helicopter from Berkowitz's Apex Kennels to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage for treatment at the intensive care unit.

Elin lost function of her vagus nerve and jugular vein in the attack, her father Brody Shuck has said.

The father declined to comment on the case Wednesday. He previously said that his wife had gone to the dog yard that day to drop off money and dog food for sled dogs they board there.

The attack came as the Wasilla family was walking out of the dog yard and an "S-hook" that kept the dog tethered somehow broke, allowing it to reach the girl, Shuck said on Saturday.

Berkowitz's wife once served as a nanny for the Shuck children, Brody Shuck said. Now the two families, each represented by a lawyer, dispute key facts about what happened the day of the attack.

Berkowitz wrote in an email that he and his wife were away from the kennel at the time and did not know small children would be visiting the property Friday.

"We have been told that the 2-year-old girl was some distance from her mother when this incident occurred. The girl along with her 4-year-old brother (were) in the middle of about 50 restrained dogs," Berkowitz wrote.

He continued: "Her mother had one of her own dogs on a leash, leading it out of the dog yard, with another younger child in her backpack. Sled dogs always get excited when strangers come through the yard, especially so if they have a dog with them. One of our dogs broke a brand new hook and bit the girl who was a few feet away from the dog."

Angstman said the girl was as far as 50 yards away from her mother at the time.

Anchorage attorney Mike Patterson, representing the Shucks, said Elin was not unattended when Wizard attacked.

The child had been at the kennel before without any objections from the owners, Patterson said. The Berkowitzes were notified Elin's mother was coming to the kennel on the day of the visit, before the visit, he said.

Asked if the musher or his wife were told that the mother would be accompanied by small children, Patterson said they should have known.

Under borough law, an animal that bites a person is given a classification ranging from one to five, five being the most serious.

Mat-Su Animal Care and Regulation chief Matt Hardwig said he has recommended that the dog be classified level five, a designation given to an animal that "causes serious physical injury or the death of any human."

Dog owners can argue that exceptions be made when the victim is trespassing, provoked the attack or when the animal was protecting itself, among other conditions, according to borough law.

Hardwig would not talk about the details of the investigation because it is still ongoing, he said.

The borough animal control board must decide whether to accept the chief's recommendation. If it does, the dog will be killed, under borough law. If the board rejects the recommendation, the classification would be reconsidered and Berkowitz might be able to take the dog home, Hardwig said.

The musher did not respond to emails Wednesday. His lawyer, Angstman, said Berkowitz wants to make his case to the Mat-Su Animal Control Board rather than allow the board "to assume this is a situation where the Berkowitz family did something wrong."

The husky will remain at the shelter until the hearing concludes, borough officials said.

Berkowitz finished 8th in the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in fourth in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest.


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